COMMENTARY
 
Cyber Slavery
Weekly Pulse
June 2-8, 2006
It’s mid-weekend night at one of the several pubs at the Brigade Road, located next to the famous M J Road in Bangalore’s IT hub Koramangla. Anjali, along with her young friends, including a couple of Americans, are as usual having fun with Kingfisher, India’s largest selling beer.

It’s a weekend routine for them. They chose this pub, for it plays heavy metal, something you really need after six-days of real hard job at their high-tech workplace, a call center operated by the Tata Consultancy Limited, one of the several dozens of leading software companies leading India’s ongoing software revolution.

Prakash does the same thing that Anjali does. But he is based in the Gurgaon region of the extended capital zone of Delhi, located physically in the Haryana state. Like Anjali, I came across him at the Metropolitan Mall, one of the many mega malls in Gurgaon that likewise is an IT hub in expanded Delhi.

Both Anjali and Prakash, though living thousands of miles apart in the south and north India respectively, live practically the same lives, cut off from society and traditions. They virtually live in cyber space, spending 12 hours from dusk to dawn attending calls from their US customers, ranging from banking and insurance to traffic queries, then go to bed in the morning, wake up in the afternoon, and get ready of another long night job.

Numbering a couple of lakhs in Bangalore, and a bit less than that employed at modern complexes in the outskirts of Delhi, India’s IT force shares the least with their mostly hapless nationals, many of whom still live a sub-human existence.

Anjali surely lives an exiting life. Lots of money from Indian standards, and plenty of places to spend it at the mega malls in Koramangala, selling mostly Western brands. So is the case with Prakash in Gurgaon, perhaps the fastest growing industrial zone in India. You stand anywhere in Gurgaon, look around, and see nothing but construction of more modern metallic plazas, more malls, more industrial units, and the high rise apartment buildings.

With an expanding middle class, there is so much demand of essential products such as motorbikes that the existing units find it difficult to manage the supply side of economy. For instance, three years ago, Hero Honda’s daily production of bikes at two of its units, one in Gurgaon, was 4,000. Today, it is 13,000 bikes daily, and nearly four lakhs monthly—which is also not enough. Who needs them in such a bulk number? Surely, young ones like Prakash and Anjali, even though the ladies prefer to drive Bajaj, India’s indigenous bike.

Like Prakash and Anjali, hundreds of thousands of young Indians who outsource for primarily US companies are mostly young graduates who have left all of their higher education pursuits and are stuck at jobs, which are primarily that of telephone operators.

“I am not going to stay in this job for ever. Perhaps three more years, then I would have collected enough money to pay for my education abroad,” says Anjali. Unlike her, Prakash wants to stick with the job. “I am happy. It’s good money. We friends always party on weekends. Now I have a Honda bike; in a couple of months, I will be driving a brand new Maruti. So, why should I ever think of quitting such an opportunity,” he says.

Those who work at the call centers, or do programming for US Microsoft or Indian Infosys, are generally not bothered about the future. They care about the comparatively higher living standards at present. Their lives revolve around the hard work on a week-to-week basis and the fun that comes in between.

It is the people with insight into the IT work environ and foresight about it social impact on the workforce who are critical of the IT-driven capitalist growth in India, especially its social and psychological ramifications for the IT workforce.

Ask a Communist from West Bengal, a state that has been ruled by the Communist Party of India for over three decades, the analysis would conclude with the pitfalls of neocolonialism for India whose founding fathers dreamt of a socialist revolution for their countrymen!

Their arguments do make sense, since the IT revolution does not seem to have made any significant presence in the streets or Delhi or the country’s vast countryside accommodating 70 per cent of the population.

Alumalai, a blind lawyer from Tamil Nadu, equates the young graduates, providing cheap services in the IT industry to US companies, as modern day slaves. “Capitalistic exploitation has come of age. The Western imperialist nations do not need to hunt for salves, chain them, and then take away on ships for growing plantations,” he says, while referring to the gory tales about American slavery in The Roots by Alex Haley.

“Now they can hire these slaves in the Cyber space. These young IT fellows should normally be having a night-long sleep, but just because they are getting ten times more salaries than they would otherwise get in India, they are lured into this inhuman business,” he adds.

What is so inhuman about this business? I asked a psychiatrist, Ram Reddy, who runs a private clinic in Bangalore. “I am currently handling a few cases of neurotic disorder among the info-tech engineers. They face an acute identity crisis. They are Indians, have never been to America, but their daily job is to speak to the Americans in an American accent,” says Ram.

He adds: “In the academies, they are taught to bear all sorts of abuses from their customers; they are taught in American slang so that the US callers should never know that the person they are speaking to is sitting far way in India, even though in relative comfort but very close the world’s largest slums. Thus, these IT fellows are neither here, nor there. They live in cyber space, cut of from the rest of the population, thinking they are superior to other Indians but having an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the Americans.”

Explains an academician Vinod Bhattacharia at the University of Bangalore: “India has just started to modernize, and that also in a big way. We had a closed economy based on the socialist model. When you open up things suddenly, with all sorts of new luxury comforts, there has to be some negative impact on an individual and the society as a whole.”