Friday, July 30, 2004

Tales From Outsourcing Country

At the solicitors last year I was intrigued to learn that the letters they send me (each of which they charge £30-odd for) were typed up and formatted in India. The solicitor in Gloucester dictates the letter, an mp3 file is mailed to the processing centre along with a reference for my customer details, and within an hour a neatly laid out Word document is returned ready for printing.

There are now several such companies operating in the UK.

Via Fiskie, a lengthy and fascinating New Yorker piece on outsourcing from a variety of Indian perspectives - good and bad. It's mostly focused on the operations of Office Tiger.

Outsourcing, as I've noted before, is going higher up the corporate food chain.

"Office Tiger recently doubled its staff, to sixteen hundred and fifty workers, and will nearly double in size gain by year’s end, on the strength of “judgment-dependent services": equity analysis, legal research, and accounting jobs that pay an annual salary of up to a hundred thousand dollars in the United States and between ten and twenty per cent of that in Chennai."

Now I'm not a believer in the US being uniquely evil. Human nature (aka 'Original Sin') makes men and their companies greedy, and makes corrupt governments turn blind eyes. The article is mostly upbeat about the amazing transformations of Chennai and Bangalore - and the portrait of Harish Kumar is wonderful.

But I'm amazed I haven't seen this reprinted in the Guardian yet. Coca-Cola and Pepsi would appear to be operating here on the basis of 'what you can get away with'. Chennai, by the way, is the place an Englishman would know as Madras.

In front of the main local reservoir, there is a sign in Tamil that reads “No bathers and washers,” and this spring there were none. Instead, there were men, women, dogs, and Brahma cows walking across the reservoir’s bed, which had become an inter-village shortcut, and upon which wildflowers bloomed. Before Chennai’s hot season had even begun, water reserves were lower than they’d been in fifty years. Harish’s home, like most others, had little or no running water. Inoperative water pumps outside houses and apartments were covered with dust, and were attended by dry troughs for rainwater harvesting—a conservation technique mandated by the government three years ago, just as the drought began. Residents spent hours queuing for emergency water rations that tankers brought in from the hinterlands. In Triplicane pawnshops, fathers sold pieces of their daughters’ dowries to buy bottled water to give those daughters a drink and a wash. In nearby Poonamallee, where a century-old pond evaporated, hundreds of homeless turtles wandered onto a thoroughfare, where their search for an alternative water source ended badly.

The gods’ will, residents said of the drought. But to follow the water tankers out of the city in their search for a place to refill was to glimpse a human factor, too. In Chennai, as in most of India, groundwater is not a public good; it’s a private, barely regulated commodity. Thus, for decades, corporations and individuals have bored deep into fossil water, which is not replenishable—a pell-mell water mining that has left what remains as brackish as the sea. Some could afford to drill deeper than others. Just past a village where the price of watermelon had tripled and sheep had died of dehydration, there emerged the shining signage of two soft-drink bottling plants—Pepsi, first, then the bigger, glossier Coca-Cola, which sits on the greenest plot for miles around.

There is a Tamil proverb, “When someone suffers, offer water first.” Villagers say it with irony now. As the water tankers rattled farther and farther into the hills in search of unspoiled lakes, other trucks were rumbling back toward parched Chennai. Their flatbeds were stacked high with yellow-green bottles of Sprite, shimmering in the midday sun.

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