Sickle in one hand, mouse in the other

Sickle in one hand, mouse in the other

Six months ago, Puja, 18, and Bimla Devi, 35, spent their day cooking meals, tending cattle and working in the fields — like most village women across Haryana. Never had they imagined that they would be sitting in an office tapping computer keys. 

Such has been the remarkable transformation of hundreds of women in Tikli and Aklimpur villages. They still cut fodder for their cattle and clear cow dung but they also work in a business process outsourcing (BPO) centre right in the heart of their village. A first-of-its-kind women-only rural BPO in India, this centre was started by ‘Harva,’ which stands for ‘harnessing value of rural India.’ 

“I never thought I would be able to work on a computer. Now working on the keyboard comes so easily to me. I’m so proud of myself,” says Puja.
How did these simple women pick up computer skills? It’s the result of a three to four-month rigorous training course. Bimla can now type 35-40 words a minute and enter data flawlessly. 

Setting up
Getting these women to step out of their homes was no mean feat. Ajay Chaturvedi, a business management graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and an engineer from BITS Pilani, used all his persuasive powers to break the rigid cultural and social barriers of their male-dominated society. 

Thus, six months back, 500 women were selected for basic computer training. Ability to read and write, some basic knowledge of English, “apart from their willingness to learn,” determined their selection. Training was free and the women learnt office culture and etiquette, and communication skills, apart from Microsoft Office applications.
Initially this was difficult, recalls Archana, 29, a mother of two. “All of a sudden we had to deal with machines and technology. With training and motivation, we picked up fast.”  
Of the 500 women, 200 completed the course and 50 were deployed on various projects. Twenty women are still working on projects and 30 more are likely to get work on new projects.

Chaturvedi emphasises that the BPO is in no way an NGO (non-government organisation) project. He calls it ‘a business venture with a conscience and social responsibility’. “I am a capitalist who sees whether a business model is viable and profitable. If I create value, business and opportunities, it will benefit everyone,” he says.

He claims he did not employ the women out of charity. “Women are overall superior beings, far more hard working and serious. They are good at multi-tasking and efficient and can work at a stretch without taking many breaks,” he says. Chaturvedi proudly gives the example of a 25-year-old woman who studied only up to Class VIII. She learnt all the characters on the computer keyboard in just three hours, “not easy even for people like me,” he smiles.

The BPO centre is not his only rural venture. This entrepreneur left his lucrative job with Citi Bank to tap rural talent and opportunities. He has dabbled in community farming for non-rain-dependent cash crops in Uttarakhand. He wants to expand this project to 10,000 acres across the country that will benefit 10,000 farmers in the next few years. Right now, he wants to take this BPO model to other villages. He targets Bihar, Uttarakhand and some other states.

Gainful employment
Working at the BPO centre has helped enhance the image and status of women in a state notorious for its skewed sex ratio. It has bestowed economic freedom, in a modest way. 

Bimla, a mother of two, was over the moon when she received her first salary of a little over Rs 2,000. “It was mine — a result of my hard work and I realised its worth,” she says. Reena, 18, and the most vocal of the lot, declares “City people think rural women are illiterate and uncultured. We have proved them wrong.”
Multi-tasking now comes easy. “Earlier household chores would take up the entire day. After joining the BPO, we finish all our work by 10 am, come to office and go back for the evening chores,” says Bimla.

The BPO centre also helps these women to make friends.  They have their own space amid 20 computers, their two-room centre nestled among sprawling fields. “We have bonded really well. We receive a lot of emotional support,” says Manju Yadav, 25.
The women now aspire for  assured, regular work and income. Meanwhile, they are ‘keying’ in their success story.
Hemlata Aithani

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