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NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ The richest man in the world met with some of its poorest Monday, and pledged $100 million to fight the spread of AIDS in India.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates opened his four-day, controversy-laced visit to the South Asian nation by visiting HIV-positive patients in a private hospice.

``It's a very brave thing to speak out and it's a problem that needs a lot of brave people,'' Gates told Naveen Kumar, an HIV-positive man who told him how he was rejected by public-health facilities in India.

``The problem needs all the great talent that exists in this country,'' said Gates, who was wearing the ``tika,'' or red Hindu mark, on his forehead.

The $100 million contribution from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest grant given by the foundation to a country to fight the deadly virus.

Gates said the foundation was funded by his personal wealth, which stood at $43 billion in September.

``I feel very lucky to have that wealth,'' so that he can help others, Gates said, adding India still had time to crush the disease.

``HIV-AIDS is at a relatively low level in India and experience shows that countries that act at an early stage can prevent the disease from becoming widespread.''

Just how widespread is under debate. Gates set himself up for criticism by citing a recent U.S. National Intelligence Council report that predicts the number of HIV-infected people in India will rise to 20-25 million by 2010, from about 4 million now.

Health Minister Shatrughan Sinha on Friday described the projections to be ``completely inaccurate.'' The government has not given an alternate projection, but says it does not expect a dramatic increase by 2010.

The government claims its AIDS-prevention programs are paying off and the number of HIV carriers has stabilized to 3.5 million to 4 million _ 0.7 percent of its adult population _ over the last three years.

Gates was asked why he cited the U.S. government report and whether he intended to exploit India commercially by creating markets for AIDS drugs and vaccines.

``I will say that so far, the history of all AIDS estimates has proven to be low,'' he said. ``We don't know what the numbers are today, but we do know that the sooner this is addressed, the better.''

Gates noted that Sinha had agreed to become chairman of the board that will oversee the Gates grant. He also met with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Monday and said the Indian leader told him he supported the Gates Foundation partnership.

Gates will also meet with industry leaders and other government officials in New Delhi, Bombay and the southern software hubs of Hyderabad and Bangalore.

He said he worried that India's enormous progress in information technology _ the country has the only Microsoft software development center outside the United States _ would be thwarted by AIDS.

That view has been criticized by AIDS-prevention workers in India, who accuse Gates of siding with a report that they say lacks evidence and may distort national health policies.

Gates shrugged off such criticism, saying he was in India to listen to and learn.

Gates visited the Naz Care Home for HIV-positive patients in south New Delhi. He sat cross-legged on the floor with Kumar, whose wife was infected with the virus during her pregnancy. Kumar said he and his wife had been turned away from government-run hospitals.

Years of public awareness programs about safe sex and other preventive measures have had an impact in India. However, ignorance, social stigma and inadequate medical care remain major concerns.

When Kumar's wife went for her delivery to a government hospital, ``the hospital actually asked my wife to leave. They said it was useless to have the baby,'' he told Gates.

Kumar, who has been infected with the virus for three years, then searched for medicines for HIV-positive pregnant women on the Internet and only then learned that his wife should not nurse their infant. The girl is healthy and free of the virus. ____

On the Net:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: www.gatesfoundation.org