BPO Firm Engineers Reverse Migration In Kashmir12 May 2010
The Economic Times
Srinagar: Like many others of his generation, Omar Wani is a global citizen. He has studied in Scotland, lived in Australia, and worked for multinationals like Barclays Bank and GE. He’s moved around in India, and counts several metros, including Mumbai, as home. Ironically, the 30-year-old has spent the least amount of time in his home state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). “For people like me, Srinagar has become a holiday home,” he says. “Many of us move out or go overseas, and never return.” Wani recently changed that. With the Essar Group-run Aegis setting up a BPO in Srinagar - scheduled to start work from May-end - Wani got on board as the centre head. And moved back to his hometown with his wife. The man who talked him into the job has seen his life take a similar trajectory. Faisal Durrani left Srinagar in 1999 and moved to Delhi. “That was the year of opportunity,” says Durrani, 31, who found himself computer literate in the middle of the dotcom boom. “When I left for Delhi, all I wanted was to build a career, and that wasn’t going to happen if I stayed back.” The vice-president for operations is now in charge of several centres across the country. But the Srinagar one, naturally, remains closest to his heart. Aegis, it seems, has sparked a ‘reverse migration’ in Kashmir. Its Srinagar plans are inviting hundreds of Kashmiris working in Delhi, the National Capital Region (NCR) and elsewhere in the country - and even abroad, Dubai or Australia - offering a chance to return home. And they are, in droves. According to Wani, about 95% of the operations, HR and administration teams at the Srinagar centre are Kashmiris who have moved back, while only 5-10% of the agents and freshers are outsiders. The company first began by identifying around half-a-dozen middle-rung officials at its centres across the country, and posted them in Srinagar “Once they were on board, they brought in friends and colleagues,” says Sudhir Agarwal, president (APAC and MEA), Aegis. Adds Durrani: “Till date, we have not felt the need to put out a single advertisement. It has been entirely word of mouth, and we have had an overwhelming number of applications and walk-in interviews.” The HR team has been inundated with applications; sometimes five times as many as the positions available. “Word of mouth fetched us CVs of 1,300 young men and women, all graduates and computer literate,” says Tufail Hussain, a headhunter. “We shortlisted about 200, but all of them have the potential to become team leaders.” The BPO currently has 183 employees, but is looking to hire more. “We hope that the Srinagar BPO will lead to lot of people returning to Kashmir,” says Aparup Sengupta, MD and Global CEO, Aegis. “We see ourselves as a company for the Kashmiris, by the Kashmiris and of the Kashmiris. This has worked at our centres in Lucknow, Jamshedpur and Bhopal, where people relocated to their hometown.” Govt gives faster approvals Most Kashmiris are keen to return for a number of reasons. Some say they are not comfortable with the level of suspicion they face from security agencies in other Indian cities. Many feel homesick or have family they need to take care of. And many others simply want to do something for their state. “We see the opening of Aegis’ operations in Srinagar as a major and positive development,” says Taha Shora, a team leader. “It gives me a wonderful feeling to be working with the Aegis because it is an international BPO. We are trying to put in our best to get thousands of our youth working outside, to come back home.” Adds another team leader, Syed Andleeb: “When I came from Noida (some years ago), I was desperate to find a job where I could fit in. But there were no opportunities. When Aegis happened, I jumped at the chance to grab a berth, because I knew the level of competence, exposure, professionalism and work culture that I could expect. Things that have been lacking in Kashmir.” Looks like Aegis will make good on that promise. By May-end, the BPO in Srinagar’s Rangreth neighbourhood will be fully operational, handling business for telecom companies like Vodafone (already on board), insurance and banking. It is currently housed in a 40,000 sq ft building, of which 22,000 sq ft has been given over to 230 seats, six training rooms and a cafeteria. An added 18,000 sq ft will allow for another 270 seats and four training rooms. “An initial dipstick showed we can easily hire 1,000-2,000 people,” says Mr Sengupta, adding: “Anyone who thinks it’s hard to find talent in Kashmir, is not seeing the whole picture.” Essar’s decision to boldly go where no other BPO has gone before, is puzzling for some. For obvious reasons, Kashmir seems an unlikely destination for any corporate house. “But Kashmir belongs to the India ecosystem,” says Mr Sengupta. “It has consumers of various services who are part of a customer lifecycle. When we decided to start operations there, we knew we would have to contend with the two main issues of employability and the people’s frustration at not having jobs, and the lack of employment itself.” Successive governments in J&K have projected unemployment as a major problem and some of them have actually linked it to the rise of militancy in the state. The government informed the state legislature in March that about 5.7 lakh unemployed youth were registered with 22 district employment and counselling centres: About 2.8 lakh in Kashmir, 2.7 lakh in Jammu and the rest in the arid Ladakh area. But, as Mr Sengupta puts it: “Aegis has taken a strong leadership role in the market, and we felt we needed to be where the people are.” So a year ago, when the J&K government offered the company 25 acres and a ramshackle building in Rangreth, Aegis saw the moment to make its move. The shift, company bosses claim, was nothing but smooth. Single-window clearances, licences within a fortnight, and utmost cooperation from the babus, mainly because the project has the blessings of both chief minister Omar Abdullah and his father and Union minister Farooq Abdullah. Although Aegis officials insist they did not do anything extraordinary for security, the fact that they were in Kashmir after all, seems to have guided some of their choices. For instance, a former cop was hired to do the background checks on employees. All employees live within five to seven km of the centre so that “if anything happens, we can get them home quickly and safely,” says a senior officer. Locating the BPO inside an IT park took care of infrastructure - a fairly abundant and uninterrupted supply of power, water and telecom connectivity. It also provided safety in numbers: The Rangreth area has scores of industrial units, many of which have private security guards. But the company probably draws its greatest comfort from the fact that the Army is stationed in a cantonment just across the road. “There can be no safer place in the country,” says Mr Agarwal.