Bill Gates Pumps Money into India, Education, Localization

by Frederick Noronha

When Richard M. Stallman's visit to India coincided with Bill Gates' trip here in early November, there naturally were some fireworks. Although the big story was the money Gates pledged to donate to India, ideals from the Free/Libre and open-source software world have had an impact.

During his trip, Stallman maintained a low profile and took a largely volunteer-supported visit of India, even while the ideas he spends a lifetime to uphold kept getting bounced back and forth across this vast country.

Gates, meanwhile, hogged the headlines with his millions of dollars donation to battle AIDS. Mainstream journalists fell over each other to get a wide range of stories from different parts of the country about the doings and sayings of the world's richest man.

Behind the scenes, however, a fascinating debate was underway. It came up mainly on the Internet, via mailing-lists, and from those who disagree strongly with the software path charted by Gates.

Obviously this debate has strong implications for the future of India's software industry. For a country that sees itself as a software-superpower in the making, the question of which path to choose presents a dilemma.

During his trip, Gates downplayed the challenge Microsoft faces from GNU/Linux. But one thing seems clear: the Microsoft emphasis on education and localization is aimed at taking on fields where GNU/Linux campaigners have been working already, areas where they have accumulated appreciable interest.


In India, the Microsoft Corporation chairman outlined a long list of monetary handouts.

  • $20 million to develop India's Shiksha edtech training programme (which has an ambitious target of training more than 80,000 teachers and 3.5 million students over several years);

  • $1 million to MIT's Media Lab Asia project;

  • a $25 million, five-year grant for a children's vaccine programme against Hepatitis B in the southern Andhra Pradesh state; and

  • $100 million to battle AIDS in India.

When meeting with journalists, Gates was asked whether his philanthropic activities are connected to operations of his company. He denied this connection, arguing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is "completely independent" from his company.

In New Delhi, however, the Microsoft chief also unveiled an ambitious plan to invest $400 million in India for education, software localization and development. The $400 million donation will be invested over the next three years, Gates announced at a function to launch the Tablet PC.

Contending that it is important to localize software in India, Gates announced plans to market Microsoft XP and Office 11--code name: cash cow--in such Indian languages as Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam. Future plans include extended the localization efforts to nine more Indian languages in 2003. Work on this project is underway at Microsoft's development centre in Hyderabad.

Linked with GNU/Linux Challenge

That Gates' approach is clearly linked to the growing GNU/Linux campaigns in India is more than clear. Rajesh Mahapatra, writing for the Associated Press, commented, "Hoping to stave off a rise in the popularity of free, open-source software, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates has announced a $400-million-US investment in India." He went on to say, "The three-year initiative--part philanthropy, part business boost--seeks to entrench products of the world's dominant software company in schools and among India's multitude of talented programmers."

During his trip, Gates sought to underplay India's increased support for GNU/Linux. He argued that Microsoft's Windows remains far ahead of its competition. But the Associated Press reports otherwise: "Indian software companies are increasingly opting for Linux. Users say they prefer the open-source system because its basic code is non-proprietary, can be freely modified and makes better sense for the developing world than Windows."

In an attempt to blunt criticism about proprietary software over-charging developing countries, Gates has argued that its prices are adjusted to be "appropriate to different segments".

Microsoft--having perhaps belatedly realized the importance of catching students young, after a number of GNU/Linux school projects were reported even in Indian locations like Goa, Delhi and Kerala--now talks about charging "less" or "nothing" for software used in education.

One educator from an engineering college in India confided to this writer that moves were afoot to push Windows harder in education. He commented, on condition of anonymity

We are in the process of acquiring an MSDN Academic Alliance--available for educational institutes only. It costs around 799$ per year and gives full access to [an] OS and programs for entire institute, including an unlimited number of copies. It is useful for students (as the course curriculum involves MS tools) and for the industry too at present. Career-minded [people] still persist with MS.

Angry Response

The Free Software Foundation of India responded angrily to the Gates donations: "We regard non-free proprietary software as a problem to be solved, not as a solution to any problem."

FSF-India is a nonprofit organisation committed to "advocating, promoting and propagating the use and development of swatantra (an Indian-term for freedom) software in India". Their goal, they say, is to "ensure the long term adoption of free software".

In a publicly-released letter dated November 14, FSF-India argued that the proposed Microsoft investments "have no motive other than the motive of profit" and nobody should have the "illusion" that these "investments" are being made for the betterment of society or the development of India.

Proprietary software--supplied without its underlying source code and the freedoms to study, modify and redistribute it--was constraining indigenous development and dividing society, it argued.

The Gates' Foundation plans to donate money to the Project Shiksha, which teaches some 3.5 million children, is "tied to the condition that the project will purchase only licensed Microsoft software", said the FSF-India.

Contrary to claims that Microsoft had "low pricing", the FSF-India argued that it was not a question of the "initial software cost", but rather that "Microsoft would benefit tremendously from such a project even if it were to supply its software free of cost as long as it is Microsoft software".

The children and teachers would learn (or shall we say [become] "indoctrinated") to use only Microsoft software, allowing the company to maintain it's monopolistic stranglehold on education and beyond. This is akin to an MBBS (medical education) course teaching potential doctors how to use medicines manufactured only by one particular pharmaceutical company!

If they find problems with the software or if they wish to customize it, they will not have the means or the right to make such corrections or modifications, either by themselves or by engaging a third party. They will have to depend solely on Microsoft to provide such corrections or modifications. They will be denied the right to share the software with others outside the purview of the project premises, leading young and impressionable minds to believe that sharing is wrong!

Other Trends

Even while Gates was in India, other trends could be seen. Reports from the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), suggested that the West Bengal government is considering using free/libre and open-source operating systems like GNU/Linux as an alternative to Windows for its school computer literacy programme. Reports say the city is reported to have approached hardware-maker IBM to provide the system support.

In Kerala, educators are currently involved in writing a GNU/Linux book for 9th grade standard school students. If they're to undertake a project for eighth standard students, they need help. Volunteers are always welcome; write to Arun M is you are interested in helping.

Chapters are needed on the following topics:

o Open office (Wordprocessing/Spreadsheet/presentation)

  • Using GNU/Linux Graphical desktop (Gnome)

  • Introduction to programming (possibly Python)

  • Introductions to networks, web browsing and e-mail

  • Introductions to a few applications, such as Dr. Genius, Celestia and so on.

As previously mentioned, Richard Stallman visited India at the same Gates was here earlier this month. Stallman and Gates were on Indian television shows literally within minutes of each other. Stallman did an interview with CNBCNews' Digital Revolution program and Gates came up on StarTV's nightly news. It was strange to see them both within half an hour of each other, both speaking in India.

Gates talked about AIDS, his philanthropy, and why India should "not remake" the software products that already exist but instead go with new ones. (This was in reply to a question on why we don't see Indian global products like Windows or Word.) He also discussed why Indian computer skills would perhaps continue to remain in the "consulting and services" market rather than in products.

RMS, on the other hand, explained the concept of freedom in software and discussed how the movement initiated by the Free Software Foundation is thought by many users simply to be about Linux. He argued why attempts to merely use the Free/Libre and open-source software threat to get Microsoft to lower their prices misses the point. He also stressed that schools are a good place to start using free software. Gates later echoed Stallman's statements on this view.

One of the most trenchant critiques in the mainstream media came from Mahesh Murthy, a columnist with the mainstream Business Today magazine. He circulated an article titled "Don't Bill the Gates", in which he said, "Let's take the billionaire's health-care handouts and turn down the software handcuffs."

Murthy's contention is that from an earlier point where the Internet offered the ultimate open, extensible infrastructure, we now have offerings like Microsoft's Palladium. It, in the supposed name of security, takes the free, open nature of TCP/IP and adds proprietary bits that will ensure that Microsoft controls and gets paid virtually every time you go on the net. He argued, "You will also see new Microsoft licensing models that force you to pay subscriptions from now till forever for whatever you use. You don't have to accept it if you don't want to. There are alternatives."

The World Looking at India

For a change, it looked like the eyes of the world were on India. Khaled Alghoneim, of the Saudi Arabia GNU/Linux group, said, "After India announced its intentions to partly switch to [GNU/]Linux, Bill Gates is flying there for four days! We have tried hard here in SA to invite him (two letters from our leadership), and they say that his schedule is booked for 3 years. I think we need to announce something like the Indians [have] (and, of course, have their advanced software industry) in order to attract attention."

Added Dr. Jose Colaco, a South Asian settled in the distant Bahamas, who was equally cynical: "Interesting how [GNU/]Linux helped Gates to think of AIDS in India. Hey Billy boy, what about donating some money to Prez. Clinton's Africa-AIDS drive?"

AbdulRahman Aljadhai, also from Saudi Arabia, argued that the situation was indeed strange. Said Aljadhai: "Bill Gates thinks that Linux is more dangerous than AIDS? He is donating $421 million to fight Linux (to prop up Windows in India) and only $100 million to fight AIDS."

Frederick Noronha is a freelance writer living in Goa, India.

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