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'Open Source can make India a knowledge superpower'

Dec 19, 2008

Open source software is the ideal vehicle for quickly bringing the benefits of mass computerisation at a reduced cost feel Sandeep Sehgal and Venkatesh Hariharan from Red Hat India Pvt Ltd. The writers argue that the user-friendly technology holds immense benefits for education and egovernance projects.

Despite India's halo as a software services superpower, and trade analysts screaming from the top about India's dominance as an outsourcing destination – it is also a fact that Information Technology in India has so far touched only a fraction of our population.

It is easy to see why? At the individual level, India's per capita income is INR 26,430 ($600), while Personal Computers (PC) hardware costs INR 10,000 ($227) and proprietary operating systems and office productivity applications costs approximately INR 11,000 ($250). This means that the cost of hardware and software is more than the annual income of most Indians!

Is it a surprise that access to the latest technology is a privilege of a few? If India has to progress ahead on the path of modernisation, and if PC's have to be made affordable, the cost of basic software has to come down. Our challenge is that most of the proprietary software we use is built in developed countries, whose purchasing power is far more than countries like India.

Clearly, India needs a different approach and needs a far more affordable model that suits our purchasing power.

Just like we embraced the latest technologies in telecom to leapfrog other countries simply because we are not saddled with legacy infrastructure, we can do the same with software too. Open Source Software (OSS) offers us this opportunity today, and can be used as a powerful tool to build the foundation upon which we can build an inclusive society that is critical for India's future.

The model of OSS is perfectly suited for India, as users have the choice of software programs, whose code they can freely modify, change, deploy and redistribute it. The ability to modify the source code leads to greater innovation.

This is why Linux runs on a vast variety of hardware platforms – from the Mars Rover to giant supercomputers to tiny embedded computers. Open source gives power back to the users and enables them to modify the source code to suit their needs.

Power to the people

The open source model and its three tenets of community, collaborations and shared ownership of intellectual resources can have tremendous benefits for countries, especially in the area of education and e-governance.

In education, for instance, the Indian government has embarked upon an aggressive plan of spending approximately six percent of its GDP on modernising its education system. Its IT Policy incorporates provisions to develop human resources for IT in the country, including literacy programmes and Internet access at school level.

If each of India's 12,30,200 educational institutions were to be computerised using the bare essential proprietary operating systems and application software, the cost at current market rates would touch an astronomical sum of over INR 1000 crores.

Even assuming that monopoly software vendors give their software free of cost for educational purposes, the benefits of this flow back to the vendor because students who grow up using this software will ultimately have to purchase the software at prices dictated by the vendor.

The Department of Information Technology (DIT) has recognised the relevance of open source in its efforts to increase PC penetration and bridge the digital divide. DIT's 11th five year plan (2007-2012) says that we must seriously pursue open source software and encourage localisation of open source software to make IT accessible to Indians.

India represents the aspirations of a billion people. And open source is the ideal vehicle for quickly bringing the benefits of mass computerisation at a reduced cost. For a nation that has close to 22 official languages, Linux is an ideal platform for making technology accessible to the majority of the population of India that does not speak English.

The Indian open source community has localised OSS programs to Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali and many other languages. Localisation plays a huge role in adoption, as governments can use technology to communicate to citizens in their own language. Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop for instance, is available in 11 Indian languages including - Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu.

Making e-governance more efficient

In the area of e-governance, the government spending on software development can be made more efficient if it adopts the open source model that promotes the sharing of software code.

Government departments across different states have the same requirements and instead of each developing separate programmes for the same task, they could share the same code base and make minor changes to suit the needs of each state.

Since a significant percentage of new software implementations end up as failures, such sharing eliminates a lot of the risk involved in IT implementations. The biggest beneficiaries of such sharing are the newly formed states of India where the IT departments have limited manpower.

Given the population and geographical spread of India, the open source model based on collaboration, community and shared ownership of intellectual resources can save the country thousands of crores of rupees and eliminate much wasted time and effort.

Red Hat, for instance, has executed more than 70 e-gov projects across India. The e-Courts project launched by former president APJ Abdul Kalam selected Red Hat Enterprise Linux as the operating system for the 15,000 notebook computers delivered to judges across India.

It is important to note that judges, due to the nature of their job, need high security for the information of the judgments they make.

This is where Linux is far more secure than any other OS, as the collaborative nature of open source development ensures better security. In open source, security vulnerabilities are often discovered by the community itself whereas in the proprietary world vulnerabilities are often exposed by malicious hackers.

As a country, India faces enormous challenges of development, and we need to encourage such efforts that make the best use of taxpayers' money. OSS offers such a model, and can enable India to be a knowledge superpower based on the foundation of affordability, innovation and sensitivity to local needs.

The Internet was such a huge success as it was founded on open standards. Now, it is time for India to take such a step in Open Source, and reap the benefits of a nation whose time has surely come – be it cricket, space or technology!

Source : egov
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