English takes India from Raj to riches

March 23, 2001

Information technology giants are beating a path to India's door because of its low costs and competence in the language of computing, Shreesh Chaudhary writes.

English should be India's official language, according to Azim Premji. He has a successful businessman's nose for an opportunity, having raised his company Wipro from a little-known family business to an information technology giant. In the last quarter of 2000, Wipro -winner of a recent £5 million contract to provide IT support to the Scottish Parliament -made a profit of about Rs3 billion (£44 million), a rise of 77 per cent over the previous year. With an estimated fortune of billions of pounds, Premji has become one of the richest men in the world.

Many other IT companies in India have had similar successes. The National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) expects India to make $140 billion (£97 billion) annually from IT by 2008 - more than 20 per cent of the country's projected gross domestic product of $650 billion. Thanks to IT, India is among the ten fastest growing economies in the world.

Indians' traditional strengths in maths and English - they have the highest national average at Cambridge's International English Language Testing System - have played an important role in this success. Their multilingualism has continued despite both the fact that English has been around for 400 years and that enthusiasm for English has not been diminished by love of their mother tongues.

In the information age, English -as well as low costs - has given Indian IT an edge over its Asian rivals. This makes it, as Bill Clinton says, a sound choice for any firm that "wants to hold down its bottom line".

And its influence is not just in India alone. The campaign website of former United States vice-president Al Gore last year was hosted by a company founded by Indian immigrants. Many of the companies in Silicon Valley are run by Indians. Such is the demand for Indian software programmers that the US Congress has raised the number of visas for these workers - to an all-time high of 195,000 a year.

As a result of India's English and communication skills, many global giants are outsourcing their service sector activities to the subcontinent. "When Americans call Micro-soft for customer support today," Clinton said recently, "they are as likely to be talking to someone in Bangalore or Hyderabad as to someone in Seattle." According to Nasscom and McKinsey Consultants, call centres could be employing up to 200,000 Indians and earning $3.7 billion a year by 2008.

When Queen Elizabeth I gave the East India Company its charter 400 years ago, the company could not have known that the most precious thing it would leave behind in India would be the English language.

Initially, India's elite was hostile to English. They saw it as a tool for Christianity. In rural areas, like Bihar, opposition to English continued into the 19th century. In 1855, an English school was forced to close because of a lack of students. Within a decade, however, it had restarted.

The East India Company itself did not promote the teaching of English, not wanting to meddle in India's education and religion. But, despite the views of the elite, India's businessmen recognised the value of learning English and taught themselves.

English gained an official foothold in India in 1774 when it replaced Persian as the language of the supreme court and became a route to employment. Schools offering tuition in English took off and by the early 19th century English was so popular that, in 1834, the Calcutta Book Society sold 31,864 copies of English books and only 3,384 books in Hindustani, 36 in Arabic and 16 in Sanskrit.

By 1890, Indians knew enough English to occupy all the minor posts in government. With independence, Gandhiji hoped "infatuation with the English language will automatically go", though even he accepted it as India's language for international trade and diplomacy.

However, in free India, English has gained in power and popularity. Today, about 350 million Indians - the pan- Indian elite -use it every day. English is now not just India's "window on the world"; it is India's virtual highway to the global market. The country has more than 300 English-speaking universities, 25,000 colleges, 250,000 schools, and 1 million English teachers.

Yet demands to get rid of the language keeps surfacing. Recently, Tamil Nadu tried to change all English-language schools in the state to Tamil-language ones, but the Madras high court did not support the attempt. While in opposition, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was anti-English. However, he has since changed his mind. Regardless of their community, caste and class, people want English and they want a good job.

Good English is a basic qualification in IT. P. N. Sridharan, chief of training at Cognizant Technology Solutions in Madras, says: "We are a global service-sector company, and we must be absolutely proficient in English." The company's recruitment procedure includes both verbal and written English tests. In some areas, good English is more important than technical qualifications.

Aneek Chakraborti, of Complete Business Solutions (India), says his company emphasises "both written and spoken communication skills in English, for all staff members". They are one of the items in the company's annual appraisal process. CBSI also helps its employees improve their English.

IT companies are spending generously on English. Big companies are even willing to pay up to Rs1,000 (£14) an hour per employee on training. Professional staff agencies spend larger per capita amounts on intensive English-speaking courses in the week before a contract starts.

Typing dictated medical information has emerged as another lucrative way for India to capitalise on its English and IT skills. In India, hundreds of companies work in this area. They accept voicemail dictation from physicians and surgeons in the US, transcribe them, and mail them back.

Jack Welch, head of General Electric, says India has the "intellectual infrastructure of a developed nation". The rise of IT has brought new opportunities for graduates. Even the inexperienced can find work as technical writers, editors and trainers at salaries higher than that of a university lecturer. Those with good English skills can become teachers or trainers.

The technology boom is bringing a veritable stampede of world and business leaders to India's door. Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, Robert Bishop, head of Silicon Graphics, Michael Dell, chairman of Dell Computers, John Sculley, former head of Apple Computers, Jack Welch, head of GE, and many others came to India last year. So did government leaders such as Clinton and Jiang Zemin of China. None of them came just to have their photograph taken outside the Taj Mahal.

Gates reportedly plans to triple the size of Microsoft's Hyderabad research centre. Amazon.com, the biggest dotcom in the world, has entrusted its customer care to Indians. Warburg Pincus has invested $330 million in IT-related services. GE is buying $250 million worth of software from India. And it is claimed that Indian software companies now account for 80 per cent of all software outsourcing.

In the past, English brought Indians to the world. Now, together with IT, it is bringing the world to India.

Shreesh Chaudhary is professor of English and linguistics at the department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India.

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