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The software industry

According to the several software experts I met, the fact that the industry existed at all in the Calcutta region was a testimony to its robust prospects and the passionate interest in it on the part of the numerous budding experts. The state government levied a 12 per cent sales tax on hardware purchases in West Bengal, while the rate in Gujarat and Karnataka was 2 per cent. The region has long been haunted by a deficient and uncertain electrical power supply and unreliable communications services. Unlike many other competing regions within India, the state government has done little to counter this problem: it had not established a 'software technology park', i.e. a site with a guaranteed supply of infrastructural services which serves as a contact point for prospective customers.7

Also, as the eighth plan had pointed out, software expertise in the country would grow faster if the producers had steady orders from domestic customers on which to practice and build up their skills in innovation and the application of the technologies. There was a general complaint that, because decision makers in West Bengal in both the private and public sectors were totally unfamiliar with the potential of information technology, the few orders generated here were being dissipated by being channelled into inexpert hands.8 Whether this complaint was true or not, the several experts that were contacted were all working either on direct export contracts or on contracts from trans-India consortiums who were working for foreign firms.

Apart from personal discussions with several of these experts, I had a chance to examine the workings and the personnel of two of the local firms. The first was a family-based unit that had been built up by two brothers with the help of a third who was working as a systems analyst in the USA. The unit had been financed with family funds. It now employed six software experts including the owners and one woman who had a degree in computer science. The owners made a point of mentioning how well she had been working, in spite of the tremendous pressure of work and long hours. The second unit was larger and had been established by a senior professional who had worked for a large international banking concern for over twenty years. He had built up contacts in companies working in the Middle East and Europe. The unit had ten technical workers, one of whom was a woman with a two-year diploma in computer science from a university. Another woman had been trained only as a secretary to operate a personal computer, but had gradually picked up some programming skills.

Both firms were in dire need of more modern equipment in order to remain competitive. They were charging hourly rates which were less than one fourth those prevailing in the developed countries, but they were apprehensive that in the near future the bulk of their business, which consists of preparing simple programme packages to suit the needs of individual customers, might be lost, since better ready-made packages capable of adaptations for a broad range of customer requirements are now in the offing. With more modern equipment and greater expertise, they would be able to concentrate on systems analysis, for which the market was more assured. Again their complaint was that in the Calcutta region the financial institutions had little conception of the potential of the business and were very tardy in giving them additional financial support.

Gender-based differences

It was the general opinion that male software experts were much more adventurous. Many of them had no formal training in the field, but had picked up the skills by experimenting and working with knowledgeable friends. The field at the moment was so starved of skilled labour that if anybody showed any aptitude, other technicians were more than willing to teach them. Women who had come into the field, on the other hand, had almost always had formal training. Even so they were reluctant to experiment or innovate unless pushed. Once established however, they did very well.

In order to investigate these gender-based differences, I contacted two training institutes within Calcutta. One was a large all-India semi-government institute which gave intensive training courses as well as doing some software projects for units in the public sector. Here the management felt that their girl students had done extremely well. The institute had been retaining the best students from each class on its own staff, and had found that over the last four years, half of these had been women. Lately they had set up a team of nine experts for a major project to compile software for a large investment body. Five of these had been women. But they had noted that not many girls were being sent for training. Recently, the institute had sought candidates for a nine-month course in Hyderabad, for which each candidate was to get a stipend of Rs 1,000 per month in return for a bond to work for the institute for two years after the completion of the course. Unfortunately they had had no girl candidates from Calcutta.

The other training institute was the computer centre of the local university, which awarded a two-year diploma in computer science. So far five to seven of their annual intakes of twenty students had been girls.

I selected a random list of thirty male and female students from both of these institutes who had completed the course in the last three years. Each was sent a short questionnaire enquiring about their father's occupation, their family size, marital status, educational qualifications, work experience (past employment, locations, approximate salaries, promotions received, reasons for leaving, and reasons for gaps between jobs), methods used to find a new job, nature of present job, and their opinions about the job market for graduates from the course. Twenty-two replied, of whom seven were women. The results showed that all of the graduates were working in occupations related to computer applications. However there were marked gender-based differences both in the backgrounds and in the job experience of the trainees. Table 11.2 sums up the findings. The female respondents apparently came from relatively higher income professional or business families. They also had a better educational background: they had attended better colleges and got better degrees. However, in general their experience of the job market had been inferior: they earned lower salaries, on the average, and the majority were working as teachers in training institutes.

Since all the employers in this industry had asserted that trained women were as good as men, it is possible that the somewhat lower achievement profile of the women trainees was to some extent of their own volition. They might have preferred the training jobs because of their regular hours. Since they had generally come from more comfortable backgrounds, they could afford to indulge their preferences.

Training in the technology

In any case, women's entry into the industry was almost always contingent on their getting formal training, and there was a serious shortage of training facilities in India and particularly in the Calcutta region. Government or university sponsored coeducational institutions offering courses in computer science had 218 places for undergraduates and 101 for graduates. Private institutions offering training courses at all levels had mushroomed, but in 1992 when the Department of Electronics of the Government of India first conducted an all-India public examination for 'O' level accreditation for the students of those institutions, only thirty-seven out of the 1367 students passed all four of the required modules.9 The performance of eastern India was probably on a par with the rest of the country.

Table 11.2 Gender-based differences among successful trainees




Family background
High income



Medium income



Educational background
Very good









Present Job
Training institute



Private sector employer



Public sector employer



Own or family business



Present monthly salary
< Rs 2,500



2,501 to 3,500



3,501 end above



Another hurdle in getting training was the high fees for all of these courses. A six-month course in a semi-government institute used to cost Rs 15,000 per student: that fee has now gone up to Rs 18,000. Universities used to provide highly subsidized courses, but recently the Indian government has decided not to subsidize technical training. As a result the fees for the two-year postgraduate course at a university in Calcutta have gone up from Rs 5,000 to Rs 19,000. The teachers of these courses felt that the parents of girls who might have been willing to pay the previous fees would no longer be willing to pay the new rates since a girl's education is generally viewed less as an investment for her future career than as a general embellishment. And families which might have been willing to indulge the whims of their daughters to the extent of perhaps Rs 5,000 may not be willing to do so when the fees are tripled or quadrupled. If this is so, in coming years one would see even fewer girls going for the really serious but expensive training.


The few industries of Calcutta included in this brief review are still far too small to permit any generalizations about the future prospects of microelectronics in this region. Nor are there any reasons to believe that they were representative of what has been happening in the rest of the country in this field. Nonetheless they did highlight some of the interesting possibilities and problems awaiting India in the near future.

The television industry and the micromotor industry stood in sharp contrast to each other. The former, or at least its fastest-growing sector, was producing a modern product but its work organization and labour relations were particularly primitive. For those entrepreneurs, flexibility in production meant saving on overheads and putting the entire burden of adjustments to shifts in demand on to the workers. Whenever necessary, the latter could be laid off. retrenched or given partial employment, and they were paid piece rates. There was some understanding between the owners and the semi-skilled repairmen-cum-mechanics: but this was just a collusion to deceive the customers. There was little possibility that this understanding would blossom at some future date into the kind of flexible specialization described by Hirst and Zetlin (1991), where a cluster of independent small specialist firms form a loose arrangement in order to share economies of scale in functions such as collecting technical and market information, making bulk purchases of inputs or common marketing of outputs. The semi-skilled self-employed workers were themselves not capable of venturing into independent production. Nor were the dealer-entrepreneurs capable of, or interested in, participating in firmly-based, growth-oriented, long-term investment in the television industry.

In the micromotor firm, on the other hand, the producers had definitely wanted to take what Sengenburger and Pyke (as quoted by Lauridsen, 1991) have described as the 'high road' in labour/capital relations. Workers here were considered a valuable resource which had been carefully nurtured by the company. Its main plans for growth were based on the full and willing cooperation of a committed and polyvalent workforce. The entire firm and its operations had been closely modelled on the Japanese pattern of input control and labour involvement. However they too were finding it difficult to reproduce their model to increase the scale and vertical integration of their operations. In the rough and tumble of Calcutta's manufacturing world, too many of their essential prerequisites such as a disciplined labour force which could be easily trained in new skills, smooth-working channels for communications and input supplies or a reliable and knowledgeable network of ancillaries were in short supply. Absence of these vital aids was not only crippling this one firm but was also likely to inhibit future development of Indian industries in general on the cost-efficient lines posited by this Japanese model.


For the women workers, however, these industries generally offered prospects of a rewarding career. In the television industry this was because the units were small and informally organized: but in general it was because the technologies themselves offered opportunities for upgrading skills by experimentation, innovation and learning-by-doing. Those among the women who were committed to a long-term career could learn much more than their assigned tasks, and because there was little need for manual strength, they could feel confident that they were in no way inferior to their male colleagues. This feeling, along with their awareness that these technologies opened up a new, hitherto untapped, field has helped materially to alter the outlook of even poorly-educated, semi-urban women.

This outcome is of course quite contrary to what has been written about the soul-destroying and deskilling impact on women of working in electronics manufacturing elsewhere (Elson and Pearson, 1984). But perhaps this was to some extent due to some special characteristics of these women. Even the poorly-educated women in backyard television units were in several senses path-breakers. They were usually the first generation of literate or educated women in their households. They had to have the courage to defy social conventions about marriage and feminine roles. And they were genuinely fired by the need to build up a career for themselves. Working away from home had made them aware that jobs were hard to come by and that one must make the most of one's opportunities.

The importance of these attitudes becomes clear when one considers the case of the women in software manufacturing. Here, in spite of a very favourable job market, well-trained women were allowing themselves to be ghettoized into jobs with relatively poor prospects, apparently because their drive to build up a career had been dampened by their comfortable backgrounds. The tragedy for women was that the urge to have a career and the opportunities for proper training were often mismatched and are likely to remain so in the future.

Education and braining

This brings up the possibility that the microelectronics industry in Calcutta in particular, and generally in India, might be hamstrung by the extremely limited opportunities available for proper training in information technology, or even for more computer literacy.

There is now a wide-ranging debate about the links between economic growth and human resource development.10 Our present case studies and discussions with local technical experts suggest that, at least in the microelectronics field, the links are easily discernable. Here, the Calcutta tradition of younger workers learning skills by imitation does not seem to be adequate, because the technology itself is new to the region and there are few senior technicians who can fully demonstrate the skills to newcomers. Also, the technology's potential for flexibility between products and processes can be realized only if workers are made familiar with the basics of the technological principles and are allowed to experiment freely with the equipment. If this remains an expensive prerogative of a few, then the potentially rich markets in India and abroad for electronic equipment and software would be lost to a local industry producing inferior products.

In the current employment-hungry situation in India, where urban unemployment rates, particularly for women, go up steeply with each level of education (Banerjee, 1992), wasting the opportunities for growth and employment offered by microelectronics-based industries would be nothing short of criminal. However, for the kind of women who, in these case studies, were most keen on furthering careers in this field, the present training facilities are totally inaccessible. They can neither afford the high fees nor are they likely to have the educational qualifications required entry to the training courses. To overcome this, there is a need for radical rethinking on the training front, in terms of a revision of the existing curricula of the normal school system to include a basic introduction to the technology and to computers. But given the innate inertia of the education system and the general crisis of resources for social development in India, can one hope for quick changes of this order?


1 Electronics, Information and Planning, June 1992, Table 1: p. 469. In making these predictions, the IAMR had followed a macrodynamic approach taking note of the fact that the industry is known to have a strong multiplier effect on other sections of the economy, which in their turn will expand their demand for the industry's products.

2 Economic Times, 10 and 17 August 1991.

3 For example, in Hong Kong and Korea, women's shares in total employment in 1986/87 in the electrical machinery industry were 64 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively.

4 Dataquest, Nov. 1991: p. 104.

5 An ongoing study of Calcutta's informal economy conducted by myself and Professor Nripen Bandyopadhyay on behalf of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, has brought out various crucial activities being financed through these links between trade and credit.

6 Micromotors are used mainly in cassette decks in India. In developed countries, they are used in a wide range of products including electronic fittings for car windscreen wipers etc.

7 Dataquest, March 1992: p. 158.

8 Dataquest, February 1992: pp. 117-118.

9 Dataquest, February 1992: pp. 46-55.

10 For a comprehensive but inconclusive review, see Behrman, 1990.


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