A long journey home

A long journey home

Bangalore: Renu Kulsreshtha, a process developer with Genpact BPO, New Delhi, can never forget what happened two years ago. One of her colleagues was returning home alone with the driver of her office-hired car at around 3.30 in the morning. The route was from the Shastri Park (east Delhi) office of Genpact to Faridabad, which is on the outskirts of south Delhi.

“Midway through the journey, a car started chasing them on a lonely stretch," recalls Kulsreshtha. “It chased them for at least 5km, trying to overtake or block their path."

The driver and the girl managed to call the head office through a walkie-talkie that was linked to the office security system. In 25 minutes, there were at least three office transport cabs from the surrounding area that came to the hounded car’s rescue.

By the time they surrounded the car with the girl, the pursuers had careened off.

Just a few months before the incident, the firm had put in an updated integrated system linking the transport cabs to an office network. Each driver would know where the other one is, and in times of emergency, such as the one that befell Kulsreshtha’s colleague, call for help.

As she continues talking, Swati Agarwal, Kulsreshtha’s colleague and a digital content manager, butts in: “Let’s not forget, it was the driver’s presence of mind that saved the day."

The episode hits an aberrant note if you consider one event that shadows the BPO sector in India. In December 2005, Pratibha Murthy, a 28-year-old call-centre employee at Hewlett-Packard was raped and murdered by the driver of her office-hired cab, Shivakumar. After a case that stretched for nearly five years, a fast-track court in Bangalore sentenced the driver to life imprisonment last month. Though strong safety measures existed, the misfortune appears to have jolted the industry into rejigging its transport and safety infrastructure.

The incident with Genpact’s employee, then, runs opposite to what happened to Murthy.

The incident at Genpact also illustrates a larger point.

While at a larger level BPO firms in India have been concerned about their very survival following US President Barack Obama’s pointed digs at them for taking away American jobs—a fear unfounded post his recent India visit—on a daily basis, the fears are of a different kind.

BPO firms, ever since the Murthy incident, have taken a multi-pronged approach to guarantee the safety of female employees working late nights and utilizing office-provided transport. Some of the general features include a tracking system to monitor the routes the cabs take. Employees in many BPO firms in India often participate in awareness sessions where they learn self-defence techniques.

“These can range from teaching them how to use a pepper spray, some elementary karate techniques, learning to scream to attract attention and more," says C.S. Sujay, transportation head at MphasiS BPO. Also, vendors providing transport to BPO firms have their credentials (tax and criminal records) verified on a regular basis.

In many big BPO firms, the last employee being dropped or the first employee being picked up cannot be a woman. When it does happen, a security person from the workplace accompanies her till she gets home. In some cases, the security guard will usher the employee to her door and wait till she enters and locks up. In some companies, text messages are sent to workers with details of the cab number and the name of the driver for that night’s journey. In a shift from an old practice, drivers aren’t given the contact numbers of workers they ferry (Shivakumar had Murthy’s number). No driver gets to ply on the same route for long. The driving schedules are rotated. Breath analysis (to check if alcohol has been consumed) and drug analysis of the driver is now a common practice.

Though many BPO firms have similar systems in place, there are many practices that are distinct.

Genpact, for instance, is conducting pilot tests on its GPS (global positioning system) in Gurgaon and Hyderabad. It is aiming to enhance the existing software to generate accurate maps of the routes the vehicles take while ferrying employees. In addition, it is working to form a kind of “geo-code" that will be integrated into every employee’s identity card via the GPS system. This will upgrade the firm’s employee tracking system while he/she is on the move.

Ram Ramakrishnan, vice-president (facilities management group) at Wipro Ltd, explains that GPS instruments with “panic buttons" are fitted in Wipro vehicles in Pune. Also, the company will soon have cars with a vehicle tracking system in place.

Having systems is one matter, effective implementation is quite another. Vidya Srinivasan, senior vice-president (infrastructure and logistics) at Genpact Ltd in Gurgaon, emphasizes: “Lots of our employees in Delhi live in areas where the roads are narrow and getting in and out of the area is difficult. That’s where implementation is important. We push our drivers to get the employees to the right spot, despite road niggles."

“Investing in technology doesn’t make things automatically foolproof," says Sujay of MphasiS. “A GPS can only give me a postmortem report. We want to deal with any danger right at its roots, which is why we’d like to change the mindset and raise the awareness levels of drivers," he explains. MphasiS has regular training sessions where drivers are taught social skills to interact with employees they drop.

Raghavendra K., vice-president and head (human resources) at Infosys BPO, says, “We have an in-house transport team, which works with five-six reliable vendors to provide transport. All drivers have to undergo verification from a third party and the report is displayed in cabs with the driver’s photo. Once the driver clears the verification, he has to undergo a comprehensive induction process."

Shanmugam Nagarajan, co-founder and chief people officer of 24/7 Customer, concurs with such policies. “24/7 Customer conducts regular drug analyser test checks on drivers and also trains them in customer service orientation, which includes etiquette on behaviour at work," he says.

Quality of the transport is also checked by frequent staff reports. Saraswati Limbu, team leader (customer service and operations) at Aditya Birla Minacs BPO in Bangalore, says, “We have monthly transport feedback. Each month we get a form to fill where we’re asked to assess the quality of the transport." Each month, the best-behaved driver gets an award. Clearly, there are incentives now to good driving, she says.

In the experience of some companies, such as 24/7 Customer in Bangalore, staying with a known transport vendor instead of moving to a cost-effective one has made some difference. Priyadarshini Ashok, a 30-year-old operations manager who has been with the company for six years, says, “It’s good if you get to know your driver a little bit. Many of us who have worked here know them."

Srinivasan of Genpact agrees: “Chopping and changing vendors is not a healthy policy. The transport team needs to be kept constant for them to deliver good service. That has clicked for us so far as some sort of comfort level has been formed between employees and transporters."

However, a female employee with MphasiS, who did not want to be identified, has a different take. She says employees are told to refrain from any conversation with their driver.

Genpact, Wipro, Infosys, 24/7 Customer are the well-known “big" names in the BPO sector. But what do smaller firms do?

A BPO industry insider discloses that after the Murthy incident, many small BPO companies stopped hiring women employees as they didn’t have the budget for security infrastructure that bigger firms can afford (none of the smaller BPO firms wanted to be named).

“I moved from a smaller to a bigger company due to the money they offered and the security they provide. The office cab in my previous firm wouldn’t go into the lane that leads to my flat," says an employee of Aditya Birla Minacs in Bangalore.

Though most BPO professionals reckon the Murthy tragedy has been an isolated incident, the repercussions are clear. Rajani Muralidharan, 30, an assistant manager with 24/7 Customer in Bangalore, recalls her parents in Tripunithura, Kerala, spending anxious nights over their daughter’s safety. So was the situation with Ashok, whose husband’s anxiety would show in a flurry of text messages on her cellphone.

S. Srinivasa, Murthy’s uncle, has had to handle the anger, frustration and tears of Murthy’s mother, Gowramma, everyday for the last five years. “As long as we have killers like Shivakumar, women will not be safe in our society," he asserts. “We’re not happy with the life sentence; people like Shivakumar should get the death penalty so that such incidents don’t happen again."

Gowramma and Srinivasa will soon approach the home ministry to review the judgement. Can justice be delivered and is justice always posthumous?