SIMAYAL, India (AP) — They come together each morning from the sloping forests. Some walk for more than an hour along muddy footpaths past terraced farms stacked like soft green steps. Some race their new motorbikes down narrow, cracked roads cut into the hillsides.
The team of young men and women wear ID cards on lanyards around their necks and have that rarest of commodities in rural India, a company job.
They work mainly in data processing for a 3-year-old business called B2R that is using the spread of the Internet to transport India's outsourcing boom from metropolitan Bangalore and the suburbs of New Delhi to this speck of a farming village in the Himalayan foothills.
Before B2R arrived, Simayal was being drained of its bright young men as they left for cities to search for work. Its women had little option but to wed right out of school. Nearly everyone's survival was tied to the whim of the rains and prayers for a strong harvest.
Now, men are staying. Some who left have returned. Many women have put off marriage to work and are helping to support their families. Other new businesses are opening up.
The 50 new jobs B2R created brought a "glimmer of hope" to the 110 families in this cluster of farming hamlets barely touched by India's economic transformation over the past two decades, said V.K. Madhavan, who has spent the past eight years running Chirag, a local development organization.
Deepa Nayal's two sons persuaded the 47-year-old widow to retire from her 1,890 rupee ($38) a month teaching job after they got hired. Mohan Singh Bisht, 20, helped his family build a six-room house. Khasti Fartiyal, 22, started paying for one of her sisters to go to college and bought an essential, expensive piece of gold jewelry for another sister's wedding. Many bought refrigerators, new clothes and motorbikes. Many are proud just to help buy food.
"There's a buzz around the place that didn't exist before," Madhavan said.
The B2R staff in Simayal work above an old flour mill in a maze of rooms that had been intended as cramped housing for poor families. In the narrow, long central office, staffers sitting at small computer desks lining the walls work on a project for a legal publisher turning scans of court cases into searchable databases. In another room, women take calls on behalf of a family planning group. In another, staffers collect sales data for cellphone companies. The kitchen has been turned into the server room.
Outside, a steady procession of women looking aged beyond their years and dressed in threadbare clothes walk by carrying on their heads immense stacks of firewood and animal fodder they collected during hours of foraging in the forest. Their husbands and fathers tend to the apple and pear orchards.
B2R and a handful of similar firms are trying to offer an alternative road map for Indian economic growth. With nearly 70 percent of the population — 833 million people — living in rural areas and its cities already overburdened, there is a limit to how quickly the nation can urbanize.
In the meantime, rural youth need jobs and poor infrastructure makes it difficult for manufacturers to deliver them. But with an Internet connection, outsourcing companies can work anywhere.
"You get work over the Internet, you work it over the Internet, you send it back over the Internet," said Dhiraj Dolwani, CEO of B2R. "It's a window to the world."
Less than 5 percent of rural Indians have ever used the Internet and many have never even heard of it, according to a recent study by the IMRB market research firm. Half the staff in B2R's office here said they had never seen a computer before this job.
The government is trying to change that, spending $6.5 billion to lay fiber optic cable to each of the country's 250,000 towns. India's innovation czar, Sam Pitroda, says it will open up a flood of rural development. It can bring telemedicine to villages without doctors, better teaching tools to remote schools and jobs in banking, insurance and other information fields to towns currently dependent on agriculture.
The rural outsourcers are the pioneers. With just over 5,000 jobs, they make up a tiny fraction of India's $16.9 billion outsourcing industry, but trade group Nasscom estimates they will account for 84,000 jobs in five years.
Rural Shores, one of the bigger companies, employs 1,300 employees in 12 centers across eight states. By 2020, CEO Murali Vullaganti dreams of employing 200 people in each of the nation's 500 rural districts.
"It may take a little longer, but that is our goal: 100,000 rural youth," he said.
B2R's Dolwani said he is doing nothing more than pushing forward the entire premise of the outsourcing industry: Moving the work to where it can be done cheapest.
Growing disillusioned with his former life as an executive at urban outsourcing firms, Dolwani and a partner toyed with starting their own company in the hills of the northern state of Uttarakhand, where they had routinely vacationed to escape the city.
There was a ready supply of educated, frustrated youth, but could they do proofreading and data entry? Dolwani passed around a book of short stories by American teenage girls and gave an impromptu comprehension quiz to local youths, whose mother tongue is Kumaoni, second language is Hindi and who began studying English in the sixth grade. They had potential, he said.
B2R rented the only building of any real size in town and Dolwani began what he assumed would be the long, costly process of connecting to a faraway Internet line.
The fiber optic cable, they were told, was running right under their office, laid during an earlier program to spread Internet access, but never turned on, Dolwani said.