High Tech Punjab

Recently on the Donahue talk show on MSNBC, his guests were three ex-techies with MBAs from Silicon Valley who found themselves out of a job after the tech sector took a nose dive about two years ago. Interestingly enough, all three have started their own businesses, low tech, that is. One started a gourmet organic hot dog restaurant, another started a gourmet pie delivery restaurant, and the third started a gourmet crepe restaurant. These young men are now just making ends meet but they are doing well, they are happy and they proud of what their work.

Now compare the story of the three men to that of the people, many of them Sikhs, out of work in Chandigarh from the disintegration of Punjab Wireless Systems Limited (Punwire). The conditions are similar, but the lives of the people in Punjab have been turned upside down. These out-of-work technicians, designers and managers have lost all their money and are surviving hand to mouth on the street selling candy and vegetables, or peddling items door to door. All have lost their dignity and all are emotionally depressed.

It is sad to read stories like this about the real troubles facing Sikhs in Punjab. Why does it have to be this way? I think back to Silicon Valley and the many Sikh technocrats who have done so well for themselves. Indians and whites lead the Bay Area in household income. Indians experienced the biggest gains in the past decade, with their income growing by 21 percent, in part because of highly educated immigrants on H-1B visas. This is especially true for Sikhs who have done exceptionally well given the same opportunities.

Now more than ever, communities need to find ways to help those at the bottom of the wage scale. How do we help our own community? I posed this question to Tarlochan Singh of the National Commission on Minorities (NCM) in India. He was in the U.S. recently and was discussing the state of Sikhs in Punjab. Yes, it is dismal. He talked of how the main industry of Sikhs, agriculture, is slipping away. People from Bihar are now settling in record numbers and buying up farm land because Sikh farmers are going broke. The next generation is turning away from agriculture, preferring to leave Punjab altogether. Sikh children are dropping out of school and opting not to go to college, thereby increasing illiteracy among Sikhs.

"So why not shmooze those wealthy Sikhs of Silicon Valley and bring in high tech industry to Punjab," I asked. Companies mean jobs, which is the number one incentive to get an education. The Sikh youth would be motivated to get a college degree, get that high tech job and get the economic cycle rolling which in turn could help the Sikh farmers. Tarlochan Singh said that my idea had been tried many times before and nothing has come of it. But he didn't elaborate on why that was the case.

The same story of the dismal condition of Sikhs in Punjab was given by Prof. Gurdarshan Singh (Dhillon) of the Institute of Sikh Studies, Punjab, who also visited the U.S. earlier this year. He talked of how Sikhs from outside India had tried to create high tech companies in Punjab but were met with unreasonable political barriers from Sikhs in positions of power.

Whatever the reason, the future of Punjab and the Sikhs depends on whether they can rebuild their economic power. Economic power is the only real power left in the world today. And it means security in every sense of the word.

High tech companies are still investing in India. Intel, for example is investing over $100 million now. It has already invested in over 20 technology companies in the country over the past two years. Intel is looking at India as one of its strategic bases for chip design and software development. The move is aimed at capitalizing on the knowledge base of Indian engineers and reducing production cost in the wake of a slow business environment.

Intel's CEO Craig Barrett plans to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to help the government in imparting computer awareness in 6,000 schools. They will provide training and content support to the Education and Research Network (ERNET) society of the ministry. Here is a company that is not only investing in business but also in education to support that business. Barrett will be visiting Delhi, Bangalore, and Hydrabad even though Intel does not have any design or software facility in Hydrabad yet. Chandigarh could qualify too if somebody put in the effort. It is just as capable as Hydrabad.

We have to look at Punjab as a state with high tech potential. Set up high tech companies there and, over time, really build it up into a high tech center like that of Bangalore. It is time for influential Sikhs in government and industry to get over the bad politics and work hard to bring about an economic change in Punjab.

go back