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|May 25, 2000|
Sinha to follow in Mahajan's footsteps
Kalpana Mohan in San Jose
It was the first visit of a high-ranking Indian government official to Silicon Valley. According to Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan, it's not going to be the last. "We have visited the US several times in the past, but we have always conducted business in Washington or New York," he remarked as he fielded questions from the press in Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose on May 23, the last day of his visit.
The winds of diplomacy are beginning to shift west towards what Mahajan calls "the world capital of information technology". Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha is scheduled to visit the San Francisco Bay Area next week and several other harbingers of closer India-Valley technology ties will fly the friendly skies over the following months.
Mahajan's visit followed closely on the heels of the high-level interaction that took place between a select group of Silicon Valley NRIs led by Kanwal Rekhi, Suhas Patil, K B Chandrasekhar and Sabeer Bhatia and the Indian government in January this year. A Silicon Valley Advisory Group -- consisting of a core group of the Valley's Indian entrepreneurs and technologists -- was set up during this meeting. The advisory group's experience, expertise and resources will tap into India's potential in the Internet age.
Mahajan began his visit to northern California by addressing the Indian community at meetings arranged by the Federation of Indo-American Associations and the Overseas Friends of the BJP. He discussed the current concerns of the government and the ambitious programme to carry information technology to the masses to fully realise the employment potential of this sector.
Mahajan and his high-level delegation also conducted their first brainstorming session with the Silicon Valley Advisory Group to discuss the Indian government's current plans in the IT and telecom sectors and generate ideas to improve the infrastructure in both areas.
"A week ago we didn't have cyber laws in India. Now we do!" Mahajan said, referring to the Information Technology Bill that was recently passed by Parliament to create the necessary infrastructure for both e-commerce and e-governance.
Addressing a question on what some of his priorities are for building better infrastructure in India within the year, he said improving connectivity, increasing bandwidth and ensuring reliable power supply are three of his prime concerns, without which the exploding IT industry may disintegrate.
Mahajan pointed out that the liberalized economy had opened up the country for foreign investment in critical areas with the possibility of cent per cent repatriation of money abroad. With the approval of the Chandrasekhar Committee's recommendations in February, the Securities and Exchange Board of India has permitted flexibility in investment and exit, facilitating the mobilisation of global and domestic resources through easy entry for foreign venture capital.
"Anybody can come in and invest. They don't have to go to the Indian government," said Mahajan, calling for focussed investment efforts in building India's IT infrastructure.
Asked how the central government was facilitating the process of talking to state governments for investments in a specific state, he claimed that the Centre had a non-interfering attitude even in this regard. The duty of his ministry, he said, was to sensitise investors to the advantages and disadvantages of setting up shop in a particular state. Thereafter it was left to the investor to choose his location.
Mahajan was upbeat about his visits to the hi-tech corridors of the Bay Area's technological strongholds such as H-P, Cisco, Compaq, Sun, Yahoo and Oracle. The CEOs of these companies have pledged to increase the presence of their companies in India. Cisco's John Chambers will travel to India in October and has committed to support the cause of education in 100,000 schools.
Was Mahajan troubled by President Bill Clinton's observation during his recent visit to India that the region is "one of the most volatile" in the world? "I'm concerned about our problem with Pakistan which has lasted for 50 years, but I don't see it abating unless Pakistan stops supporting state-financed terrorism against India," he remarked. But Mahajan didn't think the strained relations with Pakistan would cast a shadow on the bright future of the Indian IT industry.
The flight of H1-B visa holders remains a popular subject of debate. When prodded about how 80% of H1-B visitors to the US continue to press on for their green cards, Mahajan claimed that the Indian government does not mind the exodus. "There is no flight of talent," he asserted, stating that there is enough indigenous talent available for India's IT industry. "We're encouraging H1-Bs to go out, we're a democratic country."
As for problems in talent retention in Indian companies, Mahajan retorted that retention was, after all, a global problem: "A man is not known by the company he keeps, but by the company he leaves," he quipped.
Although Mahajan did not specifically allude to the San Antonio incident of intimidation of H1-B workers by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, he told reporters that India was 'no begging bowl' and countries like Germany and Singapore had approached him seeking IT professionals in large numbers. He just said he would like to see his fellow Indians being treated with respect, especially if they were contributing to the economy of another nation.
Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer living in San Jose, California.
EARLIER REPORT: Mahajan's visit strengthens India-Silicon Valley link
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