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People & Power

India: High Tech Mirage

We investigate the worrying rise in suicides among young IT professionals in Bangalore, India's tech capital.

Last updated: 20 Mar 2014 12:01
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Bangalore, in south-east India, is the high-tech capital of the country. Over the last two decades, a place which was once known for its beautiful gardens has become a city more famous for its bytes than its begonias. It is home to some of the biggest names in the computer industry, from both India and abroad, and hosts everything from call centres and software developers to electronics manufacturers and IT consultancies.

Foreign companies are drawn here by a huge pool of qualified, English speaking and - by Western standards - cheap labour. Hundreds of thousands of the city’s inhabitants work in IT industries of one sort or another. While some work as well-paid and very experienced software engineers and programmers, the vast majority work in more humble jobs in what is known as business process outsourcing work. This BPO sector is crucial to Bangalore’s 'Silicon Valley' economy and largely revolves around providing "around the clock" customer services for overseas businesses.

If a person lives in the United Kingdom or the United States, and they have recently picked up a phone to book a flight or buy insurance, or get advice about how to install a new bit of software, there is a strong chance that they will, at some point or the other, end up speaking to someone in Bangalore. It is the very essence of globalisation and, for the most part, the employment and money such sectors brings to the city is very welcome, however much workers in other countries might grumble about losing opportunities to India that they might once have enjoyed themselves.

But it is not all good news for Bangalore, because in recent years the city has also won a reputation for being India’s ‘suicide capital’, a sad fact that many attribute to the unrelenting pressures on the people who work in this environment.

Almost 2,000 people killed themselves in the city in 2012 and, although not all the figures have been collated, 2013 looks set to have been just as bad, with 572 people taking their own lives in just the four months between May and August. Of course, not all of these are related to work stress in the city’s technology sector - people will kill themselves for a variety of reasons, whatever jobs they might do - but the city’s mental health professionals see a clear trend emerging, with rising waves of depression caused by the difficulties of working long hours, at odd times of day or night, in very competitive industries.

Dr P Satish Chandra is the director of India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences. He says the pressures on young IT workers can sometimes become intolerable. “Expectations from the young professionals are very high - the demands from their jobs is very high. In the early years, they may be able to handle the challenge but as the time passes their needs are different, their family needs are different; with this in mind, what happens is, the pressure mounts.”

'Pressure'

This mounting pressure is something that employers are also becoming increasingly aware of. Fiber-Link Communications is a US-owned computer security business that has a large outsourcing operation in Bangalore. It has hundreds of staff employed servicing the needs of clients around the world and around the clock. While managers are keen to keep productivity high, they also know that they have to be careful about pushing workers too hard.

“I do agree that there is stress in employees,” said Nayan Jajeda, who is in charge of software development. “There is pressure to move faster. So one of our motivations is how do we avoid burn-out? How do we try and make sure that people are not reaching a level of fatigue because they are under constant stress. One of the things that the Indian culture does promote - and is fairly liked - is long hours. There are employees here working through the night - until they have solved a particular problem.”

That problem, says Dr Chandra, is exacerbated by a breakdown in family structures which used to offer support at times of a crisis. “You have to understand that before in India, the support provided by the family was primordial. These people lived with all their family, in the larger sense of the word. But now, little by little, the reduced family is becoming the norm, and family support is lessened. A husband, a wife, a child and that is it .... There is no one to confide in and life has become mechanic. That just creates more stress, and the problems of suicide, depression.”

Little of this seems to put off the ever-increasing numbers of young people clamouring to get a job in one of Bangalore’s IT-related business. For many hundreds of thousands of job applicants every year, the lure of a good ‘middle class’ job is too strong. Customer service jobs are seen as respectable and well-paying. With the average Indian worker earning around 5,000 ($100) rupees a month, a call centre employee takes in as much as 15,000 rupees ($300) and gets to work in industry of the future.

To young women, especially, it can also offer a chance to move away from traditional family ties and expectations. Nilut Pola Shirma is a good example. Aged 27, single, and earning enough as a call centre employee to live an independent life, she acknowledges that the job can be demanding - especially as she has to work through the night taking calls from American clients - but she relishes the freedom it gives her. “Every weekend I meet my friends and ... I party. I travel a lot. I have been to most of the places in India so yeah - I’m happy. I’m single and happy right now.”

But as filmmakers Véronique Mauduy and Florence Morice found out for India’s High Tech Mirage, for others, the stresses are increasingly outweighing the benefits.

People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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Al Jazeera
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