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Mehta in the Middle

Mehta in the Middle

As familiar to TV viewers for his beatific smile as for his Elvis-style pompadour, Dewang Mehta, 38, is India's first IT celebrity. A shrewd lobbyist and irrepressible cheerleader, he heads the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), which represents some 700 Indian companies. In a decade, the nonprofit group has become the single voice of India's IT sector, guiding the government, sponsoring seminars and conferences, and churning out rosy forecasts for Indian technologists.

"Ten years ago it was difficult to make the politicians and the common man understand that IT was the future of the country," Mehta says, commanding a massive blond desk of the sleek variety found in an Ikea catalogue. Behind him is a wall of bookcases displaying his awards and citations ("IT Man of the Year," "Software Evangelist of the Year"), books by John F. Kennedy (Let the Word Go Forth) and Howard Gardner (Leading Minds), the Starr Report, a Bill Gates biography, and a volume titled Yoga and Meditation abutting a Windows 98 software package. A portrait of the late guru Shirdi Sai Baba, of whom Mehta is a devoted follower, hangs on the wall. The Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, occupies a corner of the desk.

Trained in accounting and graphic arts, Mehta runs a computer graphics business in London (where he once worked as a fast-food cook at Wimpy's), but these days he's kept busy at Nasscom's offices, located in a posh New Delhi neighbourhood with broad tree-lined avenues, five-star hotels and British-built bungalows that house diplomats, not far from the residences of Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress Party Leader Sonia Gandhi.

Frequently pictured in the newspapers, smiling, shaking hands with Gates, Jack Welch or Michael Dell, Mehta hosts two weekend TV shows that cover IT news. His dream, he says, is to write and produce movies. Recently profiled in Femina, India's top women's magazine--he was photographed in a tux officiating a beauty contest--he revealed to readers his deep desire to "fall in love." Hundreds of hopeful women wrote in response.

"It seems romance has passed me by," he says wistfully, later acknowledging with a laugh that India's IT mission is, in fact, his burning passion.

"What the IT industry has done for India is give it a new sense of pride," he says. "We have proved to ourselves and to the world that we are very good in IT." There is no doubt of that. According to Mehta, a third of Silicon Valley startups last year were created by people of Indian origin. Today, 23 percent of Microsoft Corp.'s workforce has ties to India; Intel has 21 percent; IBM Corp. has 19 percent; and Oracle Corp. has 18 percent. Of the 11 Indians on the Forbes' World's Richest People list this year, the wealthiest, Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro Ltd., made his fortune in IT.

However, Mehta sees more to IT than the minting of new billionaires--he believes that IT can help the poor and eradicate illiteracy in India. "We have 37 million cable television sets and only 3.8 million PCs in this country," he told Femina. "All we have to do is hook them up on to the Net. Once that happens, all the villagers have to do is sit in front of their television sets and learn."

It's still a tough challenge. The World Bank's latest country ranking on equality of educational opportunity put India at the bottom with Afghanistan, Algeria, Mali, Pakistan and Tunisia. In the last decade, India's literacy rate has increased from 52 percent to 64 percent. Yet more than half of Indian women are illiterate; about 40 million primary school-age children are not in school. Most of them are girls and from the poorest and lower caste households. Child labour is a continuing problem, as is widespread teacher absenteeism. And Mehta's proposed remedy of upgrading the current cable TV network to enable two-way transfers for Internet access could be expensive.

But Mehta does not skimp on ideas. He recently negotiated a joint venture between MIT and the Indian government--Media Lab India Project--that will work as a development center for regional language software and low-cost technology projects, with Microsoft, Infosys Technologies and Wipro (the latter two are both Indian-based companies) providing technical assistance. "The focus will be work that will help poor people of the country and the world," he says. "Plus, we will be doing a lot of research in video communications and media. Did you know that India has the largest movie industry in the world? With the potential in IT, there is a lot of research that needs to be done to facilitate better moviemaking."

That's right--an IT project that would help the world's poor and the movie industry! Who could ask for more?

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