Interview: Sir Tim Berners-Lee

"WHO is this Berners-Lee, that you are so excited about?" my father queried. He had been quite surprised to have me talk incessantly about Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his achievements all time (especially, as the date of my interaction with him came nearer and nearer). I explained to Pa the wonders of the Web, the magic of the Internet, and how the 'father of the Web' was responsible for it in so many ways. Somehow, I couldn't impress my Pa much, so, I told him a small fact a wee bit exaggerated, that had Sir Tim patented the WWW invention, he could have been many more times richer than Bill Gates. Bringing Gates into the topic was what one calls; coup de grace, as suddenly Pa too developed respect for Sir Tim, after all who wouldn't want to be as rich, if not many times more richer, than Gates.

Yet, so often, Sir Tim has debunked the thought. He argues that had he patented his invention, it wouldn't have spread the way it has. Still, his supposedly altruistic action has added sheen to his persona and earned him respect and adulation from all quarters. For me, personally, speaking to him was a high point of my professional life. For years, I have read and heard about Sir Tim, and when I finally got to talk to him, it was just amazing.

In an hour or so, we discussed the evolution of the web and also the future of it. Sir Tim also seemed very inquisitive about the way India was adopting the Web and asked me time and again on how things were on the ground. For instance, he is very keen that there is more content in local languages on the Web, as it represents the diversity of the Web. "Diversity is important for the planet. We need to have diversity of cultures, of languages, of points of views, of ways of looking at problems and solving them. Without that the human race will not have its incredible richness," he says.

This interview was published in the Dataquest magazine in an abridged form, after all, it is hard to print ten pages of content. Yet, everything that Sir Tim said in his soft and learned voice is of immense value, as he has become the ombudsman of the Web, a caretaker, a guardian. Hence, I publish here, the complete transcript of the interaction we had. I do hope, sometime in the near future, I get to interact with him again, there is just so much to ask to him.

Even my Pa has a query for him now, "Why did you not become (as rich) like Bill Gates?" Forgive my old man and thank heavens that Sir Tim is not.


'I think the opening up of the free flow of information (on the Internet) is inevitable'

“Quite an ordinary person,” is a term that Sir Tim Berners-Lee uses for self. Nonetheless, the world that refers him as the “father of the Web” chooses to disagree. It was in the early nineties, while working at CERN; Sir Tim proposed a project based on the concept of hypertext, to facilitate sharing and updating information among researchers. The project is now known as the World Wide Web (WWW), or simply as the Web. Sir Tim did not patent his invention and made it available freely so that it could be adopted and spreads rapidly. It has indeed, according to Internet World Stats there are an estimated 1.2 billion Internet users spread across the different continents. And the usage is growing at an astounding 244.7%, especially in Asia and countries like India and China.

Currently, Sir Tim is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C, an international standards organization that oversees the evolution of the web. The ‘father of the Web’ has now taken on the role of caretaker and is often talking about different issues that hinder or are beneficial, for instance semantic Web, net neutrality or introduction of domains like .mobi or .xxx. He is also very excited about the prospects of mobile web and hopes that countries like India that have a huge population of mobile users could benefit from it. Sitting at the W3C HQ at MIT, Massachusetts, Sir Tim is very interested on how the Web is playing out in India and is there an explosion of Indian local languages on the Web.

In an extensive interaction with Dataquest, Sir Tim talks talks about different issues be it India’s limited role on a global scale or how could what he thinks of Web 3.0. Excerpts.

Let’s start the discussion with India; with 3.6% of Web users -- some 40 million – India is the 4th largest in terms of sheer numbers. Yet, the nation and its people have so little say on how the Web is run, moderated or evolves. What do you make of that?
When you say that India has little to say how the Web is run, moderated or evolves, there are numerous aspects to it. First thing is content. On that front, Web is a very open space where anybody can publish what they want. Basically, it all comes down to having enterprise and creativity of individuals to put up a Website or a blog and of course there is an increasing number of Indian Websites with local and global content. One of the most important feature about the Web is its diversity, not just about languages and culture but also in terms of social things, the fact that you don’t have to put up really professional things, you could just put up amateur things, just about anything. The bar has been set pretty low, so as to say. So if people things that some subject or certain languages are under-represented on the Web, I would encourage them to fix that.

Second level is the standards. Traditionally hypermedia has been the crux of the Web, namely interlinked text documents with pictures, but now we are also seeing a lot of audio and video on the Web. Another interesting area is the publication of data on the Web, data about all kinds of people, about the way they are connected, about products, about weather, and so on. Things keep evolving over the Internet and standards are a process of this evolution.

Personally, I want to have participation in the standard setting process from every part of the globe and I would encourage people in India to involve in the process. There is a W3C office in India which we set up to for helpdesk, to help small local groups, it can be approached for guidance. Standard setting process is basically an international activity, so any W3C working group that has an inclination or an idea can be involved. So one possibility in which people in India can choose and direct the further evolution of the Web is by getting involved in the standard setting process.

Finally, there comes the infrastructure. There is little governance of the underlying infrastructure like domain names, etc. But that is relatively small part of the social governance. What really drives or rather regulates the Web is more of social laws of the land, laws regarding copyright and libel and contracts and these differ from nation to nation. India has always been a part of the Web, I expect it to play a bigger role in the coming years.

How do you feel about the fact that millions of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or even in rural parts of India and China are completely oblivious and touched by the wonders of the Web or the Internet?
I have often pondered upon this, and feel that a lot many things are inter-linked here. First and foremost, Web is not the be all and end all of everything and I do not think that it should be forced on anybody. Many countries in Africa or Latin America already have a long list of things including clean water, healthcare, peace, etc. that are a priority. And history tells us, that many of these social development things have been achieved in the past without the Internet.

So we have to make sure that, while we are very excited (have heard very positive stories about Internet connectivity helping the population in developing countries), it is important, that we do not get distracted by it. The rush for fiber optics should not come at the cost of clean water and healthcare.

Yet, I do feel it is the duty of the developed countries to help the developing countries in as many ways. There is an ethical duty that any developed nation must help a developing country.

There is also this view that the Web is basically a tool for the educated and the elite, what is your take?
Well, to be honest, if one looks randomly, there indeed seems to be a bias on the Web. The bias comes from two ends, one is the language, there is disproportionate amount of content in English and secondly, the type of content, a large amount of this content is rather technical in nature. So you can easily find content on technical topics using the search engines. For instance, if a same term is used to describe something technical, or musical or historical, you would be more likely to find the technical paper. That is simply, because technical people are more apt to use the Internet and thus more apt to put things on the Web. Hence, there has been a skew that has existed from the beginning. The good part is, it is becoming less and less strong.

There are basically two things that inhibit a person in rural India in regards to using the Web. First, there is the physical level, namely the computer or an Internet connection. In that respect, Net is a tool that requires certain amount of technology available before it can be used. That would change as more and more people in rural areas get access to technology, as the prices of the terminals and computers come down or even with the introduction of smart phones with Web browsers. That is bound to change, so that we will have more and more people with access to the Web.

I have great hope on the mobile device and feel that mobile devices will bring the Web to very many more people. We at the W3C consortium have a Mobile Web initiative, which is designed to promote the use of Web on the mobile devices and also impress upon Website designers to keep in mind the small screen size of the mobile phone when they design a Website. Some are easy on the phone screens and some are not, so we are promoting the best practices in Web designing. This will not only help the person or the corporation to reach the executive on the handheld but also the person browsing the Web in rural India using a mobile device.

Now, let me come to the language barrier, namely accessibility in the given language, I feel strongly on the issue. The standards that we promote at the consortium have a very strong internationalization angle to them. We have an internationalize team which ensures that standards don’t have a bias to one particular culture. So most of the standards use XML, and XML uses Unicode. So we try to make Web work with different systems of writing and different characters used in languages. When the technology is completely internationalized and localized, still there will exist a big gulf in terms of provision of content in ones local language. That is something that really Indians have to do, i.e., creation and translation of content into Indian languages.

What I suspect that Web in local languages will explode in a similar sort of a way as in English. It may be that English becomes the common language for things that can only be in one language and then would come the local or the regional language. In the near future, possibly Chinese will become very common on the net due to the large number of people who speak that language. I feel people will end up learning two languages, one is an international language like English and the local language.

Personally, I hope that we don’t lose the diversity of the Web, diversity is important for the Web. In fact, diversity is important for the planet. We need to have diversity of cultures, of languages, of points of views, of ways of looking at problems and solving them. Without that the human race will not have its incredible richness.

You have often spoken very strongly about the universitality of the Web. But is it really universal in a manner of speaking, with numerous governments monitoring and block the flow of information like in China, Saudi Arabia and even to some extent in India?
That is an interesting thought. I grew up in the west, and I believe that openness and government are very important. I believe there are very small number of dangerous things that should be really banned. Certain things are just illegal, like, child pornography, communal incitement, criminal activity, etc.

But I also think that free speech is very important. I do also feel that anonymous free speech can sometimes be dangerous because it can be used to spread lies. I think the ability to blog and be frank is a great tool and medium but bloggers should bear certain responsibilities. I feel bloggers sometimes do not realize that they have major force, if they mean or misrepresent things and it can have a very negative effect. In the days to come general openness will increase inexorably because people understand what they are missing and will demand it.

However, I realize also that countries that are used to having very strong control on information flow, it is impossible to change instantly. So I think these changes will happen over time, at times there might be a few setbacks, but I think the opening up of the free flow of information is inevitable.

What do you think of the enterprises colluding with repressive regimes for commercial gains, like Yahoo that helped in the prosecution of a blogger or Google filtering the search results in China?
I am really not in the position to comment on individual cases as I do not know them well enough. It is very tricky decision. I know that the companies have stated that they were forced into areas of compromise. I think compromises can sometimes be very essential for progress and can at times be very disastrous. I am in no position to really weigh whether these compromises were fair enough, or wise or not, history will be the best judge.

You have been talking extensively about Semantic Web or Data Web. When do you think it will be a reality?
It is evolving at the moment. The data Web is in small stages, but it is a reality, for instance there is a Web of data about all kinds of things, like there is a Web of data about proteins, it is in very early stages. When it comes to publicly accessible data, there is an explosion of data Web in the life sciences community. When you look about data for proteins and genes, and cell biology and biological pathways, lots of companies are very excited. We have a healthcare and life sciences interest group at the Consortium, which is coordinating lot of interest out there.

Meanwhile, there are various data projects to create link data that is data with which you can browse unlike browsing that we do normally on the Web. With Link data, you can do things like produce tables and map and put them in spreadsheet. The possibilities are endless. So the data Web is in fact starting to catch up, people are understanding how to use it as a data integration system. Under this new term link data, it has only been around for year or so, there is growing rate of data that is actually on the Web that allows you to start exploring one piece of data and pulling other related data and process it together.

Do you think, developing countries that have relatively less Internet penetration can leapfrog to Web 3.0 or Semantic Web?
I believe that is always the case. A country that is developing tends to leapfrog over its developed peers in terms of technology, so for example, I would expect developing countries when they put data on the Web (especially the government) to use RDF or Resource Description Framework. RDF integrates a variety of applications using XML. This is a truly great way to disseminate data. For example if the Indian government has say census data, or rainfall data or even train timings. If they put the data on the Web using the semantic data standards, then anybody can write a Website which can use that train timings data and display them in their own language, as data is global and does not have a language. And that is one of the exciting things about semantic Web, when you put the data out there you are not putting the data in English or in Hindi, you are putting it up just as data. Essentially data is numbers, and these numbers can be displayed in different languages. So the train names, station names, etc can be converted into multiple languages without human intervention.

In the west, for example in England and in America, that governments are putting up data and other Websites are picking up data from these government Websites, reusing it and making their own Websites. So or is a Website that tracks the US government by taking the data from US government Websites. So anybody can use this data and generate Websites automatically in different localized languages. In these ways and more, I think the semantic Web is more accessible and more international, you could produce a Braille version, you could produce a speaking version, based on the same data. I am very excited about the prospects and possibilities presented by semantic Web.

Wanted your take on the different jargons that one comes across, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, I even came across something like Web 2.5?
(Laughs) These numbers just keep floating around. The term Web 2.0 was invented by Tim O Reilly, it started by being a name for a conference on evolving technology and the term caught on and people started using it generally to describe what seems to be happening now and what we think would be happening in the future. I tend to talk more about sets of standards, about specifics. What I really think in the future, the mobile Web will be a big thing in the next ten years or so. The difference being that Web on mobile devices is going to be much bigger.

In fact mobile devices accessing the Web will be much larger than fixed devices. In the future, data will be accessible in lots of different ways. Today, the term Web 2.0 is used for Websites where the users generate the content. So I think, when people use the term Web 2.0 it is more about user generated content. But these different Websites do not interconnect, in the future, I would not call it Web 3.0, users would want their data to be interconnected. If they upload the photographs to different Websites, then they want to be able to see the photographs using the same tools.

For that they will need semantic Web that interconnects all. It would be like, I have given you my data, now give it back to me, because I need to be able to reuse it. Now I need to make a scrapbook, now I need to look at whole year the photos I have uploaded to different communities. I want to look at all my content, some of my friends are in Orkut some are in life journal. Now what I want as a user if I have my friend circle in Life Journal for example, then I use other tools to explore who I know including people in Life Journal and other online communities. We will see the interconnecting of data from different sites and that is an important part of Semantic Web.

You have also been a staunch supporter of Net Neutrality. How do you perceive the threat and what needs to be done to safeguard it?
The threat is mainly an American phenomenon, I think Net Neutrality is treasured so much by the user community that I don’t think there is a serious chance that we will loose it. But that does not mean that the threat isn’t there. Lot of countries and even companies would like to be able to control the Internet, because it is always very valuable to control the flow of information.
And as we have seen, some governments can’t stand on their merits, they feel they have to limit the flow of information. Meanwhile, if companies can control what you see, they can control what you buy, and where you buy from. They could also control what political things you se as well. The fact that the platform is neutral is very important, the threat at the moment in the US.

Currently, my Internet connectivity is actually provided through my TV cable, you the company that use to sell me television feed now sells me Internet over the same cable. Suppose I go to a site like Google Video or Youtube, or I download a movie using iTunes. But suddenly I find that the Internet signals have been blocked and when I call my cable company and they say that “Sorry but we can’t let you watch videos from Websites, because we reckon that if you want to watch a movie it would be better if you chose it from our library and watch in on your TV. Since you have signed up for Internet access from us, you must buy up movies from our Website.” These companies could try and dictate what we see and how we see it.

Can you share an instance of such an event?
In fact if you look at the movie industry, and of course India has its own internationally famous movie industry, at the moment it is very complicated to be able to access movies. Of course there are different channels, there are cinema halls, DVDs, etc. but it is still very complicated. If for instance you are an Indian in London and want to access a whole selection of Bollywood movies, you possibly can’t because your local store might not have it. Movies over the Internet may actually open up the whole film industry to a much wider and diverse group of people making films. It may allow a lot of films to be made available in different languages and independently of place. So you could watch a film in your mother tongue from any part of the world. And of course there will be other things like more choice due to documentaries, and other independent films which don’t have a big following but some people are passionate about.

In most industries and as on the Web, you see what’s called the long tail, a few very heavily used sites and a large number of very likely used sites. This is the typical way of distribution. The long tail is necessary, as you homogeneity from a host of popular Websites, but also the diversity that is available from the long tail of diverse Websites. And this balance does not exist in the movie industry at the moment, so there maybe a bit of a shakeup and there maybe a huge reinvigoration for the movie industry when it happens.

Obviously the companies that deliver movies at the moment in the traditional way will have to learn to change. That’s does not mean that they will go away, they would learn to adapt as book stores learnt to adapt to the Internet and they didn’t go away neither do the books. So that is one example of a change that could be threatened by ISPs, if the providers are given control of what you see. But my worries are of macro kind, for instance if certain political party pays an ISP for not giving access to a rivals Website, etc. There are all kind of ways which you can imagine. If you do not have rules, there are all kinds of way in which net neutrality can be damaged.

Does the shift from current Web technologies to future correspond your idea of “from interactive to intercreative”?
I think that’s an interesting shift at the moment. I coined that word intercreative a long time ago. In order to get people to work in the direction of building things together and solving problems together. So it is about group being more smarter than the individual. The original Web browser which I wrote, was also one in which you could edit, make links and save the links very easily. My original vision was that everybody would be an editor, everybody would be a part of space where they can write. You could make links from one page to another by pressing the correct control links.

The fact that blogs and wikis have taken off, confirms by belief that people really need to be creative rather than reap up other people’s things. I think both blogs and wikis demonstrate how you can have a very positive creativity emanating from a lot of people. I think blog is one particular genre, it allows one person to publish and sometimes other people to comment and it works by people making links with each other. As these blogs link to each other, if people are interested in a particular topic, they can find out what other people are thinking by using these links.

The blog is very particularly interestingly constrained form of this genre. Then the wikis is another genre where whole lot of people will get together and everybody would try and hone a project, like an encyclopedia, or common information about what they should do on a vacation. And we would see very many different genres appearing in the future.

One of the things we haven’t seen on the Web really is workflow, where you can very easily set up systems, where for instance we are working on a broad set of activities, I am working on one set and you are working on other, we can setup Web systems that can make that very easy. We have easy tools that help us in collaboration. We do have things like issue tracker on the Web, which is very useful in terms of projects help keep tracks of different.

A very important area of intercreativity is how we make communal decisions, I suppose it is self government. That involves the lost art of argumentation, how do we make arguments. So I would love to see, tools on the Web which support reasonable argument, allow people to put up a thought in the spirit that it is there to be challenged and allow people to build pieces, allow challenges to quote sources. I can imagine a Website where you would have people debating and quoting facts and statistics that can be tracked by anybody through the links.

I am living in America at the moment, we ourselves use the Web extensively in our work. The working groups makes standards and have people or groups contributing in from all over the world. Web is used to build a consensus. To that end, the art of building consensus and using Web as a tool to that I hope to see much more powerfully done in the future

You have spoken against the addition of new tier of domain names like .mobi, .xxx, etc. Why is that?
We have spoken about the mobile Web and how different people would be accessing the Web at different times and on different devices, a very great diversity. You have a screen with 3 million pixels one moment and would have a 3 inch screen the next moment.

But is important that if I refer to something like train timetable for example and if I bookmark it using my phone, I can view it on my computer screen. Hence, it very important that the same URI works on different devices. The problem with .mobi, I didn’t want to have a domain that limited accessibility from certain devices, small devices in this regard. Then this would mean that, there would be a different URI for the computer and mobile devices. I fail to understand the need for it. The important thing is that the same URI should work, I don’t want to keep track of two URI for same thing, and I do not want to keep two bookmarks of same thing, depending on whether I am using my computer or my mobile device. It is very pragmatical engineering reason.

The engineering of the Web depends on you have a general one URI for something and wherever you use it, it works, irrespective of the software or the hardware you are using. That is part of the universitality of the Web. I think the consortium behind .mobi have the best intention because they are trying to -- and we are working closely with them -- see a lot of content available from mobile devices. But architecturally I feel that .mobi is a gimmick, the same URI should work very well on different devices.

But again from a developing country’s perspective, not many domain names are available, as people have already booked the .com domain. Do you not think it is an uneven proposition?
That’s a sad reality. You will not find short ones available, but you will certainly find the longer ones. Also, there are the local domain names. I know for instance a lot of people in the UK do not use .com very much but rather and then there is a whole Indian domain (.in) which is available to for India to manage.

And I would recommend, like in UK, .org is only used by non-profit. I think that is a very respectable domain name like is a very respectable domain name in the UK. That gives you an access to a lot of words. I also think that people are going in for quite long words, long names for domain names and as public gets more and more used to it, you would see the number increase hugely and people making up new names or words.

What do you make of the tussle between ICANN and other nations over the ownership of domain names?
The roots of the domain named should not be owned, it is a public domain resource and it should be managed very carefully for the people of the world. There is a lot of management that has to be done for the domain names and it has to be done carefully. As you know I am not in favor of creating just top level domain left, right and center. I think the Internet can happily survive for the next ten years without the need of a new top level domain. I think most of the time people are doing this not because they think it will help the society but because they can own a whole lot of Internet real estate. For instance I don’t think that the .info domain has really helped as very much, people still feel they should get a .com and it only adds to the confusion if different companies have the .com, .biz and so on. And there isn’t very clear definition what each domain is for.

I think that the top level domains, it is very important, are run fairly internationally with a fair representation of businesses and consumers worldwide, not just the companies that run the Internet. I think that whenever you have something that represents the whole world, like the United Nations, it becomes bureaucratic and it becomes slow, because it takes a long time to take into account everybody’s point of view. So we should be prepared to put up with some bureaucracy.

We don’t need a domain name system in which you could very very quickly get a new domain name. Domain names are not the most critical part for the functioning of the Web. The Web depends on the development of standards, I think we should put our energy into creating new standards, bringing new technologies, like open standards for video, encoding, open standards for data communication, putting scientific and clinical data out there on the Web, to spread that sort of information between countries. I think that sort of thing is very important, that’s where our energy should be spent.

You have also warned about the dark side of the Internet or the Dark Net. It seems quite morbid, what is the threat level here?
I never spoke about the Dark Net, the article that BBC put up was just a case of very bad reporting. At times reporters seem to be more interested in bad things. What happened was that I had a long discussion with various reporters, and I think there was somebody from the Guardian asked if there was anything that I was worried for and I said yes, there are lot of things that one could worry about. And this was blown out of proportion and the report said that the inventor of the Web is very worried about the dark side of the Web. Whereas most of the conversation we had, like the one we are having now, was about very strong hopes for the future and tremendous excitement about very positive things.

For instance, when you asked specifically what concerns I have and I spoke about Net Neutrality, but then I am very optimistic about humanity and am sure we will have neutrality because a vast majority of users of the Web understand how important it is. And they would fight for it, as you said they have fought in India.

Which aspect of the current Web impresses you the most, say, like Wikipedia, Orkut or even Second Life?
I think that all of that is very interesting. I never had any favorite, I think Second Life kind of thing or virtual reality is very interesting because as the screens will get bigger and processors will get much more faster and smarter, these Websites would become even more compelling, Thus I think there could be lots of positive things that emerge out Websites like Second Life but in that area I think standardization and openness would be very important. So all the things that you mentioned like social networking, are generally very positive, there could many more things to come, it is just not over.

Shashwat DC

Feature: BPO Employee Satisfaction Survey 2007

IF some sociologist were to study the last few years of changing patterns of Indian society, surely he or she would be impressed and mystified by the impact of BPO on Indian youth. Not many moons back, Call Centers were a strict no! no! The late nights were looked down by suspicious neighbours, parents would embarrassingly stutter when asked what their children were doing and friends who were working in day-jobs, would chide their lesser BPO pals. Employees in call centers lived in a virtual bubble, a universe of their own, working in the nights and sleeping through the days. Little wonder, so many marriages were made and unmade in these very call centers.But one critical thing was though different: the money was always better.

As the country underwent change thanks to Manmohan Uncle and his market liberalization policies, so did the society. The content-family structure was replaced by ambitious-nuclear families. Suddenly, things like DINKs (Double Income No Kids) and the Metro-sexual Man, and other tags became fashionable. In this scenario, the high-paid BPO population were no longer social outcasts but rather a model of changing India. Those halter tops and low waist jeans, the date allowance and the valentine parties, the pick-up and drops and the Sodex-ho coupons, were all so much alluring. BPO employees were buying flats in beautiful colonies, buying latest cars and taking an annual vacation to an European location. In a few years time, Call center was 'THE' place to work in.

Yet, the great BPO dream is steadily dissipating. As the cost arbitrage enjoyed by the BPO companies withers away due to rising Rupee, the salaries are not growing the way other sectors are. My wife, who works in a reputed IT company, tells me that scores and scores of BPO people are eager and keen to make a shift to normal day jobs, even if it means a nominal pay cut. One of the main factor, beside job satisfaction, is the health factor. BPO employees are not keeping well. The sad part is, not many seem to be listening.

Every year Dataquest in conjunction with IDC India, conducts a comprehensive Employee Satisfaction Survey for BPO industry. The idea is simple to gauge the satisfaction levels from the perspective of the BPO employees. This year, I chiefly just analyzed the data from one perspective health. And was shocked to see that over the years, complains have been rising and yet no one seems to be listening. The story I present below, is quite different from the one published in Dataquest and my editors do not necessarily agree with my interpretation. But, yet,I am presenting the story, merely to highlight the issue and hope someone, somewhere thinks about it. Thinking is the first step of doing. The original Dataquest story can be accessed from the following link

BPO E-Sat Survey 2007: Of Sleepless nights and salary hikes

All is not well on the BPO front. Indian BPO employees are suffering from a variety of health related issues, right from sleep related disorders to anxiety attacks. This year’s Employee Satisfaction Survey maps a disturbing trend, the ailing BPO employee. While the attrition has gone up to 20% and the average wage hike as come down to 14.8%, it is the health issues that seem to be the biggest concern.

In a quaint corner of Goregaon suburb, Mumbai, exists Dr. Ramkumar Moorthy’s clinic. Moorthy is a general physician and has been seeing patients in the clinic for over two decades or so. Known to be quite adept, his clinic is often brimming with patients, from kids to septuagenarians. But over the past year or two, there has been a detectable change in profile of patients pay a visit to the clinic. Any given evening, his waiting room is brimming with groggy-eyed irritated teenagers waiting for their turn. These twenty-somethings can be overheard on the phone, asking for an extra day off from their TLs or assuring them that they would reach the office, in time for the log in.

Not prone to worrying, Moorthy is still a wee-bit taken aback by the sheer number of youngsters that are reporting sick. “The number of young patients has indeed gone up by quite many notches over the past few years. I am saddened to see a 26 year old suffering from high blood pressure, or 28 year old from heart ailment,” he says grimly. In all probability Moorthy might be getting more cases due to proximity of his clinic to the BPO nerve center of Mumbai; Malad.

But then, he is not the only one, visit any doctor in your locality and after the stethoscope has touched upon different points on your torso he or she will invariably start talking about how unhealthy today’s youngsters are. Not with disdain but with a touch of pity and many docs blame the BPO companies or what they refer as call-centers for the sudden spike in these numbers. “What else can be the reason?” asks one doctor indolently.

Surely not in the pink
One need not be Einstein to figure out the link between call centers and increasing ill-health among the young work force. Working continuous night-shifts, and often at unearthly hours like 3 am, is bound to take a toll on the body. The body cycle is completely thrown out of gear, and BPO employees often complain of sleep-related disorders or digestion-related problems.

It sheer travesty that not much attention has been given to the health related impact of BPO industry on Indian youth. There hasn’t been any major study conducted on the issue and even Nasscom, that has a BPO forum, also seems to have ignored the issue. Yet, Dataquest and IDC have been tracking health related information of Indian BPO industry through the annual BPO Employee Satisfaction (E-SAT) Survey. Every year, employees are asked to list down factors that cause stress and also the ailments that they are stricken by. Year after year, the list is collated and released as part of the survey.

Most of the times, health takes a backseat to issues like increasing attrition, wage issues, or dipping or upping employee satisfaction levels. But this year, we have decided to play it a tad differently. On going through the data available for the last few years, it is obvious that health related issues are on the rise. As DQ has always stuck out its neck and drawn attention to issues that might turn into whole scale problems, so would we do it this time round.

Going by E-SAT 2007, one thing is apparent; Indian BPO workers are not in the pink of health and if attention is not paid soon enough they would be in the red of it, figuratively speaking. The biggest bane of BPO employees is ever increasing stress, which is the root for numerous other physiological and psychological ailments. Reasons are aplenty, right from working hours to insufficient holidays. The top 5 reasons thrown up by the survey for high stress remain more or less the same as that of last year, namely; travel time, work timing, insufficient holidays, work load and long working hours.

As most of the BPO companies are pinching corners in terms of cost saving, one of the first perk -- home pick-up and drop – has been withdrawn or curtailed. Every major BPO company today at max offers either pick-up or drop, seldom both. Result, half-awake individuals rushing home in the day or half-asleep beings making a dash for office late in the evenings. Except for New Delhi (as there is not much of public transport to talk of), in most of the cities, BPO companies often loath to provide even home pickups or drops, even when it is only one that they do. They prefer to drop or pickup employees from central or vantage points, thereby saving on costs.

While such measures might shore up the company’s bottom line, they are certainly not helping the employees. Over 32% of the respondents listed travel time as a major reason for increased stress. Things have come to such a pass, that the few companies that still provide pick-ups and drops are much in demand and HR managers do not forget to mention the benefit at the time of interview. For instance, JP Morgan Chase prominently displays the fact that its employees are provided air-conditioned cars to ferry them to office or drop them back. According to a few HR managers, prospective employees are known to have settled for lesser sums for companies that provide drop and pickup. Little wonder, it can be used a good tool for curbing attrition.

Sleepless in India
Returning after a 9-hour shift in the noon, Shweta Puthran is seldom able to sleep, even though she desperately wants to. It has been a few years since she has been suffering from insomnia, and has even tried sleeping pills. The condition has marginally improved; more so because her biological clock has now got more or less acclimatized to the change, sleeping in the day and slogging in the night. Yet, there are days when Puthran would keep staring the musty roof, waiting for slumber to set in.

Going by the data available through the E-Sat Survey; sleeping disorder, digestive system related disorder, eye sight problem, severe stomach related problem, depression, are the top 5 ailments afflicting the BPO employees. Insomnia is the most common of the ailments for the industry and it mostly affects the agent or CRE level employees. As manager and senior TLs tend to have flexi timings or at the least take the weekends off. BPO companies that have a high focus on European operations, mostly UK, tend to be more in demand then US-focused BPO companies (since, difference between UK and India is a more manageable 5 ½ hours rather than 12-14 hours, as with the US).

Digestive ailments figure prominently on the list after sleeping related ones. Not surprisingly, as most of the employees are eating at odd hours and more importantly eating odd stuff, from medu vadas at 4 a.m. to American chopsuey at 7 p.m. Junk food has more or less replaced proper meals for BPO employees. According to one physician, BPO employees are increasingly becoming obese and it would result in many more health hazards like Diabetes (type 2), high blood pressure and even heart related ailments.

The other worrying ailments that have increased over the years are psychological ones like depression and anxiety. Indeed, BPO employees are well versed with panic or anxiety attacks, and often a friend or a colleague who has been a victim of the same. The survey has also for the first time collected data on back pain and this year close to 2.34% complained about persistent and niggling back issues. Most of the BPO companies have a doctor on-board but he or she is usually in a reactive mode, i.e. if you have an ailment while at work, you could consult him or her.

A few companies seem to have woken to the issues. Take the case of e4e for instance, it keenly promotes flexi timing as a means of lessening stress. It even has made it mandatory for the managers to ensure that their juniors are taking at least a week off annually. While a lot many have tied up with local gymnasiums and health centers, offering heavy discounts to employees. But it is too little or too less.

Many would argue that health and stress related statistics has more or less remained constant over the past few years, hence there isn’t much to worry about. But a spike is not necessarily an indicator of a problem, constancy is a big issue as well. For instance, when you are running a high temperature, the big problem is if it does not come down, not whether it keeps going up.
The industry that employs over half a million individuals and accounts for over $8.4 billion annually, needs to relook at things and take corrective measures before things get out of hand. Hopefully, after the publication of this report, associations like Nasscom would look into the issue and hopefully conduct a comprehensive health related study on the BPO employees in India. Till we really know and understand the problems faced by employees, there is little than can be done to help them.

Big versus small
The Indian BPO industry had been growing at a steady rate, even though under a lot of pressure. According to Nasscom estimates the Indian ITES-BPO exports grew from $6.3 billion in FY 2005-06 to $8.4 billion in FY 2006-07 and expected to touch $10.5-11bn in FY08. Employing over 553,000 people, the industry is facing a lot of pressure in terms of competition from other low-cost destinations and Indian economic factors. The biggest bane for exporting BPO firms has been the rising Rupee. As a result, this year the margins have been badly hurt.

Fortunately, Indian BPO companies have so far been able to more or less nullify the ill effects, and continue to grow at a steady rate. There have been two things that BPO companies are doing assiduously over the years, first moving into niche and specialized domain that pays more and secondly they are becoming more productive in terms of seat utilization and a smaller bench. Many BPO companies are looking at KPO seriously, thus even when they continue to depend on plain vanilla customer interaction services to provide the bulk of their revenues, they are also looking at niche business services, like financial accounting, HR administration, logistics hand ling, etc. to shore up their revenues.

Returning to the BPO E-Sat 2007. The ratio of bigger BPO companies vis-à-vis smaller ones, more or less remains the same. There are 6 big BPO companies (with over 5000 employees) featured in this years list. It more or less corresponds to last year’s figure.
It is the mid-sized (greater than 1000 and lesser than 5000 employees) companies that take up the maximum ranks. Close to 50% places, as many as 10 mid-sized companies are featured on this year’s survey.

There are lesser small BPO companies this time round. Last year, there were 5 BPO companies (with less than a 1000 employees), this year the number falls down to 3 (though, one of last year’s small company has moved up to being a mid-sized outfit). Out of the three, Equinox Global and Knoah Solutions are making a debut on the list, while Motif India continues to retain its rank at 17.

Of the top 5 BPO companies on the list, 3 of them happen to be big BPO companies, namely IBM Daksh, Genpact and Wipro. The two smaller companies at the top vCustomer and e4e exist solely due to the employee satisfaction score (both have been ranked as number one and two on E-Sat score rank). And that is where the difference lies. The big companies score well on the HR ranks, while the smaller ones score well on the employee satisfaction. But employee satisfaction can be transitionary, it can be won easily and lost easily as well. Thus, smaller companies need to focus more strongly on the process and put them in place.

Movers and shakers
Every year, there are shifts that happen on the list, companies climbing up a few notches and then there are those that fall a few. It always makes an interesting read, as it is more or less gives an idea of the best practices that are working in the marketplace. The biggest fall this year has been that of 24/7 falling to 16th from last year’s 10, a fall of 6 places. The reason behind is not hard to gauge, as the company’s HR score have fallen quite drastically due to decrease in absolute employee strength, average salary hike, average tenure of senior professionals, etc. Even its employee satisfaction has fallen, the areas in which the 24/7 employees were found to be most dissatisfied are; overall satisfaction and company culture.

The other big fall has been that of TCS BPO, falling by 4 places to 13th rank this year. Ironically, while the company’s HR rank has gone up by five places due to huge improvement in the employee size, average salary hike and CTC as compared to the last year. The result, HR rank has increased from 10th to 5th. But the employee dissatisfaction seems to be increasing. The drop on E-Sat Score has been more dramatic than the gains on the HR rank, falling 8 places and standing at 15th this year versus 7th last year. The major area for employee dissatisfaction has been salary and perks.

In terms of gainers, except for the big IBM Daksh debut at the third rank, the biggest gainers are Brigade and EXL Service, both by 2 ranks. Brigade has shown marked improvement in its HR rank basically due to improvement in employee size and average training days in absolute terms. The score in average salary hike has also increased as compared to that of previous year by reasonable amount which has resulted in rise in its rank from 19th to 15th in HR part.

Meanwhile, EXL has shown improvement in employee size, average training days in absolute terms which has resulted in rise in its rank from 7th to 6th in HR part. Whereas it’s E-Sat rank has fallen by a single rank to stand at 14th place this year.

Of the companies that participated last year, 7 were missing this year, namely, Office Tiger Database, ICICI First Source, Sutherland Global Services, SlashSupport, AXA Business Solutions, Keane Worldzen, Integreon. Sadly, these companies did not take part in this year’s survey. Similarly a lot many ‘big’ companies were also missing, like Infosys BPO, WNS, Intelenet, and others. Hopefully, next year these companies would not shy away from sharing data about their employee satisfaction, which is the best indicator of how good or how bad they are doing.

Attrition Blues
Ask any BPO company’s CEO or HR manager, what is his or hers biggest challenge, and attrition is the word that will escape their mouths. The industry’s biggest demon is rampant attrition, with scores of BPO companies looking for talent, BPO professionals are in hot demand and often these fresh out of colleges graduates hop from one job to another, till they can hop no more. With each jump, the package going up by as much as 20%.

But the companies have woken up to this tactic and are loathe to hire job-hopping monkeys. An HR manager working with a reputed BPO company says that nowadays the company lay a lot of significance on the “dependability” of the new recruit and pays much attention to the antecedents. The companies are trying to find potential job hoppers at the interview stage and then not hire them. “Prevention is often better than cure,” she says. Nevertheless, be it no-poaching agreements or not hiring high risk individuals, the average attrition rate has gone up by 2 percentage points, up from 18% last year to 20% this year.

The most common factor for employees leaving an organization or being dissatisfied is money and nothing else. Not much surprising as the BPO industry is in cost-saving mode, the increments are getting lesser and lesser. In fact according to the DQ-IDC Survey, the average salary hike across categories has decreased from 17.2% to 14.8%. It is quite a significant drop and is surely one of the main factors that promote dissatisfaction among the employee base. The second most common reason cited by exiting employees is growth opportunity, followed by higher opportunity and of course job timings. The survey findings reveal that transport facility, work pressure, and work timings are amongst the top reasons for employee dissatisfaction.

A lot of BPO companies are able to arrest attrition through a variety of HR strategies. It has also been noticed that salary is a big issue in everyday voice centric call centers, while in the KPOs the employees are known to put up with lesser amount as long as the work is challenging and interesting. HR managers also seem to support the view and hence are taking more interest in employee’s workload, trying to find cues that trigger an employee to call it quits. In the end, there is just as much as a company can do to control attrition as it is more of an industry wide issue rather than specific to a company or more. And as the BPO companies keep squeezing the salary increments, the attrition is bound to go up.

Innovative HR
As said earlier, it isn’t all about money, honey. Many companies on the E-Sat Survey are employing a variety of innovative HR strategies to hold on to their employees. Take the case of Hyderabad-based Brigade. The company has appointed a Chief Fun Officer that looks into ways and means to ensure that employee stress levels are low and they remain highly motivated. The secret behind Brigade’s joie de vivre is not that hard to miss. As the BPO companies are facing immense pressure due to the squeeze on the margins, retaining good employees is a priority like never before. Frequent hiring and retaining can be quite costly, so if you can hold out to your employees, anything is justified.

Or take the case of Bangalore-based e4e, most of the employees grievances are sorted out during the HR powwows, wherein the management and employees discuss problems face-to-face. The company also has a policy where it is mandatory for employees to take 7 days off in a year and it is the manager’s responsibility to see that his junior takes it.

In both the above instances, the companies were able to arrest attrition by proactively reaching out to employees, e4e has been ranked at number 1 and Brigade number 7 on the E-Sat Score Rank. Similarly a lot many companies are pursuing newer ways of employee retention. At the end, it boils down to innovative HR practices. Going by the data available, smaller and mid-sized BPO companies stand a better chance by being imaginative.

Whither woman?
One of the disturbing trends noticed in BPO E-Sat Survey has been the falling ratio of woman employee base. Based on analysis of figures of common companies who are participating since 2005 in a row, namely, e4e, Genpact, HCL, Ajuba, Motif, Cambridge, the ratio of man Vs woman has been increasing.

In 2005, the man: woman ratio stood at 1.80:1 (12136 males for 6708 females). The ratio increased marginally to 1.97:1 in 2006 (17822 males for 9044 females) and now there are over twice as many men for each woman, 22696 males for 10870 females.

Could it be that women are unable to cope up with the pressures of BPO, namely unearthly timings and high stress and opting out of this industry? There are many assumptions that one can make, but it is the health one that seems the most plausible. Hopefully as things improve, the ratio will improve in the coming year. It is a misnomer that BPO companies would be a dull place if women start shunning them.

Hard times to come
In the end, the overall satisfaction index has improved over last year, while the average salary increment has fallen proving beyond doubt that an Indian BPO employee expects a lot more than money. Indians are basically an emotional lot, and if BPO companies can touch a chord with their employees, they can often get away with lesser salary hikes.

With the companies facing the squeeze, it all boils down to imagination. Are Indian companies ready to experiment newer and innovative ways of employee retention. For the same we need a new breed of HR managers that do not hide behind management jargons but take the bull by the horns, or rather be ready for a ‘powwow’ with employees. Will they pick up the gauntlet, will be proved in next years E-Sat Survey.

Also let’s hope that next time round, as the BPO companies wake up to health related issues we would have a healthier employee force to contend with. BPO companies are in many ways the custodian of Indian youth, and if they turn a Nelson’s eye to their workforce, a whole generation might have to pay. Let’s cross our fingers that it won’t be so, and that while Moorthy’s practice in Mumbai continues to do well, the number of youngsters sitting in the waiting room would diminish. Amen!

Shashwat DC

Interview: Larry Sanger (Citizendium & Wikipedia)

The other day, I received a very unusual mail. It was a press release from Larry Sanger, editor in chief of Citizendium and co-founder of Wikipedia. The press release read, "One year and thriving". It felt good, as I remembered an extensive interaction I had with him, when Citizendium was launched. And it has been a year already. How time flies doesn't it? Sanger at that time, was certainly saddened by the way Wikipedia had "ill-treated" him, "More than anger, I am pained," he had stated.

Later on, when I had asked Jimmy Wales for an interaction specifically on his take on Citizendium, he had written back; "I am happy to be interviewed by you, but I don't consider either Larry or his little project to be of sufficient interest to be worthy of an interview. I know the media likes to make up stories about people being enemies or rivals, but the truth is, I just don't find that sort of story very interesting at all". I, personally, was saddened, for I have immense respect for Jimbo (as Wales is more popularly known) and I felt for Sanger as well. The rivalry between Sanger and Wales is certainly not a thing to be happy about, like we used to be happy about McNealy Vs. Gates, or Noorda Vs. Gates, etc. Someday in the future, hopefully the hatchet would be buried and bygones would be bygones again.

Meanwhile, Citizendium continues to grow, whereas Wikipedia has become the most renowned source of information on just about anything and everything. In this light, I thought, for the sake of nostalgia, I would put up the interview that I had done with Sanger and as it was published on CIOL and on Dataquest as well.

One of thesedays I intend to call up Sanger, and talk to him about the progress that he has made and how is Citizendium doing. Talking to Sanger was indeed great, especially since he so well versed with things and so keen a listener. He doesn't argue or tries to bow you down to his point, but would rather mildly explain it and show you the merits and leave it there.

“I believe experts and scholars have a lot to share with the world”

One would be hard pressed to find a person knowing anything about the web and not knowing Wikipedia or its founder Jimmy Wales. Wales is toasted across the globe, and hailed as an icon. Time Magazine even bestowed the sobriquet of a prophet on him. It is a story that hardly needs any mentioning. Yet, there is one small thing that blemishes the beauty of the such startling success, a certain controversy that refuses to die down, a certain name that refuses to be devoured by the demons of anonymity.

Sometime in 2000, Larry Sanger was dining with a friend and discussed the concept of wikis and how users could collaborate in a way like never before. Sanger discussed the same with his boss, Wales (then CEO of Bomis Networks) and thus Wikipedia was born. Sanger’s official designation was ‘chief organizer’, and was also working on another project similar in nature, Nupedia. A few years into the project, precisely in 2002, ideological differences cropped up between Wales and Sanger and both decided to part ways.

In the ensuing years, Wikipedia went on to become a big, big thing. And so the legend of Wales was born. But in all this pomp and festivity, Sanger was left out. In fact his role at Wikipedia is debated even today, Wales questions his claim as a “co-founder” and terming him as just another employee. Sanger seemed to take it all rather stoically, maybe because he is a PhD in philosophy and loves epistemology - the study of the nature and scope of knowledge.

A few months back, Sanger returned with an announcement, he is going to set up an alternative to Wikipedia, the project was named as Citizendium or citizen’s compendium. Sanger claims it is more close to the idea that was really in his mind, when he started Wikipedia.

Currently he is putting things in place for the tentative launch in January 2007. In midst of all this, Sanger spoke to Shashwat Chaturvedi from CyberMedia News at length about his project, and why he is hurt at the way he has been treated by Wales. Excerpts.

Searching information on the Internet is becoming increasingly difficult due to things like clutter and unreliability. It is hard to believe on what is available and yet there is little choice for a person searching for information. Your take..
Precisely. As the Internet is rapidly expanding, the available information is increasing in a way like never before, thereby adding to the clutter. But even so, if you notice there has been a slight shift in the way we search for information. For instance, if we want something generic we use Google, but if we are on the lookout for something specific, there is Wikipedia. Google is best suited for more general or rather generic information. In fact, one of the best things currently is that, Google even searches inside Wikipedia now.
Reliability of information is a critical issue according to me. And Wikipedia has often been accused of having unreliable information; there are quite a few reasons for it. And that is where Citizendium fits in; it is a citizen compendium of knowledge, moderated by academicians, scholars, editors, etc. Thus bringing credibility to the information that is displayed.

By bringing in academicians, scholars, etc. would not Citizendium be more elitist in nature?
Certainly not. We are not trying to make it elitist in any sort of way; I am just trying to involve a section of the population that so far has not contributed in a major way. There will be complete democracy at Citizendium, similar to what is there on Wikipedia but there would not be mob rule democracy. The role of editors has been clearly defined and whenever a dispute arises, multiple views will be sort. I believe experts and scholars have a lot to share with the world, and Citizendium is just providing them a platform, like it is for everyone else.

In a way, isn’t it like creating an expertopedia akin to Encyclopedia Britannica?
I disagree. The fundamentals of Citizendium are quite the same as that of Wikipedia, but there is a major difference. Wikipedia lacks maturity that is attractive to professor/academics. Things like anonymity are quite off-putting to potential educational contributors. While Citizendium involves these academicians in way it hasn’t been done before. This is the essential difference between Citizendium and Wikipedia. Yet, the method and the aim of both remain alike.
Meanwhile, take the case of Britannica, it is quite picky on articles and is created in a top down fashion. Whereas as Citizendium and Wikipedia for that matter are created efficiently in a bottom-up process. Thus we are much more closer to Wikipedia then we are to say Britannica.

Why will scholars and experts choose to contribute at Citizendium? What is motivation for them to contribute?
Let me first tell you something, it is not as if, scholars and experts did not get involved with Wikipedia. A lot many did, in spite of their reservations and the reason they do it is because they feel innately obliged to share knowledge with the world at large. In most of the academician there is a inherent desire to spread their word, in a way to show off. Many are also driven by their liking for truth and aesthetics and thus want to clear the air of any fallacies. These are broadly the things that motive such people and so Citizendium will encourage them to share their knowledge, for instance, there will be no anonymous contributors.

Will the articles carry signature of the individuals then?
Not at all. People are often averse to articles that have been signed by others. By anonymity, I mean, people will have to log in and register with a valid email id before they can be a part of the edit team.

How is the work progressing at Citizendium and when will it be launched?
We will start of as a fork of Wikipedia (thus we will have the same number of articles, etc.) and we will start of with English version. Over time, as more and more people keep editing or adding information to articles present (and once it is approved by editors), these edited versions will be retained and thus Citizendium will evolve into a viable alternative. But this process will be long, as there are millions of articles and it will be stretched over a few months.

What is the revenue model? How will the venture be funded?
Donations is one of the major way, both individual and corporate, to fund the venture. So far we have received over $1300 from individuals. We have also received our first seed grant, and have also received commitment for larger amount of money from other foundations. Corporates are also supporting this venture through different means, like providing deep discount on computer hardware, bandwidth connectivity, etc. To generate revenue, we will be looking at content brokerage in the future.

Wales somewhere mentioned that if you fork from Wikipedia, he can similarly display Citizendium pages at Wikipedia. Your take.
Wikipedia can, but when we are forking we are providing a link back to Wikipedia. I do not know how will they display Citizendium content without providing a link back to us.

Are you angered at not being recognized for the role that you played in Wikipedia?
More than anger, I am pained. To be frank, I would have been much more happier if my contribution was recognized, and not underemphasized in a self-serving way. While I do not undermine, Jimmy’s (Wales) role in Wikipedia and he deserves the accolades for it, but my role at Wikipedia has been significant. Till 2004, a Wikipedia press release referred to me as a “co-founder”. All of sudden, my role is being questioned. Believe me, it is quite disheartening. Through all this, I had faith that one day, the real truth will indeed come out.

When you started off with Wikipedia, did you imagine that it will be as successful?
To be honest, I did believe that it was going to be successful, but the scale, I did not imagine.

Do you have any specific strategies for countries like India? How has been the response so far?
The response has been very encouraging. We have received quite many applications from India. In fact, a quite a few of them are among the editors, the number is significant say equal to the numbers from Australia. We are banking on India and glad for the response so far.

Finally, when was the last time you met Wales or interacted with him?
(After much thought) Around one year ago, it has been a while, isn’t it?

Feature: Future cities of India -- II

Here is the second part of the Future Cities story published in Dataquest. The stories written by me and featured herein are based on personal experience and secondary research. Suffice to say, that the issue was a personal favorite. I would like to thank all the people that took time out for me and were so very generous with there time. They might or might not be the future cities, but they sure are warm (emotionally) cities of India. Again like last time, this is the original and unedited version and would be quite different from the one that got published.

Allahabad: Holy modernity

It is a rather cruel irony that the point of reference for the Indian Standard Time or IST, actually lies very close to modern-day Allahabad. Thus every time an Indian checks his watch, he is actually checking what time is it in Allahabad. But for a city that gives us our time, time has more or less stood still. Indeed, Allahabad is completely devoid of any encumbrances of modernity.

A ride through the city on a three-tyred rickshaw driven my a thin skin and bones, would sufficiently convince you to either want to escape to back to modern times or probably enjoy the time and tide of the bygone era. It is quite a numbing experience.

Yet, wait a minute. When I refer to modernity, I do not mean the brands or technology – indeed, the latest and the best would surely be available in Allahabad. I hint at the comfort level of usage of computers in every day life. Even today for an average Illahabadi (resident of Allahabad), computer is a mysterious tool that has great promises but complex functions. It still scares him.

The reason is not hard to gauge, the biggest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, has also been the slowest in terms of IT adoption. There have been a few e-government projects, but they have been quite few and very far between. As, the private sector is more or less non-existent in UP, this has ensured that the computer has not really seeped into the very last nukkad. It is indeed a fact that UP has more or less miss the IT bus.

But there has been a ripple in Allahabad that just might turn into a wave and is worth mentioning. There are lots of prestigious universities and colleges in and around Allahabad, Banaras Hindu University is one and so is the Indian Institute of IT or IIIT Allahabad. It is these institutions that are driving IT adoption and purchase. Thus a majority of equipment is sold to these institutes and this is having its effect on Allahabad.

Today, there are quite a few communities of Allahabad on portals like Orkut. Even the government of India has done its nominal bit by setting up a STPI in Allahabad, thinking that companies would flock to a place like this. But they haven’t really. Till the ground level situation improves drastically not many companies would like to stick their neck in Allahabad.

But before we go, let me underline again the amazing intellectual and intelligent abilities of Illahabadis with an instance. Last year, the High Court in Allahabad was in news for very different reason. Thanks to a committee set up, the honorable high court went online so as to say, by having its own portal, The best thing was, all the judgments of the court were not only available now in ODT and ODF format (the court underlined its commitment to FOSS), but they were available in RSS. Thereby making Allahabad court, the only probable court in the whole world to make judgments available through RSS.

Thus one might not be able to really see any outwards signs but a silent revolution of bits and bytes is indeed taking place in Allahabad, driven by institutes like IIIT Allahabad and others. So ignore this holy city at your own peril.


Surat: The jewel in the crown

Diamonds and Surat are synonymous, after all 92% of all diamonds in the world pass through the town. Surat is the diamond capital of the world, where much of the polishing and cutting takes place. Surat also happens to be the textile town, with scores of textile mills that lie in and around.

But the ascendancy (if we could term it as ascendancy) of Surat has not been sudden or in spurts. Since the times the Mughal dynasty ruled, Surat started emerging as a premier trade centre. Surat had a major port and trade tries spread all across the world. Also travelers to the annual Haj had to travel through Surat itself. So by the 17th century, Surat was one of the foremost cities of India, so alluring that even Shivaji sacked the city twice to be able to fund his war campaigns. The British East India Company for the first time settled their factory in Surat, before eventually shifting to Bombay. But then, things changed and Surat fell into disrepute.

Things went so bad that the city had to be quarantined because plague that spread across Surat. So that is story of fall of Surat.But now, thanks to vibrant support of the Gujarat government, the economy is again picking up. The state government has chalked an aggressive plan to promote the state as a knowledge hub and make best use of the intrinsic qualities of each city.

Since much of the gem and jewelry centers are present in the city, obviously it would be these firms that would take a lead in terms of modernization efforts. Thus the government announced the setting up of a special economic zone (SEZ) at Icchapore near Surat. Set to be completed this year, the SEZ will supposedly drive the economy of Surat in a big way. There will be quite a few specialized IT companies present in the SEZ that cater to the industry.The textile companies have also had an impact on the domestic market, as the mills like Govardhan, Everest and Motiani Fashions have modernized and used computers for mass scale production. This as coaxed companies like Sun Microsystems and IBM to have a focus on these markets as well. As much of the upper segment of tier I cities nearly taken, vendors are eagerly on the lookout for business potential of tier II and III cities. As many of the big players have given Surat a skip, it is the internal companies itself that have taken the onus of modernizing, like Asian Vision and Gati Softtech Solutions, etc.

Even the channel industry seems to be perking up to the opportunity, evident from the fact that they have been growing at a rate that is as good as any other in Gujarat if not better. The top three players from Surat are Jupiter Automation (annual turnover Rs. 25 crore), Valsons Computer (Rs. 22 crore) and Chopra Enterprises (Rs. 11 crore).

From the perspective of education, Surat offers good facilities like SVNIT, CKPCET, SCET, and others. This bodes well for the city as it looks to ramp up for growth for the future. Much of the growth again will come from the textile and jewelry business itself.

Surat is a vibrant city in close proximity to Mumbai. It is also immensely cosmopolitan city. A century or so ago, Russian literary stalwart Leo Tolstoy had crafted a short-story, wherein the action takes place in a Coffee-house of Surat. In it people from all across the world come together to discuss and debate on issues of varying interests. So there was a Persian mendicant with his African slave, a Hindu Brahmin, a Turk, a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Chinaman, etc. Even to this day, Surat maintains the spirit of multi-culturism. History might not have been fair to Surat, bringing about constant upheavals in the city's fortune. Yet, the future beckons brightly, much like the diamonds that pass through the city and dazzle the world with the glitter.


Nashik: From Myth to modernity

Traveling through Nashik is an experience by itself, the outskirts of the city is as agrarian as you can get with the farmer and bull duo tilling the land and inside the city there are the multiplexes and the flyovers. So on one hand there exists a Nashik that is extremely rural, and on the very other it is up-to date and modern with all the computer hardware boards, etc. The dichotomy is hard to miss.

Even the agrarian picture is quite different from any in India. The small fields have these small bamboo sticks that jut out, a few feet in length and placed at some small distance apart in a very methodical way. Finally the whole field is covered with a parchment of sorts that conceals the fruit rather brilliantly. But then who does not know about those “sweet grapes” from Nashik. Much of the grape produce of Nashik is converted into fancy wine and sold under brands like Sula, etc. Passing through these fields, one cannot miss the similarities between Nashik and other popular wine destinations like Riviera or Napa valley.

Lying just a few hundred kilometers away from Mumbai, Nashik is indeed the place to be in. There is a hectic buzz of activity, of entrepreneurship, that truly sets the city out. Even the administration seems to have woken up to the potential of promoting Nashik and has started doing so in a small but significant way. There has been a concerted effort to start up industrial zones that more or less help the SMB segment. As of now, there are close to 6 MIDC and 10 Co-operative Industrial Estates in existence in and around Nashik and more are coming up. There has also an STPI established on the Ambad region.

In the past few years, industrial activity has really picked up in Nashik, especially after the launching of a mega SEZ in Sinnar area. Many reputed companies like Mahindra & Mhindra, MICO, Siemens, Crompton Greves, Kirloskar, Reymond steel, Jindal, Brook Bond, L&T, Ceat, VIP, Carbon Everflow, Garware, Jyoti Structures, Samsonite, Datar Switch Gears, Glaxo India etc. have established their units in Nashik. This has led to a spurt in IT adoption in the region. Even the PSUs are aiding the local economy, companies like India Security Press, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., Currency Note Press and Thermal Power Station etc. are located in Nashik.

The region also has more than its fair share of educational institutes. Around 9 government ITIs, 13 private ITIs, 2 engineering colleges and numerous other institutes. This ensures steady availability of talent for the industries. The big drawback as of now in Nashik is the power situation, frequent load shedding can be quite a bane. But then it statewide issue and not something specific to Nashik and as and when the issue is resolved for the state so will Nashik benefit.

Due to the close proximity of Nashik to both Mumbai and Pune, it has been touted as an ideal BPO destination. A vindication of the same was when WNS arrived in Nashik after acquiring ClaimsBPO, an offshore division of the US-based Green Snow Inc, which provided HIPPA-compliant BPO services. As of now, around 7-8 non-voice BPO companies, including Mumbai-based Tricom India and WNS Global Services, are working out of Nashik. There are also a close to a half-dozen smaller BPOs that have an average of around 50 each.

To sum up, Nashik is indeed a very good investment opportunity from the perspective of RoI and also the potential of growth. Not only that, the city is also renowned as a pilgrimage center, with the Shirdi close by and Sai Baba looking over the city. In fact, Nashik derives its name from an incident in Ramayana, wherein Lakshman cut off Ravan’s sister Soopankha’s nose (nasika/nak). The history of this region stretches out to pre-historic times. One can find almost everything in Nahik, right from modernity to mythology. The grapes are certainly sweetest, here!


Raipur: Emerging out of shadows

Here is a small test, ask any of your friends to identify Raipur on the Indian map, nine times out of ten, he or she will fail. Now, ask your friend where is indeed Raipur and even on this seemingly easy test, many will falter. And that sums up much of the problem with Raipur.

The capital city of new formed Chattisgarh state is not all that well-known on even a national scene. It has been over 6 years now since Chattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Lying on the precious mineral belt in central India, Raipur has a whole lot of mining companies that have set up operations in and around Raipur. Traditionally, the city of Raipur has been described as "an agricultural-processing and saw-milling town". The city is located centrally in the state of Chattisgarh, and serves as a regional hub for trade and commerce for a variety of local agricultural and forest products. There are several small-scale industries, which include oil milling, soap manufacturing and electrical welding.

Not only that the region is also emerging as an important educational hub. A lot many engineering colleges have come up in and around Raipur providing excellent educational facilities. In fact many domestic IT companies regularly go to these colleges for campus recruitments, companies like TCS, Wipro, Cognizant, iGate, and others. The famous colleges are Raipur Institute of technology, National Institute of Technology, AT College of Electronics and MJ College of Information Technology. These colleges ensure that there is a steady stream of employable talent available in Raipur. Though the government of Chattisgarh was caught in a situation when the Supreme Court came down heavily on the high number of universities cropping up, even Aptech had fallen for the lure and launched a university operations in Raipur.

The state government is also actively wooing IT companies and asking them to set up shop in Raipur and invest through the SEZ way. A few companies are supposedly assessing the possibility, whether it is feasible in the long-term considering the geo-politics of the region.
The government of Chattisgarh is actively promoting the use of ICT for development. In this regards, a host of e-governance initiatives have been launched within the state. Recently the state government launched the first e-Court system in Raipur. In fact, the government has created a vision document that speaks about how it will pursue e-governance initiatives. One of the objective that is representative of all, says, “ICTs will be used extensively in enhancing the productivities and efficiencies substantially in all the sectors of the economy, especially, agriculture, manufacturing banking and services sectors.”

The change is quite evident when one sees the emerging channel industry gaining strength and growing at a healthy rate. There are quite a few strong channel players in Raipur that mainly cater to the industries and the SOHO as well. Some of the names are, Priyanka Computer Services (annual turnover Rs. 22.79 crore), Balaji Computer (Rs. 12 crore) and Shriram Computers (Rs. 8.5 crore).

But the change is very evident, recently, the states and Raipur very first mall, 'City Mall 36' was inaugurated. The mall comprises number of national and international brands such as INOX, McDonalds, Big Bazar etc. According to news reports, Raipur is getting ready for 7 more such global malls by end of 2008 namely. Even the TAJ group of
Hotels has started the constructing its Five Star Hotel in Raipur. The government is also actively developing a vast tract of land near the city, dubbing it as Naya Raipur. The place is well-laid and would have the best infrastructure available in the whole of the state. According to many, once this project is completed, moving to Raipur (for IT majors) will not be difficult decision to make.

All these factors are indicative of major change that is happening on the ground at Raipur. For long it has remained under the shadows of bigger cities like Indore, Bhopal, Nagpur and others. Now it is finally ready to break out.


Chandigarh: Symbol of the future

Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to prove a point and many with Chandigarh. He envisaged the city to be a metaphor of modernity, a symbol of the tryst that we had embarked on. After having witnessed the bloodiest human migration in history in the form of partition, Nehru decided to build a beautiful capital city for the state of Punjab. He famously proclaimed Chandigarh to be "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future." Like any of the city-builders in history, he would not leave a stone unturned. So the best architects were involved in the project, namely Swiss-born French architect and planner, Le Corbusier and American architect-planner Albert Mayer who was working with the Polish-born architect Matthew Nowicki. And thus Chandigarh came into existence.

Today some 5 decades or so later, one needs to revisit Chandigarh again to assess whether it is still a beacon for modern India or just milestone left behind. Speaking from the perspective of IT industry, Chandigarh has largely been a mixed bag. The biggest draw of the city is definitely the amazing infrastructure, the broad roads and the comfortable housing. Yet, IT companied have not really flocked to Chandigarh, setting up their shops. Rather strange, if one considers the fact that in North India, there is hardly any city that can stand in comparison of Chandigarh, with the possible exception of Gurgaon.

A host companies like Infosys, Quark, Dell, Webart Softech, Netsoft Informatics, and others have already set up base in Chandigarh. The government had some years launched the Mohali SEZ amidst much fanfare, though according to certain observers there hasn’t been much difference on the ground. Not only that, there have been numerous discussions on how well suited Chandigarh is for BPO work, a few companies have indeed set up shop like IBM Daksh, Kalldesk, Bay Infocomm, UCIL and others.

Now, another exciting project is coming up in close vicinity, an IT Township in SAS Nagar. A Consortium formed by Reliance Industries, real estate investor Landmark Holdings, Berggruen Holdings India, subsidiary of a New York-based company, and Punjab-based Yellow Stone, is expected to infuse over Rs 950 crore in the IT township. The project, to be set up within 10 km of the upcoming international airport at Chandigarh, is expected to set aside 60 per cent of its area for IT companies, 30 per cent for housing and 10 per cent for commercial operations. Considering the host of engineering colleges in the vicinity, Chandigarh still has the potential to be a symbol of the future, all it needs now is a big push, that’s it.


Coimbatore: Moving up with Speed

Like its beloved son, N Kartikeyan, Coimbatore also seems to be in love with speed. How else can one explain the rapid work that is taking place in Coimbatore. After Kochi, Coimbatore is place in South India that is witnessing a construction boom. And if that was not enough, a new IT park is being constructed by ELCOT and TIDCO.

Infrastructuraly speaking, Coimbatore has always been known for its well designed roads and well though out architecture. Renowned as the Manchester of the East, because of so many textile mills in close proximity. The city's primary industries are engineering and textiles. The district also houses the country's largest amount of hosiery and poultry industries. Most of the industries are run by entrepreneurs, often indigenous with family based or community financing. The city's industrial growth started in 1920’s and accelerated after independence, without any government assistance or the entry of external industrial houses. Of late, information technology companies have started opening offshore development centers in the city.

The result: a robust economy and a reputation as one of the greatest industrial centers in South India. The engineering prowess of Coimbatore can be gauged from the fact that TCS has already established its Centre for Engineering Services.Coming back to the park, according to reports, Wipro is quite keen to be the anchor partner for the park. Whereas there have been enquiries from Satyam, HSBC for back-end operations and a few companies from Bangalore and Chennai too for readymade space in Coimbatore to begin their operations. A CII-commissioned study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers indicates that companies setting up shop in Coimbatore can increase profits by 60 per cent compared to those in metros. Coimbatore has more than 80 engineering and arts and science colleges, so it has an abundance of talent for the kind of workforce required.
The city also boasts of two STPI earth stations, one at PSG- Science and Technology Entrepreneurial Park (STEP) and another at the KG Information Services Limited (KGISL) campus at Saravanampatti. But things are changing steadily. Some of the major industries are Lakshmi Machine Works(LMW), Premier Instruments & Control Limited(PRICOL), ELGI Equipments, Roots Industries, KSB Pumps, Dresser Valves, Flowserve, Janatics, Texmo Industries, Aquasub, Sharp Industries, CRI, Deccan Industries & ITC. Suzlon is also setting up a huge plant for renewable energy.

Also the fact that till quite sometime back, the minister at the Centre, Dayanidhi Maran was quite keen to see Coimbatore as a favored destination also helped.


Mangalore: Fishing for big investments

From a sleepy fishing hamlet to being the fastest growing non metro in South India, Mangalore (Mangalooru to be precise) has indeed transformed much over the years. Yet the transition is not that startling, simply because Mangalore always had the potential to emerge as one of the biggest cities of India, even in comparison to ‘former pensioner’s paradise’ that is Bangalore.

The reason is not much hard to find, since the middle ages, coastal Mangalore has always been a vital trading point on the western shore. Thus produce from surrounding areas namely Kerala, Goa and even Maharashtra was traded through the harbors of Mangalore. Thus, over the last many years a number of related industries came to exist in Mangalore. Right from coffee traders to ship building companies like Swan Aquatics, etc. Not only that, there are a few major chemical and fertilizer companies also present in Mangalore like Mangalore Chemical and Fertilizers Ltd. (MCF), Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd. (KIOCL), Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRP), BASF, ELF GAS, etc.

Nonetheless, Mangalore is ready to move to the next level, in fact it is very much doing so and is wooing IT companies in a big way. Infosys is truly the first and the biggest in Mangalore. Spread over an area of 300 acres, Infosys’s campus in Konaje is quite a landmark by itself. Infosys also has significant presence in Blue Berry Hill STPI in Mangalore. Wipro is also actively working on a facility in Mangalore to complement its huge campus in Mysore.

Meanwhile, there has been lot of talk of how well suited Mangalore is for BPO activities. According to many, the region has more scope for BPO than software because of the high education level. Mangalore has plenty of renowned schools and colleges in the city or the near vicinity, thereby supplying a large labor pool. Little wonder, than MPhasis BPO had set up shop in Mangalore. Not only Indian companies but even MNCs are keen to make a move to Mangalore. Take the case of First Indian Corporation; a wholly owned subsidiary of The First American Corporation has started operations in Mangalore.

As the city of Mangalore attracts investment, so is the infrastructure steadily growing. Off late, the Mangalore airport has been operational and there has also been quite some talk of making it international. With a host of engineering colleges in the vicinity (KERC and PA College), there is little doubt that Mangalore is going to be a major draw for IT companies (the IT exports from city will amount to Rs. 1000 crore by 2007 end). What remains to be seen whether this coastal paradise is able to retain its intrinsic charm in wake of all this high-fly investments. One sure hopes so.


Mysore: Not a mere satellite

For Mysore, its close proximity to Bangalore is both a boon and a bane. Indeed over the last few years, there has been a major spurt in investments in the hilly town due to the supposed saturation in Bangalore. Companies right from Indian IT majors to MNCs have in some way or the other chalked out a map to make use of Mysore mainly because of its close proximity to Bangalore. And this is quite disquieting.

Before India attained independence, Mysore was regarded as one of the premier princely states of India. Unlike many other royal maharajas who splurged money on themselves and themselves alone, the Wodeyars (the ruling family of Mysore) was certainly not the same. Take the case of Chikka Devraja Wodeyar, who ruled from 1673-1794 and widely reformed the empire by dividing it into sections called as chavadis. Meanwhile, Krishnaraja Wodeyar who ruled from 1902 to 1941 was largely responsible for much modernization of Mysore. Not only was he a great patron of art but also a visionary. He set up numerous educational institutes during his reign, the most memorable being the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore (he gifted 11 acres of land for it).

Thus, Mysore was much modern before the Silicon magic wand transformed Bangalore. It never did have the big heavy industries, except for Mysore Sandal Oil Factory or Krishnarajendra Mills. Much of the industries were traditional in outlook and small in scale. So while Bangalore hogged the limelight as an IT hub, Mysore continued to retain its old world charm, as the cultural capital of Karnataka. But that is set to change as well.

For the industrial development of the city, Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board (KIADB) has established four industrial areas in and around Mysore, namely, Belagola, Belawadi, Hebbal (Electronic City) and Hootagalli. This has resulted in fair amount of optimism among IT players about the potential of Mysore. Infosys has made a big splash already by setting up one of the largest technical training center in the world located over an area of 270 acre and can accommodate over 4500 trainees at a time. Wipro has also established its Global Service Management Center (GSMC) in Mysore to complement its facility in Bangalore. There have been a few BPOs also coming up in Mysore, Hinduja TMT launched a 1000-seater sometime back in Mysore

Mysore now boasts of a four-lane high-speed expressway from Bangalore and is hoping that the government keeps its word on providing better infrastructure, connectivity and the much publicized BPO park in Bogadi that would lead to the city's growth and attract more companies. In the year 2006-07, Mysore contributed Rs. 760 crores to Karnataka's Rs. 48,700 crore IT exports and has already overtaken Mangalore as the second largest IT center in terms of revenue. But there have been a few controversies as well, namely the tussle between Infosys and the former prime minister Deve Gowda on a range of issues from infrastructure development to things else.

All in all, Mysore needs to be assessed as a city by itself and not due to mere proximity to Bangalore and even on its sole merits it scores wonderfully well. It isn’t a satellite but a planet by its own.