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The brown man's burden

Last updated on: February 11, 2004 13:01 IST

With the benefit of hindsight, it's a great pity that the French, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese held only relatively small swatches of the sub-continent and that the Spanish and Germans never came here.

If only these 19th-century powers had approached the task of taking up the White Man's Burden as seriously as the British did, India would now bid fair to control the nervous system of the global economy.

Along with imperial domination, the French, Portuguese, Dutch et al would have passed on knowledge of their mother-tongues. That knowledge would have created access to continental Europe and Latin America: markets Indians have so far failed to penetrate with the combination of high-tech skill and cheap labour.

If India had been sliced up more equally in the 19th century, the business process outsourcing model of business would have inexorably ensured that Indian labour eventually manned every First World service job that could be outsourced, excluding only onshore niches like cutting hair.

The way history panned out, Indians ended up possessing competence in just one world language. That was because of the prescience of Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, who suggested in his 1835 Minute on Education that natives be trained "who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern... Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect".

Historically, imperial domination has always been imposed through top-down control with the rulers giving orders to the millions whom they govern. What India could achieve in the next 25 years is a paradigm of inverted bottom-up domination.

Circa 2025, Indians could control most back-office functions in every First World economy offering an unprecedented leverage that overturns every previous socio-economic model.

Consider: what if, across the globe, the obedient minions in every white-collar industry hail from one nation and mostly reside in their homeland and telecommute to work? This could happen if Indian entrepreneurs respond to the opportunities of BPO.

If this happens, the country in question has an ability to punch far beyond its weight in terms of global influence. For one thing, it has access to masses of data, which taken in toto deliver an unprecedented understanding of the way the world works.

Data-analysis would throw up connected threads in everything from global consumption patterns and credit-card usage to the shaping of security concerns.

It would be difficult to wage war against it since a strike against Delhi or Bangalore would ensure that services in London and Washington also crashed.

This automatically extends to a unified response to terrorism since a serious terrorist act in India would lead to disruptions across the globe; so, it is in every nation's interest to ensure that such acts don't occur.

Such a nation need fear neither serious aggression nor secret machination. Also, without in any way reaching beyond its own boundaries, it is in a position to paralyse the global economy. Just call a nationwide strike to protest an unfair World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling and the global trade network goes down.

Is this an impossible future? By 2020, according to some estimates, including the Boston Consulting Group (which is, admittedly, run by an Indian), there will be 30 million Indians manning service jobs across the UK and the US.

What happens, if by then, India also achieves penetration in markets like France, Germany or Japan? Right now, it has less than 1 per cent of those multi-billion markets and, effectively, zero presence in Latin America. How long will it take for somebody who knows both Tamil and C++ to learn German?

Of course, things may pan out differently. The First World could create collective embargoes on BPO services. Or, Fortress Europe and the US could ease immigration barriers hoping to keep scut-work at home for new immigrants.

But BPO, or any antidotes that are dreamt up, will change all global equations. It is likely to be more disruptive than any previous business model.

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Devangshu Datta