BANGALORE, India — I've been in India for only a few days and I am already thinking about reincarnation. In my next life, I want to be a demagogue.
Yes, I want to be able to huff and puff about complex issues — like outsourcing of jobs to India — without any reference to reality. Unfortunately, in this life, I'm stuck in the body of a reporter/columnist. So when I came to the 24/7 customer call center in Bangalore to observe hundreds of Indian young people doing service jobs via long distance — answering the phones for U.S. firms, providing technical support for U.S. computer giants or selling credit cards for global banks — I was prepared to denounce the whole thing. "How can it be good for America to have all these Indians doing our white-collar jobs?" I asked 24/7's founder, S. Nagarajan.
Well, he answered patiently, "look around this office." All the computers are from Compaq. The basic software is from Microsoft. The phones are from Lucent. The air-conditioning is by Carrier, and even the bottled water is by Coke, because when it comes to drinking water in India, people want a trusted brand. On top of all this, says Nagarajan, 90 percent of the shares in 24/7 are owned by U.S. investors. This explains why, although the United States has lost some service jobs to India, total exports from U.S. companies to India have grown from $2.5 billion in 1990 to $4.1 billion in 2002. What goes around comes around, and also benefits Americans.
Consider one of the newest products to be outsourced to India: animation. Yes, a lot of your Saturday morning cartoons are drawn by Indian animators like JadooWorks, founded three years ago here in Bangalore. India, though, did not take these basic animation jobs from Americans. For 20 years they had been outsourced by U.S. movie companies, first to Japan and then to the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The sophisticated, and more lucrative, pre-production, finishing and marketing of the animated films, though, always remained in America. Indian animation companies took the business away from the other Asians by proving to be more adept at both the hand-drawing of characters and the digital painting of each frame by computer — at a lower price.
Indian artists had two advantages, explained Ashish Kulkarni, COO of JadooWorks. "They spoke English, so they could take instruction from the American directors easily, and they were comfortable doing coloring digitally." India has an abundance of traditional artists, who were able to make the transition easily to computerized digital painting. Most of these artists are the children of Hindu temple sculptors and painters.
Explained Kulkarni: "We train them to transform their traditional skills to animation in a digital format." But to keep up their traditional Indian painting skills, JadooWorks has a room set aside — because the two skills reinforce each other. In short, thanks to globalization, a whole new generation of Indian traditional artists can keep up their craft rather than drive taxis to earn a living.
But here's where the story really gets interesting. JadooWorks has decided to produce its own animated epic of the life of Krishna. To write the script, though, it wanted the best storyteller it could find and ended up outsourcing the project to an Emmy Award-winning U.S. animation writer, Jeffrey Scott — for an Indian epic!
"We are also doing all the voices with American actors in Los Angeles," says Kulkarni. "And the music is being written in London. JadooWorks also creates computer games for the global market but outsources all the design concepts to U.S. and British game designers. All the computers and animation software at JadooWorks have also been imported from America (HP and IBM) or Canada, and half the staff walk around in American-branded clothing."
"It's unfair that you want all your products marketed globally," argues Kulkarni, "but you don't want any jobs to go."
He's right. Which is why we must design the right public policies to keep America competitive in an increasingly networked world, where every company — Indian or American — will seek to assemble the best skills from around the globe. And we must cushion those Americans hurt by the outsourcing of their jobs. But let's not be stupid and just start throwing up protectionist walls, in reaction to what seems to be happening on the surface. Because beneath the surface, what's going around is also coming around. Even an Indian cartoon company isn't just taking American jobs, it's also making them.
New York Times News Service