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India outsourcer plows new wealth back into charities

August 16, 2004

HYDERABAD, India - Pride is a precious new feeling for Sudhakar Meriga and two fellow dropouts.

The three men, all 21, quit school as teenagers because their families needed the paltry sums they made at odd jobs, running errands and such. They had little hope of improving their lot until nearly three years ago when they heard of a free program to help poor teens learn to use computers and other job skills. Hundreds competed for the 25 openings in each course.

``I was going along like a dog, everybody telling me to go away,'' Meriga said of the way he was viewed. Of the training opportunity, he said: ``It was a chance for my life, but I thought, `I cannot get in.'''

Today, he and his two friends are building a Web design and graphic arts business. They are the main support of their families. Life holds promise.

They credit their turnarounds to a training program started in 2000 by Satyam Computer Services Ltd., one of India's top software outsourcers. The firm's projects include one for Matthews, N.C.-based Family Dollar Stores Inc.

In the United States, Indian outsourcers have been blamed for eroding the middle class by recruiting information-technology jobs to their lower-wage workers. In India, outsourcing's rapid growth is generating big profits and creating some of the nation's most sought-after jobs. But many of India's 1 billion people lack the education and English-speaking skills to win jobs in outsourcing.

Satyam and other outsourcers are sharing the new wealth, trying to ease poverty by providing education, health care and job training.

``You can't change the poverty of the whole country, but you can make changes for people,'' said Balaji Utla, a former university professor who heads Satyam's teen program, called Alambana. ``We can make a difference in the communities where we work.''

The needs are huge. Tens of millions of Indians live without electricity or running water, often in tin and tarp shacks lining city streets. Children forage for food in garbage heaps, competing with cows, dogs and goats. Women clutching painfully tiny babies dodge vehicles to beg a few coins.

The outsourcers' office campuses are a wrenching contrast. At Satyam's headquarters in the southern India city of Hyderabad, manicured grounds include an aviary, pond, deer park and gardens where employees stroll and sip tea.

The company has two major outreach programs, Alambana and the Byrraju Foundation.

The family of Satyam's founder started the foundation in July 2001, as a memorial, within days of his death. The self-help program has a goal of reaching 141 villages with 800,000 residents.

So far, the Byrraju Foundation says it has helped villagers build 20,000 toilets and install water filters. The foundation's work includes stationing nurses in village clinics that double as literacy centers, and it runs an eight-person, 911-type call center for villagers.

The foundation has trained women to become maids, jobs that pay about $35 a month plus board and food. In the rural areas where they live, the women would be lucky to make $10 a month working in farm fields. The group also helps villagers identify cottage industries, such as crocheting and paper making, that create jobs while allowing residents to stay home.

Satyam's Alambana program focuses on older teens, mostly poor dropouts. The name, Alambana, means support in Sanskrit, India's ancient classical language.

The program teaches basic word-processing and graphic design as well as English and personal skills needed to hold a job. About 400 people have completed the course; 70 percent of them are working, and most of the others are pursuing additional education, Utla said.

``Our aim is sustainable development rather than checkbook charity,'' said Nandini Raju, whose husband is Satyam's chairman.

The wives of top Satyam executives volunteer to help run Alambana. Many of Satyam's 15,000 workers also volunteer, and most donate by payroll deduction to the program.

``Five days we work for ourselves,'' said Satish Satyam, 25, a Satyam engineer and frequent volunteer. ``Two days, you work for someone else.''

Meriga and two friends he made at Alambana have worked together on basic computer projects for Satyam and one of its clients. Using skills they've learned in the program, the three 21-year-olds also started a business called Right Choice, to do Web design and graphic artwork such as greeting-card design. They say they each now earn more than $100 a month.

``I can help my sister to get married in a grand manner,'' Vishal Nalika said grinning.

Like his friends, Samuel Selvam thanks Alambana for giving him self-confidence and ambition. Considering that two years ago he and his friends were destitute and spoke little English, Selvam's top goal doesn't seem impossible.

``Today, I am known only here,'' he said. ``In five years, many countries will know me.''

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