The Agashe-Millard Disease
Ramesh had just worked a double shift and was exhausted. It was 5:30 in the morning, and all he could think about was his sales figures which were at a lame 133. He had to get to 225 to meet his deadline. 92 more needed in eight days. Else, he will have to forget his bonus.
“Hello, I am Ramesh from MRTC finances, am I talking to John Smith?” If it goes well then it can be life insurance, car insurance or health insurance depending on how it all clicks with Mr. Smith. Or, if it is not going anywhere then his next salvo, “How about you try our premium discounted package at 4.58%. After all, it is not about money, we care for you.” Care! isn’t it bluntly put sarcasm? About 12000 km from New Delhi to some town in Texas, Florida, California, Iowa or Louisiana, and Ramesh Kumar cares for John Smith. Globalization is probably the greatest farce ever and people just love it. The irony when technology got more affordable than employing a human being in the western half of the globe. When did it start? probably the fall of the Soviet Union, rather the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Ramesh sat down on his bed and felt his eyes burn. ‘Wake me at 10:30 and we can have tea together’ – a hurried WhatsApp message to his wife who was sleeping next to him.
The world had changed over the years. Sleep during the day and work at night. When it was noontime at Michigan, it would be past midnight at New Delhi. “When is the best time to sell insurance?” Ramesh had absorbed-in the answer from his training like a trigger happy Pavlovian edifice – “When the customer is calm and happy.” “When it doesn’t connect, talk about their pets, talk about their kids, talk about their pastimes” was another talisman given by his trainer. He had mastered various accents such as the Texan, the North-Western, the East-Coast, and the New York accents. Ramesh often got reduced to Ram, Kumaramangalam was Krish, Yoginder was Yogi (the American customer would gladly mistake him with Yogi bear), Mashroof was Mac, etc. Americans will never be able to get your Indian names. A score of 87% after two grueling months of language and culture training made sure he is American-enough for sales pitches over the phone. A wishing for Christmas and Thanksgiving added to the warmth and empathy. Once in a blue moon, there would be a customer who will ask, ‘What is M, what is R and the T and the C?’ – McMillan Rosalyn and Tait Conglomerate. Once in six months, some idiot may even inquire, ‘Who are McMillan, Rosalyn, and Tait?’ – that is like asking who was Hewlett and who was Packard? Ramesh tried to be eloquent in his response, “McMillan, Rosalyn, and Tait were visionaries who lived long enough to see their dream realized. If you also have a dream, it is worthwhile to get health insurance – and live long and fulfill your dreams.” His thoughts lost their meaning as his eyelids shut and soon he was snoring.
He felt a palm on his shoulder, “Do you wish to wake up? it is about 11:00 AM?”
He turned around, looked up and smiled at his wife.
“How many? Did you get enough?” she asked.
“How about our Christmas package? It is at a premium.” Ramesh replied.
His wife laughed.
“Get up, we have tea and cheese rolls for breakfast”
Dr. Ram Kumar Agashe stood up, added a courteous smile, thanked his host and started his presentation. He looked up at the first slide which had the name for his presentation, ‘Identity Disorder and Mind Sclerosis in the Call Centre Industry in India’and then spoke.
“The audience has people from the industry, some from the Department of Health and many aspiring young men and women in the medical profession. I will try not to make it a boring presentation with medical jargon which oftentimes I too lose track of, but rather as a personal experience and how I came to understand his plague of the call centre industry.”
He clicked his first few slides and accompanies it with his commentary, “Call centres are the love child of new age globalization and modern telecom & internet technologies. It has contributed to the tremendous growth of the IT & Software sector in India and continues to do so. Legacy of the British Raj – English is very nearly our first language and most of our college graduates can speak at least bits of pieces of it. This provides for the cheap labor needed for this industry. The earnings are not bad, though the working hours are weird and attrition rates high. For every hundred people joining the industry, about 42 leave the job after two years, and as many as 77 after five.”
He clicks on the next few slides with the statistics on the big players in this industry.
“It was about twenty months ago that I met Barun Mukherjee and his wife. At that time he was twenty-eight years old and working in one of the call centres at Salt Lake, Kolkata. He was placed in a UK process to support the after-sales service of desktops and laptops. His wife told me that for about the last four days his behavior had been odd. Anything that you ask him, and he will reply with some computer jargon or product details. His metabolic processes were near normal. In my tests, I found that he had marginally high blood sugar and otherwise things were fine. His wife reported and then I also observed that his eyes blinked more than normal and they were dilated to some other direction than towards the person he is talking to. Trivial chatter such as, “Hello Barun” would meet with a reply such as, “Use the D-34A Hub and then connect the USB to it.” ”
The next slide showed a picture of Barun Mukherjee and his wife.
“His CT-scan revealed that his brain activity is stunted. While his motor function seemed to be fine, he appeared as a near zombie. In medicine, we try to avoid using childish terms as a zombie but that is probably the best way to express his state. As a direct consequence, he had to give up his job and his wife took to teaching at a school to support the family.”
The next slide gave the case history of Barun Mukherjee.
“Identity issues are quite common in the call centre industry. As an example, I know of a certain Prabir Bose from Kolkata who works for a UK mobile phone process often confuses himself as Paul Babcock and is not able to get rid of his telecaller avatar. The Manchester accent blatantly continues from his office at Salt Lake down to Esplanade and to Babu Ghat at the banks of the Ganges until people around him giggle for being ‘just-too-British’. He will confuse Indian Rupee for the British Pound, refer to Hindustan Times as London Herald. This is not really new. It also happens in other professions, with actors in theaters and movies. Wherever you have to do something which is not natural to you, there is a contention for identity issues. You would have seen cricketers shadow playing their favorite stroke and soccer players shadow playing their patented kick. That can be related to identity issues, in a toned-down form. The mind is so much focused, and despite the change of the environment it attempts to regress back to the earlier state in the earlier environment.”
Takes a pause for a gulp of water.
“I thought that Barun Mukherjee is an isolated case but I was wrong. In four weeks, one of my colleagues from New Delhi reported on one of his out-patients – Ramesh Kumar who worked for a call centre for a US insurance company. Suddenly one morning Ramesh could speak of nothing other than his sales pitch script and details of the insurance plans he was selling.”
“As a doctor, I was probing it for anxiety, job-related stress, hysteria and even Munchausen’s. Since the job profile completely opposes the circadian cycle of the body, anxiety is an add-on in this profession. How long can you keep talking with head-sets while you stare into a computer screen? Maybe eight hours. It will take its toll.”
“Does the call centre industry address this? It is a genuine health issue.”
— Manohar Purohit (Human Rights activist from Mumbai on News-Tele India)
“Mala, don’t try for an opening in telecalling. Try some other job. Sales, or maybe software testing. I don’t want you to become a zombie.”
— Suresh Mandke (Mala’s elder brother)
“AmeyFina, a Norway based finance company has health insurance for all call centre related mental ailments. $4000 if you go crazy. What worth is that money if it cannot be cured?”
— Amrendra Sharma (24 years old Science graduate from New Delhi in a vox-populi for an Indian magazine)
“This has been a disaster. And, it is not just India. The syndrome has been found in the Philippines and Malaysia. It may have something to do with 6G phone lines. I am not a scientist, I really cannot speak on the technical aspects.”
— Dr. Piyush Negi (Spokesperson for Dept. of Health and Medicine, Govt. of India on a YTube video)
“Mind Sclerosis. Did he say Mind Sclerosis? That is scary.”
— Dr. Steven Chapman (Professor of Urban Health at Wilson Medical School & Hospital, Willberry)
“This is the Mad Cow disease of the call centre industry. We will have to shut it down.”
— Jitin Karmakar (CEO, IT division (India) of UB&F Bank in conversation with Indian News 3)
“Ramesh Kumar? Oh yes, he used to work here. He was not performing very well and then anxiety cracked him up. Hope he recovers soon”
— Manoj Lal (Telecaller at Keen IT services, New Delhi and Ramesh Kumar’s colleague)
“Serves them well – they stole our jobs.”
— Allison McDougall (Fruitseller at Sunday Market, King’s Crossing, Milford)
“This sort of a job fucks up the Circadian cycles. The metabolic processes of the body are to go silly. Of course, the general immunity of the body goes down.”
— (Senior doctor at All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) who did not wish to be named)
“The Telecaller … Condition … Syndrome! What are they calling it?”
— Margaret Boyde (Junior health commissioner at UN, on Australia24-7 TV)
“22 cases in North India, 12 in the Philippines and 13 in Kolkata.”
— Sunil Rawat (Reporting for NDV Channel at YTube)
“This has its unique characteristics, and earmarked to the call centre industry”
— Dr. Zakir Ahmed (Head of ENT Department, RML Hospital, New Delhi)
“I had two options, either join a call centre or get into the Hotel industry. I chose the latter. The pay is not bad.”
— Sneha Vashisht (23-year-old Hotel Management graduate from Chandigarh, at get2gether online forum)
“Barun has gone mad!”
— Jamini Banerjee (Barun’s sister)
“This is like the lung disease in coal miners of the 18th century. An adage of the new technology. Everyone knows that speaking on the phone for 6-8 hours is difficult but it never led to a mental condition. Scientists are speculating about the long-term effects of the 6G network. Oh yes, Ramesh… Ramesh Kumar will probably move to the courts.”
— Bipin Talukdar (Vice President of Progressive Union Party of India, and social activist at MADAD, at his press conference)
“This cannot continue! We cannot have an industry rendering people mindless”
— Jimmy Pacquiao (Senior Politician from the Philippines, on his Twitter)
“Shyam, he is not well. Has not reported for the past week.”
— Pooja Kapoor (Telecaller at Red-Orange Software, Hyderabad and Shyam Goel’s colleague)
“The Agashe-Millard disease, right?”
— Isaac Jacobsen (Communist party politician at the European Parliament in a discussion on BTV Network)
“Why is the Indian government not taking this up at a higher level?”
— Anupriya Rao-Higgins (Hollywood actress of Indian origin, on her Twitter)
“How long can I talk on the phone, before I become a zombie?”
— Donna Regan (American stand-up comedian, speaking to ESTV News)
* FADE IN *
(A newsroom with 3 people)
Presenter: Hello, and welcome to the ‘Eight O’clock Show.’ Our focus will be on the mind sclerosis symptoms that have emerged from South Asia, specifically the call centre industry in India. We have with us Gerald Morris, the minister of Business and IT and Dr. Marie Leary, MP from Simmersaalt and chairperson of the health care committee in the lower house. Let me start with you Marie, the symptoms … as it has been suggested renders a person something like a zombie.
Marie Leary: Yes, and Amy the medical fraternity has named it as the ‘Agashe-Millard disease’, it has broadly affected the Indian call centre industry and it renders the patient not able to speak anything other than their scripts and product details. And, it is not limited to India, there has been reports from the Philippines and Malaysia.
Presenter: The various call centres in New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and others on the eastern coast have been evasive on the matter. There have been public demonstrations and various social groups have expressed their anguish. The employees who have been plagued by such symptoms have either been made redundant or asked to go on leave without any pay. Their medical benefits have also been withdrawn or at best is just too scanty.
Marie Leary: Yes, that has been a matter of concern. In this type of business, there is, of course, a lot of grey areas and from its early days since it generated employment for the second world economies and suited to the needs of big business nobody really bothered to look into the legality and soundness. For example, there is no employee union to represent those affected. The medical benefits are meager and there is a lack of legislature to protect the employees. It was never anticipated that such a health ailment will come this way.
Presenter: Do we bear any brunt of it? Many of these companies are based in our country and at the very least our government should take an ethical call. One or two isolated cases would not have made us think on such lines, but now we have as many as 4312 cases in India, and 23 in Malaysia, 231 in the Phillipines. How about you bring in your views Gerald.
Gerald Morris: I did have a conversation with the Indian High Commissioner, Subhash Khera and of course we are concerned but clearly you cannot expect us to discipline the companies. We have been a beacon for free trade and enterprise and this will dent the openness of doing business. What happens if these companies completely stop their operations in South Asia?
Marie Leary: At the least, you will generate plenty of more job prospects at our neck-of-the-woods.
Gerald Morris: … and starve about a hundred thousand Indians? And it will also pull down India’s growth rate by half a percentage point.
Presenter: Across the pond, the Secretary of Commerce has expressed his concerns on the matter and advised the companies to act humanely. Don’t you guess we can put together something similar?
Gerald Morris: Amy, if I, Lord Sutcliffe and the Chancellor were to discipline these companies, various of which are insurance companies and banks what do you guess will happen? If they agree to our suggestions we are looking at added expenses which will eat into our economic growth and if they don’t agree with us, then it becomes an alarming ethical issue and we will be in a face-saving mode. It can actually be worse, if they formally withdraw all operations from India, then it will be a dent in our diplomatic relations. Across the pond, things are different … they are a much bigger economy, and they have an even bigger military.
Marie Leary: Are the people of this country ready to be part of a process making people in South Asia go raving mad? Doesn’t your defensive stance bear an echo from 2003?
Gerald Morris: There is a lot more at stake than acquiescing to our moral values.
Presenter: I will add another bit of statistics. There has been a remarkable indifference towards call centre employment. The Indian graduates who used to provide for the chunk of the labor are now preferring other jobs. There has been a 37% drop in people looking for a call centre job as reported by various Indian TV channels.
Gerald Morris: One-off, it should get better.
Marie Leary: … of course, it is not contagious else that 37% would be 100%
Gerald Morris: Marie, come on. What can really be done? This is akin to getting myopia as a college professor, or cabin fever if you work in a submarine, or breathing ailments if you are a mountaineer or getting fat if you have a desktop job. These things happen, we cannot play the blame game.
Marie Leary: … and add to that, being a hypocrite if you are in the ruling coalition.
Presenter: Marie, what do you suggest? What should we do?
Marie Leary: At the very minimum, we should send out a message to our companies which have call centres in India that they should not have sent in people to work with technology which has a questionable impact on human beings. Also, it would be wonderful if we can consider extending portions of our labor laws to cover for those in India working to support people in our country.
Gerald Morris: Both of those are difficult and the second will need a lot of paperwork starting with recommendations from a parliamentary committee.
Presenter: With that, we have run out of time. Thank you both for being with us. To our viewers, don’t forget to join us on Thursday and the topic is the unprecedented melting of the Alps.
* FADE OUT *
Justice For Agashe-Millard Patient
(by Nripendra Sen, Senior Editor, Indian Times)
The supreme court today ordered Keen IT services to pay an amount of 68 lakh rupees to Ramesh Kumar as compensation. He was one of the early victims of the Agashe-Millard disease and was waging in a legal battle for the last four years. He is mostly confined to his West Delhi residence unless for the rare summons from courts. He owes this victory to his wife Jaya who sought the legal advice of renowned lawyer & social activist Suresh Mistry. After the judgment, Jaya said, “God has answered my prayers. Now I only wish Ramesh gets well.” Advocate Mistry was not available for his comments. This has also been a victory for Bipin Talukdar and his organization MADAD which provided financial and logistical help for Jaya. Now, it is anticipated that other suffering from Agashe-Millard may find the light at the end of the tunnel. Patients embroiled in legal battles, such as Barun Mukherjee, Shyam Goel and Nidhi Kulkarni will find courage from today’s judgment. However, various business heads from the IT industry have expressed their displeasure on the judgment with the CEO of Keen IT Sanjeev Kamat claiming it as the end of the call centre model in South Asia. Kamat further added that Keen IT will shut down its operations in India and consider other locations for their business. Financial speculators have suggested that the stocks for the big players of the call centre market will soon take a plunge.
Can the Agashe-Miller be cured? There is no known medicine or clinical route, but staying away from telephones and computers does help the healing process. Dr. Agashe on whom the disease is named coin it as a state in which the mind has been tasered. The patient needs a congenial company and an environment free from technology. On Agashe’s suggestion, three of his patients suffering from the disease relocated to rural settings and kept away from technology – mobile phones, and computers in particular. These three patients have responded well to the treatment and maybe the first few to be cured of it.