At a time when India’s traditional voice-based business process outsourcing (BPO) industry is losing out to upstarts from the Asian region and is searching for innovative growth models, rural BPOs, with some success stories, offer relief and spell opportunity.
While the industry will look at it as a pure revenue generating model and apply the same rigour as it does to an urban BPO, the government, and society at large should promote this for its dual benefit—employment generation, which also stems urban migration, and inclusive growth, particularly involving women graduates and college dropouts in the rural areas.
It is estimated that 50% of male graduates migrate to urban centres, whereas only 5% of women graduates do so. Tapping that workforce can only have a beneficial impact in a talent-starved country. After all, if a woman in a BPO in Mallasamudram in Tamil Nadu can teach math to a student in Boston, there’s reason to believe that many more such connections can be made to bridge the teacher-student divide in our schools today.
HDFC Bank’s rural BPO in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and Piramal Group’s back office in Bagar village in Rajasthan are case studies to prove that it’s possible to train rural folks to do process-driven work. But to have any noticeable societal impact, these centres need to multiply fast. The state governments can become a provider of manpower, through their employment generation and rural development departments as well as turn users of their services through the execution of e-governance schemes.
There’s a caveat, though: A change in mindset is needed. Those who are engaged in the field already know this—the urban BPO model cannot be directly applied to rural areas. Even getting services such as broadband connectivity, electricity and engineers for servicing the hardware can be a big challenge as can be inculcating professionalism in employees. Both service providers and service seekers need to understand this. The early movers say there is money in the business, but they are limited by the availability of work, not people.
Organizations and institutions should give rural India a chance. They might be pleasantly surprised.
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