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Open Source can make India a knowledge superpower

18 December 2008

Sandeep Sehgal and Venkatesh Hariharan

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Open source software brings the benefits of mass computerisation at a reduced cost, say 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 (IT) in India has so far touched only a fraction of our population. It is easy to see why.

The cost of hardware and software is more than the annual income of most Indians!

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 & office productivity applications cost 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 PCs 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 are built in developed countries, whose purchasing power is far more than countries like India. Clearly, India needs a different approach because it is a different country, 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 Government of India has embarked upon an aggressive plan of spending approximately six percent of its GDP on modernising its education system. The IT Policy of the Government of India incorporates provisions to develop human resources for IT in the country, including literacy programmes and Internet access at school level.

The cost of computerising an education system that consists of 12,30,200 educational institutions and 231 million children in the age group of 6-19 can only be imagined. 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. As these students grow up and become part of the next 100 million IT users in India, the foreign exchange outflow involved will be huge if they are dependent on proprietary software.

And we haven't yet begun talking about the cost of educational software programs that need to run on top of the operating systems.

The Department of Information Technology (DIT), Government of India, has recognised the relevance of open source in its efforts to increase PC penetration and bridge the digital divide.

Why open source makes perfect sense for India?

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. Even when you view it from the point of localisation, open source represents tremendous opportunities.

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.

Many localisation groups in India that are working on bringing Indian language computing to the masses have embraced open source software and Linux as their de-facto standard. Since proprietary software vendors did not take the initiative to localise their operating systems and applications to Indian languages, localisation groups turned to open source software like Linux, and other programs.

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.

Powering e-Governance

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 government department 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.

One huge benefit of such sharing is that state governments can cut down their risk by implementing software that has been tried and tested in other state governments. 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.

In India, open source adoption has moved from hype to reality, and a huge number of state governments have evinced deep interest in using open source.

The collaborative nature of open source development ensures better security.

As the source code can be evaluated, vetted and fixed by the open source community, the security of open source is constantly improving. 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.

Source : eGov

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