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May 20, 1998


Bytes worse than bombs!

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US Senate clears bill seeking to raise the H1-B
visa cap by 30,000. Despite India's nukes.

Priya Ganapati in Bombay

In the Age of Information, knowledge is more lethal than the deadliest stockpile of nukes. The US Senate has just ratified that.

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Days after India ended a series of nuclear tests the US Senate has passed a bill, allowing another 30,000 skilled foreign workers to enter the country this year.

The passing of the bill on Monday (US time) raises the quota of the H1-B visa programme for the next five years. That is opening the door a bit wider for India's software professionals.

The Indian software industry, which stands to gain the most, is euphoric. Though the development was expected, the N-tests had put a cloud over Indo-US relations and the burgeoning software trade between the nations.

In approving the bill on a vote of 78 to 20, the Senate shot down amendments, which would guarantee that companies make an effort to recruit domestic workers.

There was concern that the Tata group must not benefit from the relaxed visa regulation, ostensibly because of its old association with India's atomic energy programme. J R D Tata, the group's late patriarch, was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission's board for many years.

It was pointed out that Tata Consultancy Services, a part of the Tata group, would benefit immensely from the passage of the bill because it sends a significant number of software programmers to lend a hand in the US's Herculean effort to combat the Y2K bug.

However, TCS Managing Director S Ramadorai told Rediff that the American estimates on the benefits to his company are grossly exaggerated.

Yet, one amendment to the bill, which was approved, adds a provision authorising the US attorney general to intervene and pull visas if it is determined a worker has assisted in developing weapons of mass destruction.

The bill is now pending ratification by the House of Representatives before taking effect. "I am optimistic that what has been cleared by the Senate will be cleared by the House," assures National Association of Software and Service Companies Executive Director Dewang Mehta.

"It is a general belief in the US that Americans are replaced by cheap foreign labour. Yet we are very glad that the US industry has fully supported us," Mehta said.

Last November, the US Congress was considering bill HR199 that, if passed, would seriously affect the software industry. The bill sought to increase the financial and administrative costs of hiring Indian software professionals. But a judiciary sub-committee quashed it two months ago.

Mehta told Rediff that he is leaving for Washington on Saturday night (India time) to ensure there is a "factual flow of information to the Clinton administration". He will also be meeting some Congressmen and representatives of a couple of US companies "to see that the ground reality in the software trade is conveyed to them".

The bill has brought much cheer to the software industry, which is now gearing up to send more professionals to the US. Though the raising of the cap was expected none of the companies were banking on it and had planned business without considering the relaxation in the visa regulations. Now things are being happily reworked.

Says Ramadorai, "We send people abroad purely on the basis of job requirement. We don't go by numbers. We had planned accordingly, as we knew visas would get over by May. But now we will probably send a thousand more professionals for various projects."

Endorsing him is Sudip Banerjee, vice-president, HRD, Wipro Infotech Group. He says, "We knew about the cap and so were going a bit slow. We will now be in a better position and will send over another hundred and fifty professionals."

The US faces a shortage of 200,000 software professionals just to handle the Year 2000 compliance job. This has sparked off rumours that there would be discrimination while issuing visas and companies handling the Y2K projects would be given preference.

However, most industry experts categorically ruled out the possibility. "Based on our experience and talks with our lawyers, I do not think there will be any discrimination," says Banerjee.

Ramadorai strongly discounts the rumours: "You cannot do anything like this. I will probably modify the existing programme or write some other programme which will overcome the Y2K problem. So there is no possibility of a discrimination."

On the other hand, Indian software companies are increasingly reducing their dependence on visas by doing most of the work offshore.

Silverline Industries, another software company, does Y2K, mainframe, client-server and multimedia projects. Business Manager Nitin Adappa says, "We do not necessarily send people abroad as we have a satellite link with our clients. A major thrust is on offshore work. We do not focus on onsite development work."

But even companies like Silverline have an office in the US with 200 Indian employees.

Ramadorai says most of their work is done offshore, and specifically Y2K projects, are done from their office in Madras.

Yet, to make sure, Mehta is scheduled to visit Washington again on June 3. He is scheduled to make a presentation where American corporate and political leaders would be shown the opportunities that Indian software industry offers and how, left undisturbed, it could mutually benefit both countries.

"The software trade is a win-win situation for both sides. By using Indian software professionals US companies also gain a competitive edge," Mehta does not tire of repeating to the Indian press.

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