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Computers and Magical Thinking: Work and Belonging in Bangalore

Over the past 20 years as a result of international legislation and mobilisations by disability activists and concerned parents, the Indian State has invested some resources into disabilityrelated programming, institutions, and infrastructure. In addition, international non-governmental organisations have come to play a prominent role in the provision of disability services. This article examines the current terrain of disability advocacy, services, and politics in Bangalore as they converge in the realm of corporate social responsibility as manifested in the active recruitment of people with disabilities to work mostly in the business process outsourcing/ call centre sector. Are people with disabilities being turned into new corporate citizens, productive state citizens, or something else entirely?


Computers and Magical Thinking: Work and Belonging in Bangalore

Michele Friedner

Over the past 20 years as a result of international legislation and mobilisations by disability activists and concerned parents, the Indian State has invested some resources into disabilityrelated programming, institutions, and infrastructure. In addition, international non-governmental organisations have come to play a prominent role in the provision of disability services. This article examines the current terrain of disability advocacy, services, and politics in Bangalore as they converge in the realm of corporate social responsibility as manifested in the active recruitment of people with disabilities to work mostly in the business process outsourcing/ call centre sector. Are people with disabilities being turned into new corporate citizens, productive state citizens, or something else entirely?

Michele Friedner would like to thank the particular NGO and BPO offices mentioned in this commentary for being so willing to include a researcher in their midst. In addition, many thanks go to the job “seekers” who so willingly conversed with her while she waited.

Michele Friedner ( is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley – University of California at San Francisco, Medical Anthropology.

n the summer of 2007, I attended a recruitment event targeting people with disabilities held by a prominent business process outsourcing (BPO) corporation in Bangalore. The recruitment was hosted by one of Bangalore’s largest and oldest disability-focused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which I will call Disabled Peoples’ Association (DPA).1 In this commentary, I intend to utilise my experiences as a participant observer at this recruitment session, and within DPA’s vocational training centre more broadly, to think about questions of future making, horizons of hope, and the politics of waiting. In exploring the politics of waiting, I want to note that I see waiting and p atience as competing (although occasionally complimentary) analytics; while A ppadurai (2001) writes about what he terms “the politics of patience” that coalitions of slum-dwellers use to obtain better living conditions, I am interested in what this stress on (the virtues of) “patience” obfuscates and masks. To make a rather banal statement, there are no “patience rooms” in railway stations yet there are waiting rooms where people…wait, sometimes patiently and sometimes not – and so it seems to me that patience and waiting do not always go hand in hand.2

I am especially interested in thinking about what recruitment sessions like the one that I am about to discuss, and the growth of the information technology (IT) sector in Bangalore more generally, mean for thinking about the experiences of people with disabilities in this current moment in Bangalore – a conjuncture created by the articulation of international NGOs, residues of past missionary involvement in the disability sector, corporate social responsibility, and a state that exerts itself in innovative ways. What also permeates this current moment is a narrative of India Shining, of an exceptional India, and of progress.3 According to this narrative there now exist new conditions of relationality between India and the west which is characterised by increased Indian progress. According to Reinhart Koselleck, as discussed by Daniel Mains (2007), progress appears at points in history when the relationship between experience and expectations shifts. Expectations for the future are generally based on what one has experienced in the past, but with the development of a belief in the inevitability of progress, this changes, and one begins to believe, to expect, that future bodes better than the past (Mains 2007, 665). And so progress entails a break with both the present and the past, it entails a state of becoming, of novelty, and of possibility.

The ‘Waiting Room’

However, influenced by both subaltern studies works which locate India, and the non-west more generally in the “waiting room” of history (Chakrabarty 2000, Gupta 1998), and post-development critiques which look at the discursive production of post-colonial subjects who define themselves as undeveloped and therefore establish a relationship with the developed through this learned interiorised and inferiorised state of un/under development (Gupta 1998, Escobar 1995), I want to argue that despite the current discourse of Indian exceptionalism, the experiences of people with disabilities in India are still very much located in “the not yet” through which the future is mapped against a western present. Hopes for the future are tied up with having similar levels of access and possibilities that people with disabilities in the west have. Here I want to note that I am not referring to what Kim (2009) terms the (sometimes strategic) creation of disability heavens and hells by internationalist organisations and activists in order to justify programmes and interventions. Rather, I am talking about entanglements of hope and gratitude in relation to futures. I say entanglements of hope and gratitude because I want to take seriously what I am often told by the people that I work with in my daily research who express gratitude towards the NGOs, training centres, and corporations that they receive training from and work for, and who simultaneously

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hope to have the same level of access and opportunities that people with disabilities in the west have (or that they imagine that their western counterparts have).4

But here I want to shift focus and return to a concrete waiting room of sorts, to the large classroom where over 75 mostly young adults with physical disabilities from both metropolitan Bangalore and the surrounding areas gathered and patiently yet tensely waited for recruiters from a BPO corporation which I will call “Extreme” to arrive. Many of the young adults were students in DPA’s computer training programme and they had just finished a short course in which they learned “soft skills”5 designed to boost their confidence, improve their personalities, and improve their English abilities – all in the course of three months! While waiting, I spent some time mingling with the prospective employees. None of them seemed to know very much about Extreme, just that it was a BPO/call centre operation, and most of them had heard about the recruitment through NGOs and training centres. Extreme, like other BPOs/call centres, had a massive demand for workers and was holding recruitments almost daily, but this was the first recruitment specifically targeting people with disabilities.

I talked to one young female candidate who told me that she was currently working in an office where she was doing Auto-Cad work and that there was no advancement within her current place of employment although she said that she enjoyed doing the work. I also met a male candidate who used to work for Shell Oil as an attendant but who became tired of the fumes that he was constantly inhaling. The only positive comment about call centre work came from a young woman who a ttended DPA’s computer training programmes and she said that she was looking forward to working at Extreme as she wanted the opportunity to meet new people.

Finally after about an hour of sitting in the too hot classroom, the Extreme recruiters arrived. One of the recruiters, Sharad, spoke in rapid fire English about the recruitment process and then said that candidates had to live within 25 km of the call centre facility and that they would be expected to work possibly from 7 am to 11 pm although women would not be e xpected to work this late and there would be a van to do pick ups and drop offs if employees worked the evening or early morning shifts. The salary was to be Rs 6,000 a month with deductions for provident funds and other benefits. Candidates, when asked if they understood, replied “yes sir” in unison. Then they laboriously started to fill out applications, raising their hands to ask questions such as “what does last drawn salary mean?”. After this was lunch, provided by DPA for everyone, and then the interviews started. The interview questions were designed to test English competency and they were: (a) what is your most memorable moment, (b) what would you do with Rs 1 crore, and (c) what was the last movie you saw? Candidates were taken in batches out into the hall and were interviewed one by one in another room by one of the recruiters. It was a slow and painstaking process, made all the more painful by the steady stream of rejections; as candidates left their interviews, they said “communication problem” or “English problem” to the onlookers who were either finished, with problems of their own, or anxiously waiting for their own turn.

I now want to shift gears a bit and talk about my interactions with two people in particular, Roopa and Anil. Roopa and Anil were sitting near each other in the waiting room and as the hours went by, we chatted to pass time, and I suspected that they were also interested in practising their English; and so the three questions became a springboard for a broader conversation.

Roopa was 22 and she lived in a lower class area of Bangalore. Prior to learning computer skills and English, she worked in a large government factory making shoes although I do not know what happened to this position. Her English was quite good and Anil and I tried to boost her confidence and give her positive feedback. Anil was older, in his late 30s perhaps, from a rural area, and he formerly worked in horticulture before a motor cycle accident resulted in his leg being amputated. He spoke at length about greenhouses and the exporting of flowers and seeds and their costs and profit yields. He told me that he was interested in procuring call centre employment for a few years so that he could support his wife and three children and then go back to horticulture. He had his Educare certificate with him in a plastic bag and this certificate showed that he had satisfactorily completed a call centre/ computer training which was subsidised by the government; there were a few other people from his programme present as well. And so I waited with Roopa and Anil

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until after 7:00 pm, until the light in the one interviewing room became dim, and interviews were relocated to another room. Finally they were called in and at that point I wished them luck and said goodbye… and then the next day I learned that Roopa had been one of the lucky few to be chosen while Anil had not been. I had unfortunately suspected this as his English was awkward and broken and he was no match for the perky young recruiters d emanding to know about his favourite movie and his hopes and dreams.

As an aside, throughout the day I was able to look at the recruitment forms and I saw that on the forms, candidates were ranked by interviewers as either trainable or untrainable as it is really trainability that Extreme is looking for, and skills such as typing speed are considered trainable skills. Successful candidates are enrolled in an intensive typing course in order to learn to type at the minimum speed and they are also coached in yet another round of personality development. And so we see that these candidates are still in “the not yet” – they have still not become the new round of BPO/call centre employees. This was one of the first batches of disabled r ecruits that Extreme accepted and it will be interesting to see how long they remain at Extreme, if they advance within the corporation, and what kinds of corporate citizens they become, if they become.

Technology Politics

Let me now return to the ambivalence that I felt, and still feel, in both the abstract and concrete waiting rooms. It is possible that I am misreading nervousness as ambivalence and that those that I spoke to did not want to profess nervousness to me. Still, it seemed to me that the potential employees in that room did not know anything about Extreme or about working at a BPO/call centre facility. Rather, they seemed quite resigned, resigned to go through this recruitment process, and resigned to finding a job – a direct counter experience to the claims of magical possibility that the IT sector makes on the public imagination. Here let me now say something about what I mean by magical possibility. There is currently a proliferation of computer training programmes designed to inject marginalised or disadvantaged Indians into a specific kind of modernity. This is perhaps an interesting manifestation of Nandy’s (1988) work on the rise of technology in India in which he explores the ways that technology is a form of politics and how it has become a means of exercising state control.

While Nandy writes in particular about the Indian middle classes’ love for spectacular science and dramatic technology and its embrace of all things technological and scientific, it is interesting to think about how this current moment of information kiosks being installed in remote villages and disabled IT workers also smacks of a certain kind of spectacular technology. I argue that there are certain kinds of nation, state, and subject making projects inherent within these new technological ventures, both visible and invisible. Broadly, the Indian nation state comes to appear modern to the world in both its technological innovations and its employment provisions for people with disabilities, and people with disabilities are turned into almost middle class productive subjects. And here I want to move away from technology as spectacle and r emember, as Xiang (2006) reminds us, that we need to look at how the seemingly abstract IT sector is actually made up of concrete social relations. He specifically exhorts us to look at the underclass that makes the IT sector possible through its concrete labour practices and while he does not mention employees with disabilities I would argue that they are part of this invisible underclass, albeit one often made strategically visible and spectacularly i mpres sive by corporate social responsibility efforts. Their status as the underclass, however, is rendered invisible through the effects and affects of spectacular technology and public relations spin.

The Disabilities Act and the Corporate Sector

As the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act only applies to the public sector, people with disabilities are employed often under corporate social responsibility initiatives and such employment is often highlighted by corporates and companies during p ublicity campaigns. In addition, NGOs working on the employment and placement of people with disabilities appeal to corporate social responsibility logic in order to place prospective employees. Instead of rights language, such NGOs stress that hiring people with disabilities increases diversity, improves public opinion of the corporation, and makes for good business sense as such employees become potential consumers. In addition, NGOs highlight the loyalty of workers with disabilities and argue that such workers have a much lower attrition rate than nondisabled workers. I recently conducted r esearch at one data entry and processing corporation in Bangalore that employs only people with disabilities. Its founder and chief operating officer told me that it was impossible to retain “normal” employees as they constantly left, presumably for higher paying positions, yet disabled workers did not leave and so she decided to recruit only disabled workers. When walking outside the company’s offices, I saw a banner that advertised vacancies and on the banner it was prominently written: “Only physically handicapped need apply”. Ironically, despite paying below minimum wages, this corporate has received a leading disability and employment award in India and it prominently features its employment of people with disabilities on its web site and deploys it as a unique selling point (USP).

I return to Anil and his pre-accident horticulture business. While I do not want to romanticise the flowers and seeds that he previously worked with, and while I do not actually know how successful his business was, I am interested in seeing his past work experiences, and his desire to return to these experiences, as a form of haunting, as the past lurking in the present in the future, as a different kind of “not yet”. I am not calling for an alternative modernity as I take seriously Michael Watt’s

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(2003) comments about the great clanking gears of capital and how we cannot see anything as lying outside of capital, but rather I am interested in perhaps disturbing the ways that claims of likeness and horizons of hope and gratitude are folded into a neat teleological t rajectory. In thinking about the “not yet”, I therefore find myself asking “not what?”.How can we move beyond both the a bstract and concrete waiting rooms? Here I am reminded of Jim Ferguson’s work in which he e xamines the relationship between “Africa” and “the West” in which African elites mimic American e lites and African children through tragic letters make demands upon the west. As Ferguson (2006, 17) writes:

Claims of likeness, in this context, constitute not a copying, but a shadowing, even a haunting – a declaration of comparability, an aspiration to membership and inclusion in the world, and sometimes also an assertion of responsibility”.

And so maybe Ferguson’s work points us to some uneasy answers and further questions – how do the experiences of the disabled potential call centre employees that I have just briefly discussed disrupt our understandings of already known futures and of teleological narratives? How do they push us to envision different forms of relationality, perhaps, through Ferguson’s work on haunting, in both our every day practices and our hopes and dreams for the future? I argue that, in fact, these stories urge us to think of different ways of conceptualising and understanding the “not yet” and that they also speak back to the current dominant discourses of India Shining and technology as salvation. I contend that the experiences of people with disabilities, and disabled employees more specifically, present us with important other narratives.


1 All names of organisations, corporations, and individuals have been changed to protect and respect anonymity.

2 Thank you to Ralph Nicholas and Lisa Bjorkman for their engagement on/with the tension bet ween waiting and patience at the 2009 American Institute of Indian Studies Junior Fellows C onference.

3 This is not to say that I see the experiences of p eople with disabilities as speaking back to, or tarnishing, this narrative but rather that I see these experiences as offering another narrative, simultaneously shiny and seedy.

4 While conducting my fieldwork I often encounter a strong imaginary of America, or the west more generally, as disability paradise, while India is disability purgatory or hell. While I want to take these perceptions seriously, I also want to ask how and why these

imaginaries are produced and for what purposes?

5 Soft skills are generally considered to be personality development while hard skills refers to the actual computer or call centre training.


Appadurai, Arjun (2001): “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics”, Environment & Urbanization, 13(2):23-44.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000): Provincializing Europe: Post Colonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Escobar, Arturo (1995): Encountering Development: The Making and the Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Ferguson, James (2006): Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham and London: Duke University Press).

Gupta, Akhil (1998): Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India (Durham: Duke University Press).

Kim, Eunjung (2009): “‘Heaven and Hell’: Disability in Other Worlds and Human Rights Imagery” (unpublished paper).

Mains, Daniel (2007): “Neo-liberal Times: Progress, Boredom and Shame among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia”, American Ethnologist, 34(4): 659-673.

Nandy, Ashis (1988): “Science as a Reason of State” in Nandy, Ashis (ed.), Science, Hegemony and V iolence (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Visvanathan, Shiv (1988): “On the Annals of the Laboratory State” in Nandy, Ashis (ed.), Science, Hegemony, and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watts, Michael (2003): “Development and Governmentality”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 24(1):6-34.

Xiang, Biao (2006): Global “Body Shopping”: An Indian Labour System in the Information Technology Industry (In-formation) (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

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