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Inside Outsourcing

May 2004
Inside Outsourcing

Inside Outsourcing

What it means at both ends.

By Vamsee Juluri

On my most recent visit to my hometown of Hyderabad, India, I found a world very different from the tranquil one in which I grew up. My neighborhood, Jubilee Hills, is bereft of its pristine natural beauty and is now more an address than a geographical description. Overrun with mansions, Pizza Huts, and traffic jams, it pulsates with an American aspiration. It is here, in an ancient land gone suddenly hi-tech, that one of India's Silicon Valleys is clicking away, churning out computer code, Internet services, and customer support for clients halfway around the world. The gigantic buildings known as High Tech City, home to many new companies, and the wide, well-lit roads near it are filled with young professionals festively walking around in the middle of the night?which of course is their workday. All of these changes signify a new India. This India works around the clock, has money, and wants to have fun.

For the present generation of young Indians, education and globalization have created a new world. Growing up on MTV in the 1990s, this generation has, according to market researchers, "rebelled into" middle class consumerism. As I found during the research for my book on music television and youth culture, young Indians are seeing themselves increasingly as contributors to a world economy. They perceive globalization not as an American cultural invasion, but instead as an Indian emergence onto the world stage.

This aspiration for global belonging is meaningful to this generation, but the work that they do is not easy. American standards make breathless demands on them. The call-center routine takes a psychological and emotional toll; not only are the hours grueling, but the training, based on viewing Ally McBeal, basically teaches Indians to assume foreign accents and personas. One of my students at the University of San Francisco recently told me about an off-the-record conversation he had with an Indian call-center operator he had called for tech-support. "I hate having to disguise the fact that I am in India," he confided to my student. I would be unhappy too, if my work situation assumed that revealing my nationality would make the customers think less of me.

But if young Indians are thinking of their jobs as a hard-earned and legitimate entry into the competitive global economy, it has been quite the opposite in the United States. What people in India see as nothing more than a just reward for surviving their strenuous educational systems and making it into the competitive professional world, some in the United States see as a bail-out. The term "outsourcing" has acquired such a negative connotation in this election year that we may be missing the whole picture. Is work done in India for American clients really a process of "American jobs being sent to India"? Or is it just that a small group of Indians are being rewarded by a world economy that has opened up national boundaries?

The economic insecurity that has hurt Americans is deplorable, and I sympathize with students who fear that soon "there will be no jobs left in America" (although this is far from true). But to insinuate that India is either the culprit or an undeserving beneficiary here is untrue. All India has done is to respond to the "free-market" calls of the United States by making available a skilled English-savvy workforce at a price that no American company can beat?and a great nation like America can surely find a better reaction to it than fear and denial.

Instead, we should take a lesson from the young global Indian workforce and figure out how to stay on top in the global economy (which of course has benefited America a lot more and a lot longer than anyone else). Outsourcing is not the theft of American jobs, but America's next great challenge to deal maturely with a world of its own creation. So the next time someone is upset that their taxes are being wasted on "creating jobs in India," let's be honest and point out that the real tax waste (and human loss) hasn't been on India, but Iraq.

Vamsee Juluri is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco .

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