Are There Ghosts in India?

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It is 3 am. Abdul, who sells ‘anda-parantha’ (omelet and unleavened bread) at a stall outside a brightly lit business process outsourcing (BPO) office complex at NOIDA’S Sector 37, is busy flipping hot ‘paranthas’ on his hot ‘tawa’ (skillet) and beating up eggs, which are then carefully folded on to each ‘parantha’.

His customers, over a dozen of them aged between 19 and 35 years, stand around his cart impatiently. Bleary eyed and tired, they gratefully grab the food that is on offer, while chatting about their work, the latest “flicks” in town, or the ‘look’ of the season. Dim bulbs light up the small wooden tables from which they eat. The scene outside the office complex belies the late hour. It is milling with people, everyone making a beeline for their favourite bite, even as the moon shines on their dinner plates.

For the rest of the world, this may seem a scenario straight from a ghost planet, but for those who keep the call centre hubs of NOIDA humming, lunch at 8 pm and dinner at 3 am is normal. They catch up on their slumber when others in the city are out and about making a living. And while they make their way to their work stations in the various cyber hubs of the country, most others are making their way to their bed.

At first glance, these diners at dawn appear a happy and happening lot, sporting the latest clothes, hair styles and fashion accessories. But a deeper understanding of their lives could reveal a different story. Many are here for a simple reason: A lack of work options.

Today, about a quarter of the total workforce in the Indian BPO sector comprises women and they tend to be confined to the lower echelons of this $40 billion industry, either having to respond telephonically to customer queries or to key in data entries. The expansion in this sector over one-and-a-half decades has certainly created new employment opportunities for India’s youth. The authors of ‘Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World’ argue that such employment has particularly helped a section of women to develop skills and acquire both income as well as professional and personal confidence. But they also point out that far from ending biases, the traditional division of labour in their homes remains.

There are other, less articulated, disadvantages. Once entrenched into the BPO circuit, these women could end up severely undermining their health. Take Sarita, 28. She was compelled to quit her two-year-old job at a blue-chip BPO on the NOIDA Expressway, because of severe medical problems. A sincere worker, she was given a heavy workload and constantly pushed to perform better.

Recalls Sarita, “They would keep telling me to stretch my shift and keep increasing the workload. I went through extreme stress and soon realised that my body was crashing and could no longer take the daily pressure. I fell into a severe depression and, of course, my bosses did nothing to help me. Finally, I had to take expensive treatment in an outstation hospital and foot the bills myself.” She adds, “In any case, the work was too taxing and hardly gave me creative satisfaction. I asked myself why I was doing this: The salary was not that great. I was always doing overtime and was always being told to ‘stretch my shift’. And all towards what end?” Was this job really worth the constantly tired eye muscles, depression and a digestive system thrown out of kilter?

Now Sarita is happy doing something quite different from sitting before a computer with headphones strapped to her ears. She teaches dance and is also doing choreography, something that has given her the creative release she always yearned for. As luck would have it, she has also proved successful in her new field.

Deepa, another young BPO employee, suffered severe eye problems owing to long hours spent at the computer. She had to go in for high-powered spectacles but, after a few months, her employers forced her out of the job, categorising her as “medically unfit”. Meanwhile, Deepa’s eye problem worsened, preventing her from taking up a remunerative job.

A point that needs to be stressed is that these young women do not get the backing of their employers once they start succumbing to poor health. Given the fact that there is a large pool of unemployed youth in big cities, the management can afford to follow a relentless “hire and fire” policy, leaving their former employees in the lurch, with their health problems and mounting medical bills.

Archana Gupta, who worked for at a BPO in the National Capital Region, asserts that her erratic and irregular working hours played havoc with her stomach. She suffered from gastric disorders and found herself getting increasingly irritable owing to lack of sleep. “It was as though my digestive system was getting contradictory signals, since we constantly moved from the morning shift to the night shift. I would notice that during my off-days, when I kept my usual sleeping hours, I would suffer from constipation.”

But it was not just her digestive system that was affected. According to Gupta, what is perhaps most disturbing is the disruption caused to personal and family interactions. Sleep, nature’s sweet restorer, really came at a premium. “I just longed to sleep. On weekends when the family wanted to do something together – go for a ride or catch up on a movie – I found myself invariably opting out, so that I could get some shut eye,” she reveals.

Even those who otherwise enjoy their work, have to sooner or later face the adverse impacts that come with the job. Maya, 27, works in a call centre in Delhi, and is still enthusiastic about her “unusual” job that entails keeping “US time” and talking with an American accent. She dreams of making it big but is discovering, to her growing dismay, that she is spending most of her free time visiting doctors, whether it is for gastric problems, eye disorders, insomnia or just plain backaches. Her long hours at the computer led to an acute attack of lumbago, a condition that can be addressed over time but hardly ever gets completely cured. Suddenly for Maya even the pay packet that once seemed so attractive, given that she only had a graduate degree, has begun to lose its lustre.

There was another factor that most of the women interviewed pointed out: Fear of the dark. Elizabeth, who shuttles between Meerut and NOIDA in order to keep her job at a call centre, has to depend on her brother to pick her up from a designated spot in Patparganj, in East Delhi, miles away from home. If her brother gets delayed by even a few minutes, she shivers with fear as she waits alone on a desolate road in the wee hours of the morning.

Because of endless media stories on crimes of all kinds being perpetrated on female BPO employees, many women suffer from paranoia about traveling alone in the night, even if it is in an office cab. Their anxieties keep them awake at night, and some have even reported serious psychological and nervous disorders.

It is surprising, given the growing presence of women in this sector, to find employers generally insensitive to their female workforce. Over the last two decades, the Indian BPO industry has grown from strength to strength, establishing itself as an international market leader. Time, therefore, that it institutes international best practices in terms of protecting the health, rights and wellbeing of its female employees.

(Names of all women quoted have been changed to protect their identity.)

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.