Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Skepticism

Is India serious about Linux in education, or just setting the stage to ask Microsoft founder Bill Gates for a handout when he visits in November?

Economic Times, India's most influential business newspaper, has dropped hints of government plans to push a “countrywide drive” to promote GNU/Linux as the “platform of choice”. But Indian enthusiasts of Free/Libre Software and open source are treating the promises with skepticism, if not downright suspicion.

On October 9, the Economic Times published an article, “Open IT—Government to Rewrite Source Code in Linux”, which caused a flurry of interest and then doubt. The article, which appeared on October 9, said:

the Indian government seems to be taking a leaf out of China's operating system, and is planning a countrywide drive to promote the open source operating system, Linux, as the 'platform of choice' instead of 'proprietary' solutions.

The feature article ran on the front page of many editions of the paper across India, but some were quick to call it a lie. GNU/Linux groups were buzzing with comments on the report, largely critical. Their opinion is the claim is little more than a bargaining chip to extract a better deal from the dominant proprietary software player, Microsoft.

Without giving too many specifics or naming any official as sources, the article said India's Department of Information Technology “has already devised a strategy to introduce Linux and open-source software as a de-facto standard in academic institutions, especially in engineering colleges through course work that encourages use of such systems.”

It further claimed that Indian research establishments “would be advised” to use and develop “re-distributable tool-boxes just as Central government departments and state governments would be asked to use Linux-based offerings”.

At the root of much of the criticism is the question of whether laudable statements purportedly coming from the top could make a difference across this vast and diverse country.

Other Examples

Some time back, the small western coastal state of Goa (population 1.35 million, area 3,700 square kilometers) officially announced a policy in favour of GNU/Linux. But within a few months, the politician behind the policy—former Goa information technology minister, Ramakant Khalap—walked out of the government in a huff. This policy appears to have come to naught, due the departure of a single individual.

Some of the other points the Economic Times's article made included a quote from an unnamed “senior government department”:

As a first step we are persuading all government institutions to offer courses on Linux and programming for Linux environment. We would also set up Linux Resource Centres in academic institutes (with co-funding from government and industry).

The article also noted that software superpower India itself finds software costly within the country. This costs could really hit once IPR (intellectual property rights) are implemented in earnest, as currently a lot of proprietary software is illegally copied.

Repeatedly citing the Chinese policy example, the article pointed out that Microsoft committed to invest $750 million in that country over three years to back a software college, while investing only one-tenth that sum in India. The ET argued Microsoft did this “in what many observers and reports say is an attempt to soften the Chinese government's stand”.

As in most other markets, Microsoft has overall dominance in India. But emerging reports here suggest the company is worried about the growing interest Indian software techies, who are considered a potent force worldwide, have been showing in GNU/Linux.

Dropping Hints

In recent times some other countries, such as neighbouring Pakistan, have dropped hints that they also might use GNU/Linux as a bargaining chip. Some see the pro-GNU/Linux statements as a way to get proprietary software companies, particularly Microsoft, to reduce what is seen in these low-income countries as unrealistic prices that, in turn, fuel what proprietary software companies call “piracy”.

Soon, the ET article was moving across dozens of mailing lists on the Internet. Apart from a number of LUG lists, it also made its appearance on networks like Solaris, the independent forum for IT and development issues.

Some posters welcomed the move. GNU/Linux enthusiast Dinesh Shah, of Shah Micro Systems in the city of Bombay, commented: “(The) TCO (total cost of ownership) of Linux is less then half of the Microsoft. It makes sense for a 'poor', 'third world', 'developing' country like India!”

But the tone was soon to change. Others, such as Sridhar N, wondered how many times GNU/Linux had made it to the headlines on the front-page of the country's main business newspaper.

In Bangalore, considered the Silicon Valley of Indian software, techies and GNU/Linux enthusiasts were more critical. Early GNU/Linux evangelist Atul Chitnis wrote, “However much I would like to rejoice over this, I must sadly conclude that this is probably a response to the announcement from yesterday that Bill Gates is visiting India in November.”

Chitnis argued that he was not saying “that the Indian government effort isn't true or good news”. He conceded that, in fact, there are “tremendous efforts” going on to use open standards and open technologies. But “it is just that the timing of the 'news item' is a wee bit suspect”. He added:

The DIT—or the Ministry of Information Technology, now known as the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology—may be “talking” to the IBMs and HCLs of the world, but is that “news”? Sounds more like a commercial 'booster shot', since there is really no 'news' in the item.

If the government was really going for an all-out push, it should be talking to its citizens who are already using open-source technologies at a frantic pace.

Frankly speaking this appears to be timed to put additional pressure on Gates to be more 'generous' than he was on his last two visits to India, nothing more.

Bombay-based Jayathirth agreed with Chitnis. He wrote:

The (Indian) government sector is quite disorganised in IT in first place, at least in the (western Indian state of) Maharashtra. The only place where I see Linux or Open source is TIFR (the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) and BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre). BARC [being an atomic research centre] is so heavily regulated that one can't declare it openly. TIFR is still good.

From the eastern metropolis of Calcutta (now Kolkata), P K Sharma wrote:

(We need to) interpret news, and separate the kernel from the chaff. We all make such passive receivers of news, as if 'news' is manna from heaven.

(If this is a way to put more pressure on Bill Gates), what an abominable way to beg for largesse from people whose blatant objective is world dominance thru OS, software, .NET....“

Pallav Nawani, of the Bangalore-based Sasken Communication Technologies Ltd., cited other statements to back up his view. He pointed to a recent interview where the Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was largely non-committal to questions about Free/Libre and open-source software. ”All he said was that we are definitely considering this, or some thing of the sort, and he did make it clear that there was no push to promote open-source (at the cost of closed-source) software,“ said Nawani.

Tanveer brought up the idea of corruption and bribes. Specifically, he pointed out the province of Karnatakai. The Department of I.T. in the province publicly supports open source, even as ”all [the] police stations are being equipped with Windows XP Professional“.

Tanveer charges, ”Closed-source companies can pay them under the table. Open source is free so there is no opportunity [of bribes] there for the officials.... What matters is that due to this announcement, now they will get more kickbacks.... Their intelligence is laudable!“

Many people allege that this kind of corruption is a routine part of government business in the Third World. Therefore, such factors could be playing a role in blocking the speedier acceptance of Free/Libre and open-source software in the Third World.

However, moves to push for GNU/Linux are underway in many different spheres in India, even if a much-hyped and often-promised push from the top is seen as more lip-service. This site offers details of an event being conducted jointly by the Indian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the Electronic Research and Development Centre of India (ER&DCI) and the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science.

Free Software Foundation founder Richard M. Stallman also has shown increased interest in visiting the second-largest country on the globe. India's thousand-million-plus population and software talent could shape the world of computing in the years to come.

As connectivity spreads across India, a growing number of young Indians are contributing to the global pool of GNU/Linux programming. Free Software Foundation-India recently registered as a not-for-profit company, under Section 25 of the Indian Companies Act. Stepped-up attempts also are on to find Indian-language solutions for GNU/Linux-based computing.

Fred Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.

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Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

dmarti's picture

If this was the good old "act serious about Linux to get money from Microsoft" tactic,

it worked. (I'm surprised all Microsoft customers don't do this.)

Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

kmashraf's picture

The only hope for the masses in India as far as computing is concerned is Free Software. We cannot afford M$ at $ prices. But like a lot of the other comments, are our politicians up to it. In all these years our politicians have never provided the means for people to improve their lives. The IT power that we are is due to the people and not the politician or government. So we the people will adopt Free Software and eventually the government will have no choice but follow the people. A case in point. The 'cable' revolution. People took into their own hands to distribute and today it is one of the largest cable networks in the world. Catering to millions of Indians at prices that they can afford. Free software can do the same for the millions of India who currently cannot afford computing at all.

Long live the Free Software Revolution

Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

Anonymous's picture

Why is everyone so bent on what the "government" does or does not. This is the old extreme socialistic approach, government policies in a modern democratic society should be driven by the people and their capitalistic zeal!

Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

Anonymous's picture

Being a 27 year old indian and a GNU/Linux enthusiast, I can definitely tell that this is yet another "hoax" by indian politicians. If you look closer to the issue (as has been pointed out by one of the interviewed) , its clear that this comes out of the politicians fear of loosing microsoft contract and the bribery associated with it. Its a country where 99% of the politicians and beurocrats have just one "religion" called "correption". Any thing which is "free" (free as in beer ! ) and not associated with bribery is some thing they want LAST. Also, this particular government has surpassed all previous records of corruption and bribery. It is to be noted that some of the poerfull politicians like " IT state" chief minister Mr. Naidu have an excellent relation with Bill gates and micorosoft in particular.

The only ray of hope for the GNU/Linux and open source is the increase in user base and financial benefits associated with free softwares which might ultimately can force companies to think of free softwares. But still at government level , NEVER EXPECT ANY MIGRATION TO GNU/LINUX IN ANY NEAR FUTURE !!!!!!!

linux rules in indian univ and college

Anonymous's picture

we have no bill $$$ to pay!!!

Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

Anonymous's picture

Definitelly India should be serious about this(atleast from now), B'cause India has so many IT Universities and colleges etc.. being a developing country the GOVT does'nt have much fund for buying licensed Software for education field. So they should go for Open source software. In india we get 100's of thousands of people who has got expertise in Unix/Linux...SO it will be easy for everyone to switch to Open source.

corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

I live in the USA and detest claims of corruption as the plague of only '3rd-world' countries - here in the US, it starts in th white house. Mr Bush 'repaid' his debts to those who bribed him by appointing ex-enron crooks in his cabinet. Then he instructed the DOJ whose head HE appointed to 'settle' with m$, which was his biggest campaign 'contribitor'.

In fact, its alive and well in corporations, too. I have been in the IT business for over a dozen years and have seen m$ products foisted on IT depts against their wishes, with declarations of "edicts from above, to reduce TCO" right from the times of windows 3.

So far, only Europeans, esp. the scandinavians seem to put their money where their mouth is. m$ ( and intel, too) has too many tentacles wrapped around corporate floozies here in the US for linux to be adopted.

Re: corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

Ultimately it is respect for democracy that will be its saviour. If we cheapen it with corrupting influences that will only lead to its demise. Can anyone contemplate a world WITHOUT democracy.

When you know better, you should do better, for enlightenment and knowledge is truly the gift of God to man.

Re: corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

>>So far, only Europeans, esp. the scandinavians seem to put their money where their mouth is. m$ ( and intel, too) has too many tentacles wrapped around corporate floozies here in the US for linux to be adopted.

I don't necessarily agree:

www.ibm.com/software/success/cssdb.nsf/topstoriesFM?OpenForm&Site=linuxa...

Re: corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

Thank you for saying that. Just because the bribery in the US is more sophisticated does not make is less despicable. As far as I can tell, they are about to set up senate.ebay.gov and house.ebay.gov to make bidding on "favorable" bills more convenient.

Re: corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

Actually, MBNA was George W. Bush's single largest campaign contributor, according to www.opensecrets.org. Microsoft, if they contributed to his campaign at all, did not even crack the top 20.

For the record, Mr. Bush also has not been convicted of accepting bribes, and as far as my research can tell, no members of his current Cabinet are former Enron executives.

Getting your facts straight before you post is a Good Thing.

Re: cabinet position

Anonymous's picture

The poster probably thought Army Secretary was a cabinet position.

Re: corruption in ALL governments

Anonymous's picture

This is mis-informed debate. Please visit http://www.globalcorruptionreport.org/index.htm or the web site of Transparency International before commenting. Corruption is a subjective issue like human rights and countries can be graded. To say that all countries have corruption is like saying the Taj Mahal and the White House are both buildings. It is a simplistic view of a complex issue.

Re: Indian Government's Reported Move Makes News, Then Fuels Ske

Anonymous's picture

As far as I can tell, India has been a Unix shop forever...

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