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|May 24, 2000|
Mahajan's visit strengthens India-Silicon Valley link
Kalpana Mohan in San Francisco
It's the first visit of a high-ranking official from the Indian government to Silicon Valley. According to Pramod Mahajan, the minister of information technology and parliamentary affairs, it is 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," remarked Mahajan, as he fielded questions from the press at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown San Jose on May 23.
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 forging Indo-Valley technology ties will fly the friendly skies over the following months.
Mahajan's visit follows 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. A Silicon Valley Advisory Group -- consisting of a core group of the Valley's Indian entrepreneurs and technologists -- was set up during this meet. 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 government's current concerns and the ambitious program that has been laid down in the IT sector to carry Information Technology to the masses in order to realize fully the employment potential in this sector.
Mahajan and his high level delegation 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 to generate ideas to improve the infrastructure in both arenas.
"A week ago we didn't have cyber laws in India. Now we do!" Mahajan said, referring to the IT Cyber Law Bill that was just passed by the Parliament to create the necessary infrastructure for both e-commerce and e-governance. Addressing a question on what some of his top priorities were towards building better infrastructure in India within the year, he stated that improving connectivity, increasing bandwidth and ensuring reliable power supply were three of his prime concerns, foundations without which the exploding IT industry would disintegrate.
Mahajan pointed out that the liberalised economy had opened up the country for foreign investment in critical areas with the possibility of a hundred percent repatriation of money abroad. With the approval of the K B Chandrasekhar committee recommendations in February, SEBI 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," he said, calling for focused investment efforts in building India's IT infrastructure. When asked about how the federal government was facilitating the process of talking to state governments for investments in a specific state, he claimed that the Vajpayee government had a non-interfering attitude even in this regard. The duty of the MIT (ministry of information technology), he stated, was to sensitise potential investors to the advantages and disadvantages of setting up shop in a particular state. It was left entirely up to the investor, however, to ultimately choose his location for investment.
Mahajan was upbeat about his visits to the high tech corridors of the Bay Area's technological strongholds such as HP, 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 he has committed to support the cause of education for 100,000 schools in India.
Was Mahajan troubled by Clinton's observation, during his recent visit to India, that India is "one of the most volatile areas of 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. Mahajan didn't think that the strained relations with Pakistan would cast a shadow on the bright future of the Indian IT Industry. Foreign Institutional Investors would beg to differ with him on the issue.
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 the Indian government did not mind the exodus. "There is no flight of talent," he asserts, 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 quipped that retention was, after all, a global problem: "A man is not known by the company he keeps, but by the company he leaves."
Although Mahajan did not specifically allude to the San Antonio incident of the intimidation of H1-B workers by the INS, he told reporters that India was 'no begging bowl' and that countries like Germany and Singapore had approached him seeking IT professionals in large numbers. He ended the meeting on the note that he would like to see his fellow Indians being treated with respect, especially if they were contributing dynamically to the economy of another nation.
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