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DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Partnering Japan to Bridge Digital Divide

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Aug 24 2000 (IPS) - Teaching the Japanese language to 1,000 Indian computer software engineers is one of the ways, Japan will try to spread out more evenly, the gains of the information technology (IT) revolution.

According to visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the two nations have a key role in bridging the so-called ‘digital divide’, which denies the benefits of IT to a large chunk of humanity.

Speaking to Indian IT industry leaders in the southern city of Bangalore, known as India’s ‘Silicon Valley’, Mori said Japan would spend 15 billion U.S. dollars over the next five years to reach this goal.

His government has drawn up a “comprehensive package…to help promote use of IT in developing countries, especially those in Asia,” Mori said.

This is also high on the agenda of the United Nations in the new century, as set out in U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report for the Millennium Summit of the General Assembly, which opens early September.

Mori urged India’s IT industry to take advantage of the huge Japanese market and said his government is prepared to relax visa and work permit rules for Indian IT experts.

The Japanese prime minister kicked off a three-day tour of India with visits Tuesday to the headquarters of Indian IT giants ‘Wipro’ and ‘Infosys’ in Bangalore.

Early bird companies like Wipro have already have set up shop in Japan and are pushing for relaxed entry and work rules for Indian IT experts.

Japan gets just four percent of India’s 5.7 billion dollars worth of annual software exports, 60 percent of which go to the United States.

“Japan and India must develop complementary IT solutions and we should develop this relationship,” Mori said.

The first visit in 10 years by a Japanese prime minister to India, is crucial to global efforts to bridge the digital divide, says Dewang Mehta, president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), which is leading India’s software boom.

S.M. Krishna, the Chief Minister of Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the capital, invited the big Japanese IT companies to set up shop in his state.

So far, the flow has been in the reverse direction, led by Wipro. The Indian IT company has even set up a school to teach Japanese language and culture to its Indian employees to cater better to Japanese customers.

However, not all think that India’s current IT export strategy is the best way to tackle the digital divide. The critics also note that Indian IT exporters are not getting the best business deal from their rich nation clients.

Sending Indian IT professionals to Japan, Germany and the United States for on-site work is not the best way to exploit the huge market for software, they say.

Germany is granting 20,000 visas for IT professionals, half of them from India. The bulk of the 115,000 U.S. H-1B visas for skilled professionals, were issued to Indians last year.

P.R. Sengupta, a former scientist at the U.S. National Space Administration (NASA) at Houston, Texas, and now IT advisor to the Indian government, says the best Indian IT talent is finding only low value-addition jobs.

“We missed the bus in the first industrial revolution and became a source for cheap manpower and raw material and now history is repeating itself with the infotech revolution,” he said.

Despite the cheap software inputs, developing nations, including India, still end up buying products created in Japan at vastly inflated prices with little real benefit from the huge profits, he says.

“If any dent has to be made in the digital divide it will have to start with a complete revamp of the education system starting with heavy investments in primary education, by neglecting which India has shot itself in the foot,” Sengupta said.

India’s IT boom has also created a digital divide within the country, with the hundreds of millions too poor to have a computer or a telephone.

The benefits of IT as a job generator are still to spread evenly within the country. The sector generated only 30,000 jobs in the mid- 1990s, when there were three million people on the unemployment registers.

According to R. Narasimhan, former director of the National Centre for Software Technology, the digital divide is most glaring in the field of IT education.

India’s mushrooming IT institutes are churning out unemployable students by the thousands, alongside the handful of ‘whiz-kids’ who strike it rich abroad.

A genuine IT revolution can take place in India only with an enabling environment of which education is a major component, says Sengupta.

He finds it “vulgar” that 60 percent of the government’s education budget is used to offer subsidised instruction in the country’s premier technology institutes which “produce fodder for the software industry”.

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