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March 23, 2000

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The Rediff Business Interview/Sunil Puri

'In the next five years, Indo-US trade will be in favour of India'

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Sunil Puri, chief executive, First Rockford Company, is a Non Resident Indian currently touring India as a member of US President Bill Clinton's entourage. Admittedly, Puri went to the US in search of money and fame. He claims he has realised his dreams and has no intentions of ever coming back to India. Today, he is part of the Clinton entourage and seeks to impress upon Bill Clinton the 'necessity' of building strong trade relations between the two countries.

Real estate development, more specifically, building ultra-modern technology parks, is his forte. "In my line of business, I can't think beyond a year, because the technology we will use in five years is yet to be invented. That is the pace at which we are moving," he says.

Puri once tried his hand at developing a technopark in Pune, India. However, he pulled out since he thought he was ahead of time.

Now Puri believes the time is ripe. He spoke to Neena Haridas about his interactions with President Bill Clinton and how Indo-US trade relations could improve post-'visit'.

To what extent will President Clinton's visit to India change trade relations between India and the United States?

I think it is an auspicious beginning. I don't like to use the word 'auspicious', it's a very Indian word. But yes, it is a good beginning. The last time I met the president, he said,"Gosh, I can't understand you guys. Here you are sitting on this table having achieved everything you want in life. Then why can't you do that in your own country?'

I think with this visit, the United States will understand India better and vice-versa. When there is a clear understanding of each other's needs and strengths, there will be better interaction, and that includes trade relations.

I'm not saying that there will be no difference of opinion between the two nations -- two mature democracies are bound to face differences of opinion -- but a consensus can be achieved when there is a better understanding between the two countries.

Hence, I donít think that the visit's impact will be on trade alone. President Clinton's approach has been a very broad-based one -- he has not specified on anything particular.

You mean, it is a deliberate attempt by Clinton to avoid specific issues?

Yes, of course. You see, if the president wanted to stress on trade, then he would have brought a whole lot of CEOs of big companies. He has not done that, which means he does not view this trip as one to boost trade alone. Besides, he has also talked specifically about any other political or trade issues. Hence, I feel he wants to make this visit as a base for building strong ties in all areas.

Since you have interacted closely with Clinton, tell us what he thinks is the role of Indians in the American economy?

I have interacted closely with the President trying to impress upon him the good work that Indians are doing in the US. The president is well aware of the contribution that Indians are making to the US economy -- especially in infotech. Of all the new start-ups in the Silicon Valley, 60 per cent are owned by Indians.

The US has identified this knowledge-based industry as the driver of economic growth, and the best people to run this show are Indians. President Clinton is very well aware of this reality. You see, of all the H1B visas issued, the maximum go to Indians in the Silicon Valley. Which is why I think the president will increase the number of H1B visas this year.

What are your business interests in India?

Well, frankly, I donít have any real estate interests in India. I am into the business of developing real estate -- state-of-the-art infotech parks.

I came to India in 1989 with the intention of setting up an infotech park in Pune. I entered into a joint venture with Maratha Group in Pune. But I think I was way ahead of time. It did not really happen the way I wanted. Now I've divested from the venture. You see, technopark is a very local business. It all depends on location, location, location. Technoparks require state-of-the art technology. It changes every year, but India has a lot of infrastructure problems as far as telecom, transport, power, etc, are concerned.

Then there is the redtapism -- I mean I will have to run from pillar to post for the licenses. I really donít want to go through all this.

But yes, there is one business that I am very keen on in India -- that is setting up business hotels. India really lags in this area -- there are no good business hotels. I am in talks with some people, and hopefully a deal should materialise soon.

You as an Indian donít wish to invest in India, then how do you expect the Americans to set shop here?

No, I donít want to invest now because I am quite comfortable in the US. I have made enough money. But I am sure trade relations between India and US will increase because US is keen on investing in infrastructure projects such as power, telecom, etc. Besides, the Internet business is where the maximum synergy is going to be.

The first thing that the government should realise is that it has no business being in business. It should not interfere with business, leave it to people like us -- the businessmen. In the US, the economy is compeletely free of government interference and hence it works. My request to the government is: "donít limit the human spirit."

The industry chamber here has estimated that the Indo-US trade will go up by four times in the next five years. Do you believe this would indeed happen?

I think it is an underestimation. It will be much higher. The infotech exports itself will be growing manifold. As it is, India has an export surplus of $56 million now -- it exports more than it imports from US. In the next five years, the trade will be more in favour of India. It is the knowledge-based industruies which will bring in the money -- infotech, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Another area which is increasingly growing is alternate medicine -- ayurvedic healthcare is gaining in popularity in the US. It is a very potent area for India.

Do you think the US investments will also come into the knowledge-based industry?

Yes, of course, this is where the Americans see money and growth and this is where they will be putting their money as well. I donít think there will be much investments in agriculture sector. But in biotechnology, yes. See, Indians are not manufacturers. Let the Taiwanese do it. We are information managers and that is where our expertise is and so let India make money out of this expertise.

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