PICTURE THIS. You are a self-employed entrepreneur working from your villa on the Pacific ocean in Newport Beach, California, one of the richer places on the planet. For years, you have thrown your annual tax return at your local accountant who, for a large fee, charts a course through your lavish business lunches and contact- forging games of golf. Not any more - at least, not necessarily.
The same documents may now be up-loaded on to a US data bank to be scrutinised by an accountant on another continent far removed from the yachts and sushi restaurants of your own environs, but hooked up to it by a 24-hour broadband internet connection.
Processing tax returns filed in the United States is gradually becoming the latest service to be dispatched to India as the "outsourcing" of work from the First World to the Third - to the alarm of some Western trade unionists and politicians - moves increasingly into higher-skilled areas.
The trend is encompassing a widening range of work, shifting to whiter hues of collar. Farming out back office work to India is no longer just about palming off low-paid tele-marketing work to batteries of Indian youngsters who, with painfully studied English and US accents, pound the phones from call centres.
The field embraces financial and legal research, employee recruitment, analysing balance sheets, processing insurance claims, programming software, producing technical drawings for architects and engineers, and more.
And it is moving into more complex areas - from securities research to project management - offering higher savings. Complex number-crunching for Wall Street banks is today being performed by analysts sitting in the south Indian city of Chennai; computer- generated animation for Western film makers is being created by programmers in New Delhi.
As it grows from a trickle into what is expected to be a tide, India is well positioned to cash in because of its large pool of English-speaking, internet-savvy, graduates and its low-wage economy. Its dismal infrastructure has been the bane of business for years, but there have been some crucial recent advances - for instance, cheap broadband connections.
"History and geography both favour us," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India (Nasscom), "There are lots of people who not only speak in English, they actually think in it.
"And the time difference with parts of the United States is 12 hours, which means someone in the US can hand research work over at the end of his day and find it completed on his desk by the following morning."
Nasscom estimates that the amount of back-office business coming to India should grow by about tenfold over the next six years, from $2.3bn to pounds 20bn.
ServCare, a company of 100 employees on an industrial complex in Bangalore, offers back-office services including transaction processing, accounts and data management, and handling employee application forms.
According to the chief executive, B D Mahesh, chartered accountants in the US have begun channelling work to his team of about 35 qualified accountants, including bundles of tax returns. As an experienced Indian accountant can expect to earn around 17,000 rupees (pounds 237) a month - less than one- tenth of the salary of his or her American counterpart - the savings for the out-sourcers promise to be very large.
Analysts predict a boom. According to a survey by the consultants Deloitte & Touche, the First World will move two million jobs in the financial sector to low-wage countries in the next five years. Half of this is expected to go to India, which has already grabbed 60 per cent of the $16bn off-shore information technology service markets.
By 2008, the finance industry will be moving $356bn worth of work off- shore every year, producing 40 per cent cost savings, says Deloitte. …