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India Report #3

July 14, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

The Tamil language (spoken in parts of South India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore) apparently has some 120 or so letters in its alphabet. In Pondicherry, people in the MS Swaminathan project are learning to type Tamil on ordinary keyboards. Apparently they use some combination of punctuation (colon key), shift key, etc. to manage all those letters from an ordinary keyboard. (They don't type in roman letters and covert, as can be done in Chinese and Japanese). They also don't use any special templates--they just remember where all those keys are. Apparently people have learned the system pretty fast.

Language comparisons between India and Egypt support the thesis that the line between "English as a Second Language" and "English as a Foreign Language" is blurring in the era of globalization. English is supposedly spoken as a second language in India and as a foreign language in Egypt. And there are some noteable differences. English is more broadly used internally in India, with more English language newspapers, advertisements, and use of English for internal communication. Yet English is also used for internal purposes in Egypt, for example, for professional communication among doctors and IT specialists. Egypt also has a plethora of English language publications. Both India and Egypt have lots of English-medium private schools. And the percentage of people who speak English in the two countries is not dramatically different -- estimated at 5% of Indians and perhaps 3% (??) of Egyptians. One thing that's different is that the Indian variety of English is more fully developed, with its own lexical items, pronunciation, etc. (In many cases it's been very difficult for me to understand, principally due to differences in pronunciation).

Some thoughts on IT and development, or at least employment. India has a huge IT sector, passing more than $10 billion US in annual sales. This is still though a small part of the Indian economy. Besides special "IT for the masses" projects, such as I've described so far (and which thus far reach a very small number of people), is IT contributing to India's development or is it just benefiting the elite? It's hard to say, but one thing that is evident is that IT is providing a lot of jobs. These are not going to the poorest of the poor, but they are going to many non-elites. One area is in computer programming. Programming is a big employment area here, as US and other international firms increasingly use telecommunications to send over work (an India programmer usually makes a few hundred dollars a month, as opposed to some 10 to 20 times that rate in the US). Java, C, and C plus plus (I can't seem to find the plus sign on this keyboard!) have become national obsessions, with zillions of programming schools and programming courses regularly taught in many high schools.

Beyond programming, there is data processing work that still provides employment and an income. One company I visited, Datamation in Delhi, is in the processing of digitizing 123 years worth (at some 200 copies per year) of Harvard University's student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. Harvard simply packed up all 20,000 or so copies of the newspaper and shipped them over, and Datamation employees are keyboarding them in one character at a time (not even scanning). I believe the salary for an entry-level keyboarder is some $70 a month. Datamation employs some 1000 people working on both data-entry and also programming jobs (including developing quiz software for online learning programs in the US).

Another company whose president I met, Belvedere Ltd, does medical transcribing. Hospitals send over their audio files of doctors notes and comments that have been recorded and digitized (and sent over the Internet--Belvedere has a fast satellite connection to the Internet for some $20,000) per year and Belvedere employees transcribe and edit them overnight (or at least overnight US time). They are sent back to the US at some 10 cents per line. Transcribers there earn about $200 or so a month.

Belvedere Ltd is now starting a call center business, in which phone calls to US companies (such as for airline reservations) are routed to India rather than to the US. The trick of this is that the callers are not even supposed to know that they are calling a foreign country. Call handlers have to develop a passable American accent (not a simple feat) and also learn about American cultural events, such as the baseball World Series. If asked where they are located, they are supposed to say things such as "We're based out of Chicago." Some of you may have seen the article in the New York Times a while back on a call center in Bangalore. Call handlers at Belvedere will reportedly make about $400 a month.

Economists will have to judge the overall effect of these types of industries on the Egyptian economy, but it is clear that they are supplying a large and growing number of jobs, albeit it in areas that Americans may find quite tedious. Some might see this as an international division of labor in the IT industry, with US companies principally doing the organizing, managing, and conceptualizing, and Indian companies largely doing more menial tasks at low wages. Others might see it as a valuable source of employment in a nation where permanent full-time jobs are insufficient to meet demand--a $70 per week job is appreciated in a country where too many people still only make $70 per year. Of course I haven't mentioned that some Indian IT firms are competing for high-end software development work with US and other national firms, and will likely increasingly due so in the future.

I'm leaving Chennai for Bangalore tomorrow morning. I'm especially looking forward to the change of weather. Chennai is incredibly hot and muggy, and Bangalore weather is supposed to be quite pleasant. I'll let you know.

By the way, in spite of computer problems, the digital camera is continuing to function marvelously. I took about 70 pictures in Pondicherry yesterday, including some great shots of people in the fishing village. Now that my computer's not working at all, I'm really glad I splurged for a 128 MB compact flash card. It stores about 200 pictures at the highest resolution (and many more at lower resolutions). One nice feature of digital cameras; people really like it when you show them the picture on the image screen after you've taken it (although it's pretty small on the miniature Canon S110 I'm using). Canon also makes tiny portable printers that can produce small printouts of the digital photos and even multiple stickers with miniature photos. Now that would have been a fun thing to carry around--though I can imagine that once I started to pass out people's photos in a small village, it would preclude getting any more serious work done!


Mark Warschauer

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Last updated: July 14, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0