[linuxinindia] FEATURE: In Pakistan, the govt looks to the LUG...

IN PAKISTAN, THE GOVERNMENT LOOKS TO THE LINUX USERS' GROUP

From Frederick Noronha
fred@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It must be quite flattering when a government sits up, takes note of the
potential of a Linux-users group, and prominently features it in
advertisements noticed nationwide.

This happened recently in Pakistan, where a small but growing band of
GNU/Linux enthusiasts -- and some senior policy planners working at another
level -- have understood impact that this alternative computing operating
system could have for their plans. 

Sometime in June, the English-language newspaper 'The Dawn' published from
the port city of Karachi, announced: "... The Government of Pakistan is
committing itself to the reduction of piracy and the protection of
intellectual property. Linux and open source technologies are the corner
stone of this initiative."

Deploying GNU/Linux to avoid piracy might be unexpected logic. But in the
sub-continent of South Asia -- covering the populous regions of India,
Pakistan and smaller neighbours -- per capita income hovers around US$300 a
year. 

Affordability of software prices is a key issue, and faced by repeated
charges of 'piracy' of costly proprietorial software, some are beginning to
see GNU/Linux as an option.

(This is perhaps one reason why the many forms of 'freedom' offered by
GNU/Linux is also sometimes interpreted in terms of the 'price freedom' and
affordability it offers users here, though this may not be seen as too
important an issue in the more-affluent world.) 

Pakistan's Technology Resource Mobilization Unit (www.tremu.gov.pk) has been
established by the Government of Pakistan to enable groups of professionals
to exchange views and coordinate activities in their sectors. 

One is to focus on GNU/Linux.

"These physical and virtual groups involve volunteers in Pakistan and
abroad, who contribute to policy making by the Government of Pakistan. Each
group has national and regional coordinators. Meetings, seminars and
conferences are held to debate, crystallize and propagate relevant ideas,
concepts and policy directions," the Pakistani government announced
recently.

On the GNU/Linux front, "the task force is expected to include committed
professionals (e.g.PLUC), academics, and practicing software developers to
set the future direction for Pakistan", it was officially announced via the
Pakistani press. PLUC is the Pakistan Linux Users' Community. 

PLUC was formed in December 1999 by Abdul Basit <basit@xxxxxxxx>, PLUC's
current moderator. Initially, there were just eight members in the group. In
a couple of months, the PLUC list increased to 30. By 2001, there were 100+.
Now there are over 170 members subscribed to the PLUC mailing list, and some
three hundred registered at http://www.linuxpakistan.net

Basit and his friends launched this network from the Sir Syed University
(SSUET) in Karachi. It is codenamed Linuxpakistan.

Plans are to have a "Linux force" -- as it has been described -- to hold
meetings, seminars and conferences to educate the user community. 

"They will also come with proposals to the government (for) funding such as
the creation of user-friendly client/server software, training strategies,
local language software development, the induction of LINUX into (the) basic
syllabi, etc," says the government in an advert published in The Dawn
newspaper of Karachi. 

TReMU, Pakistan's Technology Resource Mobilization Unit, has plans to set up
secure network and e-commerce task forces too, in addition to the GNU/Linux
task force. 

"The main qualifications to participate are a commitment to volunteer your
time and intellectual inputs, to work in a team, and to have a desire for
the betterment of the country," says TReMU, making an appeal to the
patriotism of the GNU/Linux techies. 

It anticipates that these groups will "enable a sharing of resources and
ideas". Besides, TReMU hopes that several of the ideas could germinate into
development projects and thus "translate the brainstorming, discussion and
planning sessions into practical realities".

Those interested in participating have been asked to fill out the relevant
forms on the TReMU website, at www.gov.tremu.pk.

It's clear that some influential decision-makers and policy advisors are
keen to push towards a GNU/Linux direction. 

At worst, this would help Third World countries like Pakistan to battle
frequent charges of having "pirated" proprietorial software -- most of which
is atrociously priced from a developing country perspective. 

At best, this could help Pakistan, which like neighbouring India has a long
reputation for its software skills, with building up skills which encourages
its young programmers to understand better and go further in, given the
transparent and collaborative nature of the GNU/Linux software.

Ovais Khan <ovaiskhan80@xxxxxxxxx> wrote in to PLUC recently: "There was an
ad on Page 21 of The Dawn about the creation of a task force for Linux,
secure networks and e-commerce. The interesting thing is that the name of
PLUC is in the ad. Congrats (PLUC's key driving force Abdul) Basit
<basic@xxxxxxxx> and all the others."

But some felt differently.

Fawad Halim <fawad@xxxxxxxxx> commented: "I'm very skeptical about anything
(good) coming from the Government, but let's see what comes out of this."

Bilal Muddassir shot back: "I think the only organization that can mobilize
immense amounts of resources (of course if it wants to) for a particular
purpose currently in Pakistan is a government organization. Being skeptical
is okay..." 

Pakistan Ministry of Science and Technology advisor Salman Ansari
<salman@xxxxxxxxxxxx> recently told this correspondent that he sees other
uses for GNU/Linux deployment.

For instance, some 50,000 low cost computers are to be installed in schools
and colleges all over Pakistan. These will be PII computers, each being
sourced for less than $100 a piece, he says.

Proprietary software for these PCs would cost a small fortune. Surely more
than what the computers cost! But, using GNU/Linux as the OS would ensure
that the overall prices are kept low. Pakistan is seriously considering the
use of Star Office, an Open Source productivity tool that does the same work
as proprietary software costing thousands of rupees.

"Don't be surprised if we become the first country in the world to say that
all (government-run) services are going to be GNU/Linux based," says an
enthusiastic Ansari. It's to be seen if these dreams can be accomplished.

"I've set up several networks. When I started setting them up six years ago,
the only thing I could run them with, without breaking the law, was Linux.
At that time, Windows NT was very flaky. So I've developed a very healthy
respect for Linux and Open Source," says Ansari. 

Half-sarcastically, he adds with a smile: "Though I'm a typical Pakistani, I
still feel a bit uncomfortable in buying pirated software, and paying 90
cents for a software priced US$500."

Ansari says Pakistan has been speaking to some big vendors of proprietorial
prices. "We told them we would like to do business with them, but for that
the pricing would have to be realistic first," says he. 

If current software prices are taken into account, to go 'legal' Pakistan
would have to pay something like US$400 for converting each of its PCs to
proprietorial software. 

"The Business Software Alliance (the network promoting and protecting the
interests of proprietorial software) has been going all out for it. But they
have to come in at a price which equates to the economics of the country,"
argues Ansari.

Ansari points to the belief which says that if professionals want to enter
the software development field need to get into Open Source. "You will be
then able to create products, and not just projects," says he.

It makes sense in terms of regional language solutions front too. "Urdu (the
national language of Pakistan) language software is easier (to use) if it
resides at the OS level," he adds.

Ansari says that as chairman of the peer review committee of all IT
projects, he has been keen to turn down any project that uses pirated
software. "But what this (asking for non-pirated software) ends up doing is
that it bloats the cost of the software," he complains, suggesting the Open
Source could be a way out.

Says he: "There are two interesting initiatives now. We're launching a major
e-governance programme, and the government must have legal software. We're
also planning to put in computers in rural schools. Both are going to be
high profile projects. We want to make sure they don't use pirated software,
even while we work on cleaning out other PCs..."

Ansari says this has 'thrown open the debate' in Pakistan. One instance is
that the Technology Resource Mobilization Unit has a task force on Linux.
The government has also agreed to put in Rs 200 million to fund R&D and
software product development, which the government would then own and
distribute for free -- cutting into the very logic of proprietorial
software.

On the client-side, efforts are on to build a GUI interface for Linux, by
working at the OS level for projects which relate to text-to-speech,
language translation and language-related software. 

"But at the same time, we're not stopping anyone (in government) from buying
branded products. So long as they can justify it and negotiate a good price
(the justification for which has to be very valid)," says the US-returned
engineer. 

"In a government contract, if you're going to bid for computers which has a
legal OS and office suite, guess who's going to win," he says.

Three aspects take priority on this front, says Ansari.

Firstly, encouraging legal software. Secondly, enabling a 'complete industry
growth' for product development based on Linux. And, thirdly, making people
"very, very aware" of this powerful tool. 

GNU/Linux is something which "almost everybody has adopted, whether it's
Sun, Oracle or IBM". This would reduce the cost of computing for the people,
even while we would like to use non-pirated software, says Ansari.

He finds it ludicrous to believe the BSA's estimation that India uses 63%
pirated software, while Pakistan's figure is something like 83%. "Their
current paradigm is simply to count the number of computers shipped, and
multiply this by five, on the assumption that each computer needs five
pieces of software. This is a ludicrous way of estimating things," says he.

Says he: "Sure, piracy is far high. If everybody somehow started using
Linux, we'd fall below the US piracy levels, and maybe have 2% piracy. We
want to be ahead of these guys before they start their next 'war on
terrorism' (using the issue of 'intellectual property')."

Ansari also argues that Pakistan wants the likes of Microsoft to come out
with prices that are reasonable. "We want companies like those to also come
and invest in the country, where software or drivers could be written here,"
he argues.

Youngsters -- smitten by the power of GNU/Linux -- sing its praises too. 

Says Zuhair Ali <zuhair_ali@xxxxxxxxx> who works in networking and has done
his Masters in Physics and Systems Engineering: "I'm interested in Linux
because of the fact that in Linux you know what's going on. Nothing is
hidden from you behind nice dialog boxes as in Windows. It's a very good toy
for me as I can play and tweak as much as I want and I have all the
necessary help and information from the Net." 

Ali informs that earlier this year, he and his friends started a chapter of
the PLUC in the national capital of Islamabad. It started small, with just
four members. 

Twenty-two year old Zeeshan Ashraf of Karachi, CTO at the Pakistan-based
Specific Research Laboratories <zee_shan56@xxxxxxxxx>, says that PLUC
colleague Basit has developed a distro called 'PK-Linux'. Ashraf himself is
working on developing a distro for the embedded and industrial market "much
of the likes of what IBM and Cisco did for their forthcoming hardware".

Ashraf is also designing an 'industrial PC' and is "in the process of making
a distro for real-time Linux that would go with this PC and and would have
all the drivers to support the custom hardware that we ship with this PC".

Other Linux enthusiasts however drop hints that it won't be easy convincing
all the many decision-makers and government officials to go along with a
pro-Linux policy. 

"The LINUX community is very large, but it needs to be assembled together.
PLUC is doing this effort towards bringing all the LINUX user base on a
group, so all and everybody can benefit from the experiences of the others,
and get their queries answered," says Ashraf. 

Meetings are held regularly every month, and now PLUC has now undertaken an
initiative of spreading the community further by approaching Universities
and delivering seminars or conducting workshops, ad educating the students
of the endless possibilities of GNU/Linux.

But much needs to be done. For one, the potential of GNU/Linux in countries
like Pakistan is not fully appreciated globally. Partly, it's a problem with
poor communication.

Argues Ashraf: "There's mostly no development being done in Pakistan on the
OS level. And, even if there are a few people who are doing this, they
(don't publicize it). So, since the national community does not know of this
endeavour, how can we expect the international market to appreciate this?"

He himself has been working to develop a hardware card which will provide
the most common network busses for the Industrial developer. Ashraf plans to
incorporate all the drivers and APIs for this in the Linux kernel, most
probably in the PK-Linux distro too. Zeeshan 'Shan' Ashraf is the IT manager
of a pharma company.

Says he: "Linux has a lot of potential, and features that can be excellent
for Third World (developing) countries like Pakistan. It's free (affordable)
and has almost all the same software and hardware-base as does Windows or
any other OS for that matter.  Pakistan, specially the government-maintained
organisations, schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions can
benefit from deploying Linux (as it would provide affordable solutions) and
also make it possible to utilise old legacy systems. This would cut costs."

ENDS




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