Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
A year ago, in February 2018, the district of Dantewada saw the opening of the first ever Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) in the Maoist-hit region of Bastar. It had 128 employees a week after it went live. The number of total recruits was 700.
Speaking to the media at the time, then district collector of Dantewada, Saurabh Kumar, had said, “By 15 March, this will be a 500-seater BPO and by May-end, this is expected to be a 1,000-seater BPO.”
A year on, the BPO at Gidham – 12 kilometres from Dantewada town – bears a barren look. Employees wander around the campus, the offices are empty. Merely 39 employees are currently working over there. Of the 471 employees that started off a year ago, several have been sacked without notice, while the rest are on strike since mid-February, for they have not been paid their salaries.
About 7.5 percent of India’s tribal population belongs in Chhattisgarh, which comprises 30 percent of tribals. Out of the 90 Assembly seats in the state, 29 are reserved for scheduled tribes. Twelve of those fall in the division of Bastar, which comprises of seven districts – Bastar, Kanker, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Dantewada, Kondagaon and Sukma. The region is torn by conflict between Maoists and security forces, thereby not being conducive to job creation.
In such a context, Yuva, as the BPO is named, had been touted as an important step in providing employment to jobless youth, where the youths would be trained under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana before being recruited. It was to have major clients including Airtel, ICICI Bank, IndusInd Bank and Bank of America.
“Yuva is yet another endeavour towards providing a corporate platform and making the youth of the district, confident, self-reliant and responsible,” Kumar had said. "Youth in this region do not get jobs commensurate with their experience and skills and are also unwilling to migrate, which creates a catch-22 situation. With Yuva coming to Dantewada, there are jobs not only for the educated but also for those in support and ancillary services such as canteens, local transportation, housekeeping, security services, etc.”
Sanjay Kumar Bhagat, 22, was filled with the same hope when he heard of the opportunity.
Hailing from Bijapur, one of the most sensitive districts in Bastar region, about 90 kilometres from Dantewada, Bhagat migrated to the hostel set up by the administration for the employees.
“My uncle inquired about it first and then we made the decision,” he said. “My parents were very happy when they learnt I landed the job. If I had migrated elsewhere for another job, I would have earned the same starting salary of Rs 8,000 but would have had to rent a place and spend on groceries. At the hostel, both are taken care of.”
Alas, it turned out too good to be true. Earlier in January 2019, one morning, Bhagat was told his services were no longer needed. There were 69 like him. “We were part of the GST services project,” he says. “The company I worked for closed down the entire branch.”
Shaken by the sudden development, he decided not to tell his parents immediately. “We were told we would be hired again,” he says. “And this is what we are still being told. The administration, our local MLA, we have met everyone. All of them ask for some time. Eventually, I told my parents. They are worried about me. But I am going to fight for my rights. We did not get any notice. They didn’t follow any procedure before sacking us.”
Deputy Collector of Dantewada, Lingaraj Sidar, insists that we do not use the word “sacked” to describe what has happened. “They are kept on hold,” he says. “When a new project or a new company comes up at the BPO, they would be re-hired.”
The BPO first went live with four service providers: Sixth Generation Technology Pvt LTD, VACSTECH, Geostat and Inspiredge. They signed a memorandum of agreement with the Livelihood College in Dantewada, where the two entities agreed to collaborate and train the employees at a high-class facility before being recruited.
However, Sixth Generation Technology shortly dropped out citing losses. Sidar says the company is originally based in Hyderabad. “They said the employees from Bastar region were not as competent as they are in Hyderabad and they were spending more than they should be,” he said.
Hina Singh, 35, one of the team leaders at the BPO, says the employees working with all the companies would sincerely ask for feedback on their performance. “They hardly told us what we needed to do to get better,” she says.
Out of the remaining three service providers, Inspiredge is working fine, while the other two are locked in a conflict with their employees due to unpaid wages. Srinivas Reddy, manager at VACSTECH, which employs 172 people, says the district administration has not paid half the cost behind the training of his employees. “That is why we have been unable to pay their salaries on time,” he says.
District Collector, Topeshwar Verma, says the MOU categorically keeps the expenses and salaries separate and the company is mixing the two up. “They must be making money out of the business they run,” he says. “They can easily pay their people on time. The reason they are citing is wrong.”
VACSECH claims it is a startup, and the cash flow hasn't yet channelised. Once it is channelised, it would pay its employees further.
Geostat has already laid off 90-odd employees and plans to downsize further, citing a lack of revenues. They have also not paid their employees for over two months.
Hina says the administration has lost control of the situation after the change in government. In December, Congress swept the Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, winning 68 out of 90 seats, displacing Raman Singh after 15 years. The change in government saw a change in the district collector.
“Saurabh Kumar would take a keen interest in the BPO,” says Hina, a resident of Bacheli in Dantewada, 50 kilometres from Gidham. “Saurabh would bring in VIPs and the BPO kept being in news for good reasons. But the new collector is casual about it. He has not paid any attention to what has happened to us. It is shameful we have to stage protests to get what is rightfully ours.”
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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 09:10:12 IST