Does Indian village BPO make sense?

Check out my BW story about one of the first experiments with doing BPO in India's villages. I spent a day in the Eastern part of Andhra Pradesh in early December with the Byrraju Foundation's GramIT organization. Byrraju is the non-profit aimed at transforming India's rural economy that was set up in 2001 by Ramalinga Raju, the chairman of Satyam. GramIT is a project aimed at setting up 50-seat BPO operations in villages that Byrraju has adopted. Three are underway, and, eventually, the GramIT people want to have operations running in all 160 villages that Byrraju has adopted. Right now, the young villagers are doing back office work for the foundation, Satyam, and the government of Andhra Pradesh. JK Manivannan, who runs GramIT, hopes to line up more government agencies and Indian corporations, and, eventually, to land some multinational corporations as customers.

The idea here is to provide new job opportunities in the villages, and to help bridge the gap between India's relatively few middle class people and its legions of poor rural people. Also, if villagers can get good jobs close to home, they'll be less likely to migrate to the country's woefully overcrowded cities.

The plan seemed to be working, at least on this small scale. I talked to BPO workers, GramIT administrators, and customers. There are plenty of young people in the villages with 3-year college degrees and enough basic English to get this kind of work done. GramIT is working on improving English skills and developing a business primer course.

But will it scale up? Wipro's Azim Premji dismisses BPO as a suitable economic development engine for India's villages. He says such operations won't be able to offer services that are up to world standards, and they won't be able to scale up enough to be efficient. Rather than focus on BPO, he says, people should focus on training villagers in construction trades and retailing skills.

In fact, GramIT is doing both. It has skills training programs, and distance-information-assistance programs for farmers. (It also runs health, clean water, and childhood education programs) Within that context, I think it makes sense to make BPO part of the mix. It's not a silver bullet for India's villages, but it's a bullet.

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