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India Call Centers Scramble To Adapt To Working From Home

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

India is often called the world's back office. Its call centers handle tech support for companies around the world - everything from credit cards and airlines to U.S. police departments. So what happens when India goes into lockdown over the coronavirus? NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On Day 1 of India's coronavirus lockdown, Amar Sankrit realized he and his colleagues couldn't get to work. He handles customer service calls for U.S. and U.K. telecom companies at a call center outside New Delhi.

AMAR SANKRIT: On that day, the shift was cancelled. And we were just worried. We contacted our manager. We asked them what to do.

FRAYER: He didn't own a laptop, so he couldn't work from home. And he was worried about losing pay. He earns about $3,000 a year. India has about 4.5 million IT workers like him. The same day Sankrit was told to stay home, Nisha Biswal was in her office in Washington. She's the president of the U.S.-India Business Council.

NISHA BISWAL: When India announced its lockdown, my immediate thought was, you know, what will be the impact on the service economy in the United States and around the world?

FRAYER: India handles more than half of the world's IT outsourcing. And it's not just telecoms, credit cards or airlines, Biswal says.

BISWAL: X-Rays, radiology, diagnostic information is often being analyzed in India. And so our hospitals are very much linked to services in India.

FRAYER: Biswal says Americans' ability to literally survive COVID-19 relies, in part, on IT workers in India. Mukesh Aghi leads the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum. He sent an emergency request to the Indian government on behalf of U.S. companies to exempt call centers from lockdown and issue curfew passes for employees.

MUKESH AGHI: Obviously, our priority was first with essential services. The challenges - what we saw was - it was more from a ground-level local policemen.

FRAYER: Local policemen who stopped some IT workers on their commute, he says - Virgin Media, the telecom company, says its call centers in India were so disrupted, it's now urgently hiring in the U.K. Aghi says after a bumpy first week of lockdown, most Indian IT staff are now working and mostly from home. But even that has raised concerns, says cybersecurity expert Sagnik Chakraborty, because your credit card information or medical history is now being routed through millions of IT workers' home computers rather than through secure call centers.

SAGNIK CHAKRABORTY: Moving to a public network from a secure private network - there are four essential things. VPN - that is the virtual private network - encrypted disks, virtual remote desktops and disabling USB ports; how many employees actually have these tools at home?

FRAYER: Not many, he says - for Amar Sankrit, the call-center employee near Delhi - his company rented him a laptop and paid to install Wi-Fi in the cramped home he shares with his mother and sister.

SANKRIT: I have a small room. Keyboard and mouse I'm using on my bed. I'm working like that.

FRAYER: He says he misses having a proper desk and chair, but he's saving the four hours a day he used to spend commuting by bus. Instead, he's putting in overtime, helping companies around the world stay up and running.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF D NUMBERS' "XYLEM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.