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The terror attacks in Mumbai have sparked new fears, and new business opportunities, in India's outsourcing capital.
BANGALORE, India — During the week, Anoop Ramakrishnan, 25, an engineer in a Bangalore-based outsourcing firm, provides technical support for telecom networks in Canada and Europe. On the weekends, Ramakrishnan joins a dozen others learning to dodge a flying grenade during a terror attack, to escape a shootout and to block a punch from a street mugger.
Bangalore, a throbbing Indian city with 8 million residents, is known as the world’s hub for outsourcing. On its streets, the names of General Electric, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google adorn tall, gleaming buildings. In its far-flung suburbs, engineers and back-office agents toil in endless 24-hour cycles for companies such as AOL and Citibank.
Now, Bangalore’s profile as a global outsourcing center is making it vulnerable. Six top outsourcing companies in the city received multiple emailed terror threats in the last few weeks. India’s intelligence agencies have warned that outsourcing companies could be the terrorists’ next target after Mumbai.
Bangalore’s army of young Indian technology workers is naturally nervous.
Like Ramakrishnan, dozens of techies are flocking to a self-defense course in an Israeli combat technique called Krav Maga. “The Mumbai attack victims were helpless,” said Ramakrishnan, clad in black sweat pants, a T-shirt and protective gear for the lesson. “I want to be well-prepared.”
After a grueling two-hour combat session consisting of jumping, pummeling, rolling on the floor, kicking and throwing punches at imagined opponents, Ramakrishnan wiped off the sweat streaming down his face. The course was tough, he admitted, but “the real world is tougher.”
Fellow trainee Mrinal Khamboj, 30, an employee at the Indian unit of Oracle Corporation, said the practical, no-holds barred tactics would serve him well in any hand-to-hand combat situations. He had never faced any sticky situation so far. “The one time I almost got caught in a fight, I ran away because I’m a marathon runner,” he confessed.
Many outsourcing companies, including Khamboj’s employer, have sprawling, lush campuses and modern buildings with glass facades where vigilance comes in the form of metal detectors, camera surveillance and even physical frisking of employees and visitors. Some campuses have electric fencing around their perimeter.
But all this is hardly foolproof, for instance, against a suicide attack.
Morever, the world outside these establishments is a different place. The companies' buildings and campuses abut crowded neighborhoods. Overworked and underpaid policemen patrol these neighborhoods carrying nothing more than a thin stick of bamboo, a lathi, to enforce the law.
Admitting the meagerness of the security arrangements, the chief minister of Karnataka state, where Bangalore is located, has repeatedly petitioned the federal government to set up an anti-terror commando force in the city.
For many like Shyamanta Phukan, a dimunitive 25-year-old software engineer with Alcatel, the security is simply not good enough. “A Mumbai can happen anywhere," he said. Last weekend, Phukan signed up for his first Krav Maga lesson.
Meanwhile, Bangalore’s outsourcing companies are stepping up security. Some are providing employees with GPS-tracked vehicles and setting up command centers to kick in moments after a terror attack. Campus guest houses are stocked with essential supplies. In many ways, Bangalore’s technology companies are doing the best they can.
Still, Krav Maga trainer JW Frank has been inundated with inquiries from anxious employee techies ever since November’s terror attacks in Mumbai. “People want to be better prepared to protect themselves, their family and their community,” Frank said. Two or three new students are signing up for the lessons every weekend.
Ashish Puri, a manager at Cisco Systems India, enrolled for the classes some months ago when he felt that war had landed at his doorstep. Neither the police nor the army commandos could be counted upon to take care of every situation, Puri said, and the training made him confident about tackling critical situations. “It changes the equation between the attackers and me,” he said.
In recent weeks Ramakrishnan, the telecom engineer, has learned many tricks at the self-defense course — how to have a low profile during an attack, how to fall to the ground and roll off to a corner in a shootout, and what to do during a bomb explosion.
He does not know about facing off with terrorists. But Ramakrishnan is confident that he is well-equipped to handle at least two of Bangalore’s lesser evils – muggings and road rage.