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Friday March 24 2:37 AM ET

Indian-American Community Develops

By ROBIN McDOWELL, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Sidewalks are crowded with women clad in vivid saris. Markets sell spices and basmati rice in bulk. Hindu music blares from video stores featuring the latest hits from India's thriving film industry.

Jackson Heights, a bustling neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, captures much of the feel of distant Bombay. And it is not alone: Distinctively Indian communities have planted roots elsewhere in the United States, from Edison, N.J., to Berkeley, Calif.

``It's really exciting,'' says Sreenath Sreenivasan, an Indian-born professor at Columbia University's journalism school. ``From fashion to media to business, the buzz about South Asia is at an all-time high right now.''

Like other Indian-Americans, Sreenivasan hopes the spotlight on President Clinton's visit to India will also shine on a vibrant immigrant community that has achieved enormous success in very little time.

After the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted turn-of-the-century immigrant quotas meant to protect jobs for Americans, the number of Indians living in the United States soared from just 5,000 in the early 1960s to more than 1.2 million in 1997, according to U.S. Population Reference Bureau figures.

Many of the early immigrants were scientists and engineers, lured to the United States to fill Cold War demands. Most of them were also frustrated by social and economic conditions in India that made it difficult to succeed at home.

``India had a third-rate economy with too much state intervention. There were too many hassles,'' says Kanwal Rekhi, 54, founder of the computer networking company Excelan Inc. and former chief technology officer at software maker Novell Inc. (NasdaqNM:NOVL - news)

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Rekhi was one of tens of thousands of Indian-Americans who settled in California's Silicon Valley. As an executive, entrepreneur and private investor he's made more than $330 million.

Still, as new arrivals from the Third World, no matter what their training, skills or experience, Indian-Americans had to prove themselves ``every step of the way, had to be twice as good to get ahead,'' Rekhi says.

``The only way to get to the top was not through promotion but through entrepreneurship. And many of us risked all we had.''

At the end of 1998, Indian-led companies accounted for 24 percent of the high-tech firms in the Silicon Valley, said AnnaLee Saxenian, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those companies produced $3.6 million in sales and employed more than 16,600 people.

Indian-Americans founded such Internet-related powerhouses as HotMail, Exodus Communications, Junglee and Vision software.

Thanks in part to their achievements in technology, and their high representation in medicine and academia, Indian-Americans are the wealthiest immigrant community per capita.

Even using decade-old numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, their median family income was $48,320, compared to $33,105 among all Americans.

Naresh Chandra, India's ambassador to the United States, says the main reason the community has flourished is simple: education.

More than 20,000 Indian immigrants who settled in the United States since the 1960s are graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology - six elite public universities that are more selective than Harvard. Admission is solely by national entrance exam, and only 3 percent of applicants are accepted. Harvard accepts about 10 percent of its applicants.

``Do not misunderstand. The Indian community also has a lot of people with very modest means,'' says Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to New Delhi. ``If you hail a cab in New York, often you see that your driver is an Indian Sikh with a turban on his head.''  

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