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OCTOBER 16, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 15


Dilip Mehta/Contact Press Images for TIME.
Pramod Mahajan, India's Minister for Information Technology.

WEB-ONLY, EXTENDED INTERVIEW
'Indian IT Isn't Hype at All'
Interview with Minister for Information Technology Pramod Mahajan

ALSO
The Great Web Bonanza: India has unexpectedly and unintentionally found a future through the Internet, one fueled by the largest pool of engineering talent in the developing world
Wave of the Future: Villages get hooked up
Viewpoint: Why India, not China, is a high-tech whiz

The fiery former spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Pramod Mahajan, was named to head the Ministry of Information Technology last November when India became one of the few nations to create a separate IT ministry. He recently met with TIME Asia correspondent Meenakshi Ganguly in New Delhi. Edited excerpts from the interview:

  ALSO IN TIME
COVER: The Great Web Bonanza
India has unexpectedly and unintentionally found a future through the Internet, one fueled by the largest pool of engineering talent in the developing world
Wave of the Future: Villages get hooked up
Interview: "Our Net revolution is here to stay"
Viewpoint: Why India, not China, is a high-tech whiz

TAIWAN: Rookie Mistakes
The resignation of Premier Tang Fei highlights the fragility of Chen Shui-bian's young and still fumbling administration

THAILAND: Back to the Brink
Changing sexual habits and a decline in funds for AIDS prevention is leading to a dangerous rebound in HIV rates
Burma: The generals battle the disease by lying about it

MALAYSIA: All the News That's Fit to Surf
Stymied by the nation's traditional, conservative press, more and more readers are going online for information

CINEMA: In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai
Fifteen months in the making, the Hong Kong director's latest film leaves viewers both delighted and mystified
On Location: A long night on the wild side

BOOKS: A Walk on the Wild Side
An entertaining biography examines the man who has chronicled Bangkok and its sex scene for 35 years

TRAVEL WATCH: Check into the past at one of Asia's Grand Hotels

TIME: How much of the excitement around Indian IT is hype?
Pramod Mahajan: I don't think it is hype at all. We have gone through the Green Revolution, where we made ourselves independent in food. In some parts of the country we had what we call the White Revolution, where milk production was increased. But I don't think there has ever been any kind of revolution that has set everybody on fire like the IT revolution.

TIME: Does India have the kind of infrastructure needed for an IT revolution?
Mahajan: It depends on which way we look at it. If you ask me to look at it negatively, I would say, "PC penetration is not even 0.5%. Telecoms penetration is not even 3%. We don't have 24-hour uninterrupted electricity supply." But then, our strength is not in world-class telecoms or power infrastructure. It is in world-class human resources. Today, the people who are working in Silicon Valley are 100% made-in-India.

TIME: But having human resources won't solve the infrastructure problems.
Mahajan: Dismantling our old system overnight is neither possible nor desirable. But we need to improve telecoms and power. At a policy level, the government has taken every decision that was needed. Now give us a couple of years to implement them.

TIME: Still, the IT industry hasn't affected the lives of the majority of Indians.
Mahajan: I agree. Sometimes people think IT is an English-speaking, élite, urban, southern-Indian phenomenon. But when I move around in the villages, people say: "Please do something about IT for us." Ministers ask me for IT parks -- half of them probably don't know that there are no trees, just chips. That is the yardstick of a revolution. The challenge before the IT industry is not exports worth $50 billion: that's going to happen anyway. The real challenge is to ensure that IT-enabled services reach the people. Within the next three or four years we should be able to show to the last man on the street that IT has improved his standard of life.

TIME: Do you agree that if the government had interfered with IT in the early years, this revolution would have failed?
Mahajan: I have often repeated a joke that India has been successful in the IT and beauty industries because there were no ministries involved. But nowhere in the world can you develop an industry without government or the law. Who would talk about visas with the Germans? Who would sign memorandums of understanding with China? Who would ensure that Japanese was taught in India so people could do business with the Japanese?

TIME: Will India be able to keep up with the competition?

Mahajan: Competition was a word used in the Old Economy, which was capital intensive. The New Economy is knowledge based, and cooperation is now the key word. That is why the Chinese Minister of Information Technology recently proposed to us a memorandum of understanding, which we signed, to exploit other markets. This was unimaginable a year ago.

TIME: So you're confident India will be a world power in IT?
Mahajan: I don't want to use the word "superpower." That was a term used during the Cold War, and I am not at war with anybody. We missed the Industrial Revolution because we did not have enough capital. Now we don't want to miss the IT revolution, because we have enough knowledge capital.

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