By Prasun Sonwalkar
Belfast: Much concern is expressed in Britain about moving call centre jobs to India, but here in Northern Ireland the words ‘Indian call centre’ bring cheer—thanks to Indian IT major, HCL Technologies.
There is much carping in British newspapers about the quality of service provided by the Indian call centre staff, but experts in the field here are all praise for Indian entrepreneurship.
Thanks to globalisation and Indian enterprise crossing international borders, Northern Ireland has emerged as the latest destination in the West for investment by Indian companies.
HCL Technologies, an Indian software and information technology major, has set up a thriving call centre here that employs over 1,400 people, most of them locals.
Just as Indian state governments produce glossy brochures highlighting the investment of major Western companies in their states, local authorities here have produced slick promotional material to highlight HCL’s decision to invest in Northern Ireland.
Gushes a brochure produced by ‘Invest Northern Ireland’, a government agency, on HCL: “While growing numbers of UK- and US-based companies are relocating their customer, India, ironically it is an Indian company that is bucking the trend by helping to keep contact centre jobs in the UK.”
One of the key quotes cited in literature promoting Northern Ireland as an investment destination is that of Ranjit Narasimhan, chief operating officer of HCL Technologies BPO Services.
He is often quoted in slick powerpoint presentations by officials and in promotional literature as saying: “Independently-conducted research has established that Northern Ireland’s people, infrastructure and cost base make it the best place in the UK—if not in Europe—to set up a customer contact centre.”
Since acquiring a 90 per cent stake in BT’s customer contact centre on Apollo Road here in 2001, HCL has now emerged as the largest outsourcing operation in Northern Ireland as well as in rest of Ireland.
Paul Duddy, HCL’s senior human resources manager, said: “We are among the top ten employers in Belfast. One million pounds have been invested so far in the last one year, mainly on infrastructure.”
He disclosed that HCL is now looking for a second location in Northern Ireland as part of its continuing investment and expansion plans.
India and N. Ireland peace march
For years, Northern Ireland has been a synonym for guns and gore. Now the region is turning the corner towards peace and progress—and India is playing an important role in this.
India and Northern Ireland are thousands of miles apart, but for some time now new synergies are being discovered and forged at various levels between the two in IT, tourism, trade, universities, pharmaceuticals, and even Ayurveda.
‘Invest Northern Ireland’, a government agency, has recently launched an ‘Opportunity India Initiative’ to catalyse trade and industry links.
Perceptions are fast changing in Northern Ireland where both sides of the political and religious divide—loyalists and republicans —are developing a vested interest in peace and progress.
Northern Ireland is fast becoming a case of economics prevailing over politics, with several forces—public and private sectors, universities—joining hands to promote it as an investment destination.
An 18-member strong Northern Ireland delegation led by Barry Gardiner, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, has returned from an extensive and ‘highly encouraging’ visit to India.
The delegation included Lord Diljit Rana, a major trade and industry figure here and who is also India’s honorary Consul General in Northern Ireland.
A prime example of India’s presence is HCL Technologies opening a BPO centre here.
The company, one of India’s leading software development and services companies, employs 1,400 people and has close interaction with its centres in Noida and Bangalore in India.
Both universities based in Ireland—Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Ulster—are in the process of forging research and staff-student exchange linkages with leading Indian institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Amity College.
The universities are among the best in Britain for research in areas such as biochemistry and nanotechnology. Mutually beneficial linkages are being made with Indian counterparts. Senior academics mention the potential to share their knowledge while inviting Indian chemists to meet local shortfalls.
Several Northern Ireland companies have developed business relationships in India. These include the clinical diagnosis major Randox Laboratories, urban housing construction company Mivan, IT companies named Singularity and Finisco.
As Northern Ireland goes through a transition from traditional economy to a knowledge-based economy, official figures show that its exports to India rose to 24 million pounds in the last financial year.
“There is a range of opportunities to develop the Northern Ireland-India relationship, particularly after our trade delegation’s recent visit to India and presentations to FICCI and CII,” said Tracy Meharg, the managing director of ‘Invest Northern Ireland’.
Unlike the edginess that was evident during this correspondent’s visit here in 1995, there is a quiet confidence in the City Centre here, which revels in the fact that Belfast has one of the highest disposable incomes in Britain.
Latest figures by global security monitors show that Northern Ireland has a lower crime rate than Britain, the US, Poland and Portugal.
‘Tourism Ireland’, an organisation dedicated to promoting tourism in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, has also drawn up plans to increase tourism from India.
Indian academics stand out
Academics of Indian origin in the two local universities here are making a significant contribution to intensifying the relationship between India and Northern Ireland.
The University of Ulster and the Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB) are among the top British universities with major strengths in research. Both universities have offices in India. Among the leading researchers in the universities are academics of Indian origin who are also part of the ‘Opportunity India Initiative’ launched by Northern Ireland officials to invite Indian investment and intensify trade and business links.
An 18-member trade delegation that visited India between October 30 and November 6 included senior academics, notably academics of Indian origin. The delegation, led by Barry Gardiner, minister for enterprise, trade and investment, explored business and academic exchanges with Indian partners.
Professor Ken Brown, pro-vice-chancellor of QUB, was a member of the delegation. He said that the university was keen to recruit academic staff of Indian origin.
He said the university was keen on staff and student exchange with Indian academic institutions, particularly in the areas in which the QUB is known for research, such as nanotechnology, cancer research and engineering subjects.
Another delegation member was Poonam Singh (Nigam), senior lecturer and course director of Biotechnology and Food Biotechnology at the University of Ulster. Hailing from Kanpur, India, she did her entire education from Indian institutions.
U.P. Singh is a reader and senior member of the School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, University of Ulster. He has been with the university for over a decade and hails from Patna, Bihar.
Professor Richard Barnett, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, said the university had close links with Indian institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, Amity College and the Somaya Trust (Mumbai).
Barnett said his university was keen to encourage British and European students to spend part of their course time in Indian institutions.
“Most student exchanges here involve going to other European institutions. But we want to encourage students to go to India because India is an easy country to live and study. The wide use of English language in India is also an attraction for such exchanges,” he said.
(The writer is a UK-based journalist and can be contacted on [email protected])