Amid a controversy over India's AIDS count, Microsoft chief Bill Gates began his tour of the country to talk business and pump money to help fight the disease.
"Coming to India is valuable to me for both business and personal reasons ... it's a place where I believe we can make substantive efforts to eradicate diseases and help develop the healthcare infrastructure in a way that benefits millions of people," Gates said in an interview with the Business Line newspaper.
However, Gates has walked into a controversy in India over the scale of AIDS affliction. Government officials and health activists have rejected a U.S. National Intelligence Council report cited by him - that forecasts the number of HIV-infected people in India to rise to 20-25 million by 2010 from about 4 million now.
During his 4-day visit, Gates is expected to make business announcements and "a long-term, strategic commitment to support the country's efforts to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS," a statement from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said earlier. He also was expected to visit an AIDS clinic, and is scheduled to meet with industry leaders and top government officials during his stops at New Delhi, Bombay and the southern software hubs of Hyderabad and Bangalore.
"India's influence in the technology industry is clearly growing beyond its borders," Gates said in another interview published in The Financial Express. "Several large system integrators used to outsource work to India, but now look to India for their strategic decision-making abilities."
Microsoft says the Gates visit symbolizes the growing importance of India in the company's plans.
"India is incredibly important to our future plans both as a market and as a center for software development," Gates told the Financial Express.
In an article in The New York Times, published Saturday, Gates affirmed faith in India's competitiveness in information technology and wrote that the South Asian nation is "well on its way to becoming a global economic power."
However, much of this progress could be thwarted by AIDS, he wrote, quoting the U.S. government report.
It is a view that has been slammed by AIDS-prevention workers in India, who accused Gates of siding with a report that they say lacks evidence and may distort national policies.
"We would like Bill Gates to come with a panel of experts and assess the situation for himself instead of jumping to conclusions based on the NIC report," said Purushothaman Mulloli, a coordinator for JACKINDIA, an independent group monitoring HIV/AIDS trends in the country.
Mulloli said the NIC report, which has not explained the method it followed to make its projections, threatens to distort India's development policies and priorities.
The Indian government has already rejected the report and Health Minister Shatrughan Sinha on Friday described the projections to be "completely inaccurate."
The government claims it AIDS-prevention programs are paying off and the number of HIV/AIDS carriers has stabilized between to 3.5 million to 4 million _ 0.7 percent of its adult population _ over the last three years. It says it does not expect a dramatic increase in cases in 2010.
Gates is expected to announce expansion plans for Microsoft India, explore business opportunities with Indian companies and discuss information technology promotion programs with government officials.