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Software south steals job march over ‘sick’ states

Bangalore, Oct. 26 (Reuters): Milling crowds seek beer by the pitcher in noisy pubs on a Saturday night as fashionable Brigade Road comes alive in the technology city.

As young workers jostle amid the glitzy neon lights, their banter is not unusual, but their language is.

The buzz of Hindi in a southern city is only recent, revealing an economic shift.

“It has been just a month, and this is my first trip to south India,” says 23-year-old Manisha Goyal, squatting on the steps of a shopping mall as she takes in the joys of her first job, with software leader Infosys.

Job-seekers heading south reflect the rise of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala as new growth centres in a reforming Indian economy powered by knowledge-based industries such as software, pharmaceuticals and call centres.

The south’s rise is also seen in politics, where regional parties in federal coalitions have altered political fortunes in a nation dominated for decades by northern Hindi-speaking states.

Analysts say the south’s surge reflects the significance of higher education as India aims for growth to rival China.

India produces more than 200,000 software and computer engineers every year, compared with about 60,000 in China, which has a booming manufacturing and hardware sector but is a laggard in software and its IT sector lacks English skills.

The south has been aggressively wooing foreign investors since India launched economic reforms in 1991 and has built a sales pitch around colleges that mushroomed with privatisation.

“Southern states have branded themselves very well,” said Lalit Srivastava, a software manager from Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and traditional political powerhouse.

At 166 million, Uttar Pradesh’s population is more than twice that of Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, but it has only 1,150 university colleges compared with 1,300 in Andhra Pradesh and 1,400 in Karnataka. The result shows in growth statistics.

Some economists refer to the laggard Hindi states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh collectively as Bimaru, an acronym that puns on “bimar”, or sick.

Before the end of British rule in 1947, the tea and jute city of Calcutta was the job seeker’s paradise. Independence led to a shift to government jobs in capital Delhi and then to the financial centre of Bombay.

Now, pushed by low-cost, skilled English-speaking workers, the south is experiencing some growing pains.

“I like the climate and laid-back atmosphere here,” said 29-year-old Vishal Shrivastava, a northerner working as a software developer in Wipro.

“But the traffic is up. It was much quieter three years ago.”

Between 1994 and 2001, when reforms gathered pace, per capita incomes in the southern states grew at an annual average of between 4 and 6 per cent, while in the Hindi-speaking states they grew at between 2 and 5 per cent.

The literacy rate among southern states ranges from 61 per cent to 91 per cent, against a range of 47 per cent to 64 per cent in the north. But experts caution it still has problems.

The south depends heavily on a volatile monsoon for agriculture, making rural areas a drag on growth. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have seen scores of suicides by debt-ridden farmers whose plight contrasts with the booming, beaming techies.

The south accounts for the bulk of employment in the information technology and back-office sectors, which employ about 650,000 people, up 11 times since a decade ago. Back-office jobs grew about 50 per cent to cross 106,000 last year.

Biotechnology, a nascent sector, saw jobs almost doubling to 6,400 from 3,800 last year, and the future is considered bright.

Karnataka, which started a software revolution, is being fast matched by Andhra Pradesh, which is also home to a clutch of pharmaceutical firms including New York-listed Dr Reddy’s Laboratories.

Tamil Nadu, with domestic auto-makers such as TVS Motors, has successfully roped in Ford and Korean Hyundai to build car plants. It also houses back offices for financial leaders such as Citigroup.

Lush Kerala, a latecomer hit by Leftist trade unions, is rising on the strength of tourism and computer animation.

Vinod Vyasulu, director of independent think-tank, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, said several factors have promoted education, literacy and social welfare in the south.

These include benevolent maharajas before Independence, Christian churches that set up colleges and schools, trade unions that campaigned for the poor and regional parties that championed the emancipation of lower castes in the Hindu social hierarchy.

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