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

by Fred Noronha

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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