Indian outsourcers shore up their defenses

perspective The recent terror attacks in Mumbai are forcing Indian outsourcing companies to shore up their defenses more than ever.
Written by Saritha Rai, Contributor

perspective The horrific attacks on hotels, a train station, a bar café, an apartment block and a hospital in Mumbai at the end of November, streamed live on television accompanied by incessant commentary, rattled the world.

India's outsourcing companies are particularly flustered.

The country has been a target for terror attacks before, and the latest was the siege of the upscale Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi hotels in Mumbai, usual haunts of the high-level executives and customers of big firms.

It has become obvious after the ghastly attacks that in India the onus is on every corporate firm to be self-prepared, as the government is ill-equipped to act on their behalf. In leading outsourcing hubs like Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai, companies are gearing up to face this new reality.

Poorly paid, overworked policemen carrying what is locally called a lathi, a thin stick of bamboo, are unprepared to deal with this kind of threat.

Outsourcing firms are now dealing with security threats in their own way. The country's second largest outsourcing firm, Bangalore-headquartered Infosys Technologies, says it has enhanced security across the board. For obvious reasons, its director of human resources Mohandas Pai could not divulge the details when I spoke to him.

For many outsourcing companies in India, including Infosys, the security issue is particularly vexing. Large and even mid-sized companies have sprawling campuses, often abutting poor, crowded neighborhood sprawls. The tall, electrified fencing that guard some of these can be only limited deterrents.

Many outsourcing firms have been forced to operate as island countries, in the absence of public infrastructure in India. They run their own power generating units, transport systems and hotels. In Bangalore, a bunch of firms are even helping to build an elevated public expressway. The Mumbai attacks will spur many of these companies to build or upgrade their own security networks, too.

Government rules in this area are thorny. In Bangalore, for instance, private security agencies hired by outsourcing firms to guard their facilities are only allowed to handle outdated single-barrel or double-barrel guns. These would be poor defense against the sophisticated fire power demonstrated by the Mumbai attackers who were armed with automatic weapons, grenades and explosives.

"We have asked the government to allow certified private security agencies to carry more sophisticated arms and systems," Infosys's Pai told me. The government is studying this proposal, he said.

Going by the usual speed at which governments, both local and federal, work in this country, the approval could take years.

Still, firms are putting their contingency plans in action. Mumbai-based outsourcer Syntel, whose customers include American Express and State Street Bank, says it has set up a command center that will come alive in the event of an attack. The center will provide for continuous monitoring of the situation and co-ordinate the safety of its employees, facilities and client operations.

In addition Syntel has enhanced security surveillance of all facilities and installed a redundant network infrastructure that splits critical operations across multiple locations. Client data is backed up regularly and stored at offsite locations from where it can be quickly retrieved.

Many outsourcing companies will put similar emergency measures in place, if they do not have them already.

It's been a few weeks since the 11/26 terror episode and already the events are beginning to recede in the minds of some Indians and the rest of the world. But one thing is certain: corporate India, outsourcing firms included, cannot afford the luxury of a short memory.

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