Heat, dust and cyber cafes

From the smallest village to the mega-software firms of `Hi-Tech City', India is logging on as a computer superpower. Photographs by Tim Hetherington. Words by Peter Popham
  • @peterpopham
Computers and India: the marriage of the two may seem stubbornly unlikely, but the country has a long and noble history of mathematics. According to Georges Ifrah in The Universal History of Numbers, "We owe the discovery of modern numeration and the elaboration of the very foundations of written calculations to India alone" - India's key contribution being the invention of zero during the Gupta Dynasty (AD240-535). Why, even the man who designed the Pentium processor is an Indian, Vinod Dham. And yet ... the two refuse to gel. Shambling cows, ancient cars, teeming, illiterate masses, heat and dust, computers: the incompatibility appears absolute.

So it is a surprise to find that computers are an Indian success story. Fifteen years ago the industry barely existed. Throughout the Nineties it has grown at more than 50 per cent per year; last year at nearly 70 per cent. Now India has 200,000 software professionals, more than half of them women, with a demand for 55,000 more personnel every year. The biggest firm, Tata Consultancy Services, has 11,000 employees, and annual sales worth more than Rs10bn (pounds 150m).

The Internet is rapidly broadening the horizons of Indian business. For decades oppressive government bureaucracy made expansion abroad difficult, but the computer revolution has brought about "the death of distance", as the managing director of a top Indian software company put it. And prejudice is another thing that dies with distance. "On the Internet I am just another John," says an Indian software executive. "No one can tell I am a brown John."

At present, computers mean next to nothing to the nearly 50 per cent of the Indian population who are illiterate. But that is changing. A service inaugurated in a remote north Indian village last November enables people to send video and audio messages across the Internet, allowing illiterate couples separated because of work, for example, to keep in touch. Distance done to death, again.

Captions: Computer careers

A young boy plays on a computer at the National Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. If he decides to become a hi-tech worker, he will have a secure future. The key to India's software success has been its diligent, aspirational workforce. Middle-class Indians also know English almost as thoroughly and idiomatically as British and Americans do. However, he will have to work long and hard for salaries that in the West would be completely inadequate: Rs12,000 (pounds 170) per month for entry-level software programmers, rising to four times that after six years. The wages and time difference (four and a half hours ahead of London, 10 and a half ahead of New York) mean that India's computer professionals are the equivalent of overnight office cleaners, fixing bugs or upgrading systems while their wealthy customers sleep.

Hi-Tech City, Hyderabad

The southern Indian city of Hyderabad is one of the country's hi-tech boom towns. Businesses here, as elsewhere in the country, staggered along for years under the crushing weight of what they called "the Permit Raj", the central control of all commercial activity which was the most disastrous feature of the socialism propagated by the first post-independence prime minister, Nehru. One reason the software industry boomed, while other Indian sectors stagnated, was because it was so new that the government had not got around to devising a way of hobbling it with rules and regulations. "It fell under no existing industrial or export licences," says one leading commentator. "None of India's dated, fusty and centrist controls anticipated the technological revolution that spawned the sector, no ministry was in place to constrain it with bureaucracy."

The communications revolution

A young woman logs on to the Internet (below) at a cyber cafe in Delhi, while in Bombay (right) a businessman is forced to make use of a very public phone to transact a deal. India's cyber cafes may lack the designer lighting, laminated floors and cool staff of their European equivalents, but they fulfil a more urgent need. For thousands of young Indians eager to pile on to the Internet bandwagon, the price of a PC, plus Internet connection, is out of reach. For them, the Internet cafe is not a trendy rendezvous. It is their only way into cyberspace.

In a menacing echo of the old, prohibitive India, two years ago the Indian Internet access provider, VSNL, warned of legal action against Internet cafes for infringing its monopoly. One very glitzy cafe in a luxury hotel in Bombay closed down as a consequence. But VSNL has since lost its monopoly, and cafes are sprouting up across the big cities, charging from Rs60 to Rs200 per hour (85p to pounds 2.85). Bombay accounts for 40 per cent of India's Internet connections, and one of the city's cafes, Cyberia, plans to open a chain of 10 across the country, charging as little as Rs30 (42p) per hour.

As ever in India, the real challenge is not Bombay or Delhi but the hinterland. Last year a London-based firm called World Tel announced plans to sink tens of millions of pounds into a string of about 1,000 "Internet community centres" across the states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. They will be modelled on the PCOs - public call offices - that are to be found all over the country; simple, scruffy and indispensable. When that plan is realised, India's computer revolution will have happened.

Rebuilding the infrastructure

Workers are busy upgrading the infrastructure of Bangalore, home to dozens of the software companies that are the country's top business success story. The capital of Karnataka state in the far south of the country, Bangalore is by Indian standards green, affluent and comfortable. But it is still India. Ashok Khosla, an American of Indian descent who was dispatched there by Apple to set up a software development company, described his visit to the top local company, Infosys, in Electronic City, 20 miles out of town. The few paved sections of the road had "back-breaking, crater- sized potholes," he said. Yet Khosla quickly came to respect India's computer professionals. "The engineers are very smart. They have to be to succeed in a country without resources."

Managing change in Bangalore

Students at the Bangalore division of the Maharishi Institute of Management sit behind their teacher during a session in transcendental meditation (although their teacher makes sure his mobile phone is to hand, just in case). The Maharishi Institute is shaking off its image as a Sixties hangout for hippies and becoming an important centre for computer training and hi-tech learning. The teaching of meditation is to help its students cope with the stress that goes with jobs in the burgeoning industry. Graduates will be able to help the southern Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad in their feverish attempts to reinvent themselves as rival "cyberabads". And Bangalore's workers are certainly keen: at a recent IT expo in the city, 70,000 people poured in every day.

Computers in the slums

India's population is nearly one billion, and today only about 200,000 of them have direct access to the Internet - one in 5,000. But an experiment in a Delhi slum suggests that even among the illiterate and impoverished, computer use could become as popular as films, cable television and the telephone are - with even more important consequences. In January Dr Sugata Mitra, a professor at NIIT, a private technology training institute in Delhi, installed a PC with dedicated Internet access in the Institute's perimeter wall, a few yards from a shanty slum. As an exercise in "diagnostic learning", no instruction was given as to how it should be used. At the start, the slum children crowding round it did not have a clue what it was. Yet within days they were browsing the Web, drawing, teaching one another and writing messages."What we observed was both strange and wonderful," says Dr Mitra. This may, he believes, be a model for the way in which computers can transform Indian society. A woman's work

A woman washes the marble floors of a computer company in Hi-Tech City, Hyderabad while male executives saunter past. But this stereotype is increasingly being smashed as the need for computer professionals helps bring about a gender revolution. Today, women comprise half the staff in the service sector; in software the proportion is far higher, and in some software companies the staff is almost entirely female. All this is forcing rapid change in social attitudes. In the matrimonial section of Indian newspapers such as the Hindustan Times, alongside the pleas for "wheatish" brides of the correct caste, appear ads such as this one: "CAPABLE, beautiful, professional, qualified, employed match for smart, very handsome only son ... "

Cutting through the red tape

It's one of the most familiar images of India: the government office, dusty, run down, every surface piled high with bulging, antiquated files done up with red tape - and not a machine in sight. Some of these teetering piles look as if they have not been disturbed since independence.

Efforts to change this way of doing things have been underway for a long time. In the Eighties, the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi travelled everywhere with his Toshiba laptop, and launched a programme to computerise government departments at both national and state levels. It was only partially successful: Indian bureaucrats - "babus" in local parlance - are fiercely conservative. For many of them, "computerisation" proved to be a cunning dodge for getting air conditioning installed in their stifling offices. The actual computers never arrived.

Yet there have been breakthroughs. Despite the scene in this photograph of Churchgate Station, Bombay, railway ticket reservations have been computerised for years, and the system works well.