Grassroots push for 'open source' in Indian software
By Frederick Noronha
BANGALORE, Aug 26 (IANS): 'Open source' and free software could open up new
windows of opportunity both for coders in the Indian software power-house,
and also to benefit those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Soaring global software prices, tightening anti-piracy laws and even just
the ethical edge it promises is pushing campaigners from across the country
to lobby with international organisations and governments for the greater
use of 'non-proprietorial' software.
Increasingly, a small but growing band of 'free software' and open-source
advocates are pushing for a greater emphasis to this form of software.
Unlike proprietorial software, open-source can be freely copied and shared
"If we calculate the actual cost (of pirated software being used in the
... country) India would lose a significant chunk of its billions earned
from its software earnings," argues mahiti.org CEO Sunil Abraham.
mahiti.org is a Bangalore-based non-profit organisation that works to
'affordable and simple' solutions to the non-governmental and non-profit
sector. Bangalore's NGO sector is rather active, while this city is also
considered the software Mecca and sometimes called India's Silicon Valley.
Such a trend pushing towards 'open source' was visible during a United
Nations Development Programme-organised meet to shape a UNDP-Government of
India country programme on information and communication technologies (ICTs)
for development held here on the weeked.
Dominant global players, represented by firms like Microsoft, are
hard-pressed to swim against the 'open source' demands.
"Every technology has its pluses and minuses. If you find it is suitable for
your purposes, go ahead and use it (open source software). But do an
evaluation first. Don't be biased. Nothing is really free," argued
Microsoft's manager for technical services in North India, Punya Palit.
"It's not just the 'operating system' that is available, but some 1500
application softwares that come along with it," said Pune-based Systems
Research Institute executive director Jagdish G Krishnayya. He pointed to
the potential of software like Linux, which is getting increasingly noticed.
'Open source' or free software refers to non-proprietorial software that
often allows its users to copy the programme across many computers, meaning
that the cost of the software often plunges to unbelievable lows.
Its proponents argue that while this may at first seem as affecting the
viability of software businesses, it would throw open vast new fields to
software usage in time to come.
"Instead of spending money running after software piracy, the Government of
India should spend the funds to promote open source software (which would
also bring down piracy of proprietorial software)," Abraham argues.
Other initiatives also give hint of the potential sought to be tapped in the
field of open source software.
Recently, UNDP's offices in the US were on the lookout for suitable Indian
participants for a global conference, to be held in October at
Washington-DC, on the use of 'open source for e-governance'.
Delhi-based alternative organisation Sarai, affiliated to the Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), along with a forum of lawyers in
Bangalore and mahiti.org, plan to build a 'copyleft registry'.
This would list all resources which are publicly accessible and freely
reproduceable -- thus promoting its sharing, while at the same time
protecting the rights of the person who created the work.
But Abraham argues that public money -- spent on research institutions and
universities -- should go towards building software that remains
publicly-accessible, and thus 'open source'. He also points out that big
names worldwide -- including Nasa, Nato and Walt Disney -- were going in for
open source software, and there was no justification for India not.
NGO workers and IT specialists also point to other related issues that block
the power of computing in a country like India. Besides the software blocks,
there are other factors hampering the greater use of computers in this
country of a thousand million people but where PCs sold each year are barely
two million or less.
Computing was not benefiting the commonman because it was being divided by
multiple standards, multiple vendors, its too-expensive nature, solutions
that don't fit Indian requirements, and more importantly the lack of
adequate and affordable local language technologies, it was pointed out.
"There is this hype created by computer vendors that hardware needs to be
updated constantly," says Government of Madhya Pradesh commissioner for
family welfare Aruna Sharma, agreeing at this meet in some way on the need
for countries like India to look to alternatives to battle the so-called
'digital divide' that excludes the poor from the power of computing.
Pointing to other options coming up, Dr P Venkatachalam of the Indian
Institute of Technology (Mumbai) said that India expects to have satellites
that would offer hi-tech 'cartosat' information with detailed images in some
two years time.
But, he cautioned, the country would probably have not yet built up enough
capacity and skills to make optimal use of such images, which could have
considerable applications in rural areas and development.
As this workshop pushed the attention on using ICTs for development,
Government of India's Department of IT e-governance director S.P.Singh said
fishermen in parts of the country -- particularly the southern Maharashtra
coast -- were already using suitable technology.
Some in Ratnagiri, coastal Maharashtra, had gained some access to low-cost
fish-finders, global-positioning systems that identified their location and
communication equipment which was being used to boost fish-catches.