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How IT changed the lives of rural youth
Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi | May 31, 2008 11:56 IST
We talk under the shade of a banyan tree surrounded by a crowd of villagers who treat Kondaiah like a celebrity. An eight-year-old fidgeting with the photographer's camera says he'd like to be Kondaiah when he grows up. The odds couldn't have been less in his favour when the teenager's father died young, followed as suddenly by the deaths of his siblings. "She went mad," he says of his mother's ill-health, "I'm her only hope." Life wasn't kind to the family. "My parents earned Rs 40-50 a day as coolies at a farm," he says. On his father's death, he moved in with his uncle, also a coolie. "I ran errands along with my studies to earn some money," he recalls.
The family's annual income was Rs 12,000, but Kondaiah's job at Wipro will fetch him a package of Rs 3.5 lakh. "It's the beginning of a beautiful dream," he smiles, "I can't wait to join." He will leave behind his uncle and the one-room house that measured all of 80 steps when I walked around it. And a prayer for the Jawahar Knowledge Centre (JKC), an initiative of the Andhra Pradesh government which, in 2005, began to pick up enterprising students from rural backgrounds to offer them training in IT hardware, software and networking. Set up as labs with high-end computers and software systems in rural colleges in Andhra Pradesh, these centres are especially attractive because they offer on-campus recruitment.
In a country where education is still considered a matter of good fortune, the concept of JKCs with campus recruitments by renowned IT companies is an unimaginable hope for youngsters from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. In his matchbox sized house in Nellore's slum area, Prasad Chintala hugs his mother who washes utensils and clothes in people's homes for a living; his father is a rickshaw puller. "My parents are illiterate but my mother wanted to educate me. She would enquire about private schools from homes where she worked and supported my education," Chintala tells us.
The 100-sq ft, one-room house is simultaneously bedroom, study, dressing room and puja room for all three of them. Chintala's clothes occupy one shelf, right next to his books; his parents' clothes are bundled in an old trunk. "My mother got me new clothes but wore second-hand sarees herself," Chintala says, itching to earn his first salary so he can buy her a new kanjeevaram. The 21-year-old engineering student whose family income is Rs 14,000 per annum, will be able to afford it when he joins Infosys [Get Quote] next month on an annual package of Rs 3.5 lakh.
"He's my only strength, my only wealth," his mother tells us, "I was willing to do anything to educate him." His father recalls the neighbourhood rickshaw pullers scoffing at them for wasting their hard-earned money on his education. "Today they praise us for our efforts," he says, while Chintala's brother-in-law, a pest control worker at a local cinema hall, frowns at our conversation. "If my parents could, they would have educated my sister too," Chintala says. "I know being a male child I was lucky." He may have been the butt of jokes among the members in his extended family but no one's laughing as he heads for Infosys and life in the big city now.
Far away from Nellore, in Mumbai's Thane area, Srinivas Maggidi has been working with TCS [Get Quote] as a software engineer for a year. He shares his apartment with boys from Andhra Pradesh, none of whom know that his father was a coalmine worker and his mother a daily wage labourer in paddy fields. "I don't like talking about my background," he smiles wryly. Like Chintala and Kondaiah, he was lucky to be born into a family determined to educate him and his younger brother despite crippling financial constraints. "When I earned my engineering degree, my father asked, 'Can I call you an engineer now?'" he says.
But that joy was short-lived: he waited six long months before landing a job. "Those were terrible times for my parents. They were under heavy debt because of our education," Maggidi says, recalling how his father would gasp for breath and writhe in pain that raced up his knees and legs after nine-hour shifts at a coal mine. "I remember crying, I was so angry we didn't have money," he wipes away tears. By the time Maggidi was able to stand on his own feet, his father had lost the ability to walk forever. And though he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, Maggidi shifted to software when TCS offered him a placement. With an annual package of Rs 3 lakh, Maggidi is now educating his sibling. As the youngest member of a team creating a multi-crore project for cellular phone service providers, he keeps Rs 4,500 for himself, transferring the rest of his monthly allowance to his parents' savings account.
"I like the opportunities that Mumbai offers but there are times when I fail to convince my friends I can't afford to watch movies or party on weekends," he says. It's the reason he works overtime in his office with just a 15-minute lunch break in the canteen. "I was initially intimidated by people in my organisation, their confidence, the way they spoke English," he smiles briefly, "but I'm learning to cope." His own parents' limited exposure makes it difficult for him to explain his working environment to them, as a result of which he sometimes feels alienated both from his colleagues as well as his immediate family.
It's a sentiment shared by Sunil Kumar Reddy, a poor farmer's son, who has been working for two years with Computer Associates in Hyderabad. "There are times I'm too busy to take my parents' calls and yes, I do feel the need to have my own space, my own independence. But I have to constantly remind myself that I'm in this position, earning Rs 5 lakh per annum, only because of my parents," he says. Kanuparthi, the village in Andhra Pradesh where he was born, is still to get a bus service, but Reddy says the big city has changed him in many ways. "I buy clothes, watch films, I enjoy myself." He will marry in August; his fianc�e works with an IT company in Chennai. He admits it's ironical that though his sisters weren't educated beyond the 10th grade, he was unwilling personally to marry anyone who was not a working professional like him. "I feel guilty my sisters couldn't study because of me," he sighs, but says he'd like to help educate his sisters' children, and would himself like to have a daughter.
In Nellore again, we meet Sridhar, who is set to migrate to Hyderabad. Sridhar's life came to a standstill when his bus conductor father died in an accident. Within months of that, his sister committed suicide. His mother took to working as a domestic help, supported by her husband's meagre pension, while he hoped for scholarships to keep his education going. "The day I got the offer letter from Satyam [Get Quote], I saw my mother smile after years," Sridhar says. He's ready to shift to the state capital, not least because he needs to clear debts worth Rs 2 lakh very quickly. "I'm taking my mother with me," he says, holding her protectively.
His friend Hemachand too will be migrating to Hyderabad as a computer engineer for Satyam on an annual package of Rs 3 lakh, and says he wants to take his grandfather on a holiday. Hemachand's father succumbed to mental instability when he incurred losses in a business venture. "There was no money in the house and it was my grandfather whose pension saw us through those times," he says.
Sometimes stories are difficult to end. For unlikely heroes like Chintala, Maggidi, Reddy, Shridhar, Kondaiah and Hemachand, their journey into a world we take for granted has just begun. Their families' annual incomes cover probably the cost of one meal, or a couple of trips to the beauty parlour, barely a fraction of the cost of a break from work for many of us. Their stories, therefore, need to be told; need to be heard. Their journey has just begun. How could we possibly call it the end?