eGovernance in India

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INDIA: What the President Told Bill Gates (long)

Posted by egovindia on June 21, 2006

INDIA: What the President Told Bill Gates (long)

What the President Told Bill Gates

By Keya Acharya

BANGALORE, INDIA (PANOS) – In November 2002, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates
called on India's nuclear scientist-turned President, APJ Abdul Kalam, at
the grand presidential palace in New Delhi. But what was billed as a
salubrious meeting of minds – the head of the world's largest software
company meeting a visionary 'techie' President – apparently turned into a
"difficult" occasion.

In a stunning speech delivered to software engineers in May, Kalam disclosed
that in his conversation with Gates, the President pitched for open-source
software codes – which are available for alteration so anyone with the
technical knowledge can change the programme to suit their needs.

"Our discussion became difficult since our views were different," Kalam
added in an allusion to Microsoft's reported reservation to such
'non-proprietary' software.

Much more was in store for Kalam's audience – typical of the breed of bright
young engineers who have turned India into a leading Information Technology
nation.

"The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in
proprietary solutions," the President lectured. "Further spread of IT which
is influencing the daily life of individuals would have a devastating effect
on the lives of society due to any small shift in the business practice
involving these proprietary solutions. It is precisely for these reasons
open-source software needs to be built which would be cost effective for the
entire society. In India open-source-code software will have to come and
stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people."

The remarks by Kalam, who believes in linking human and economic development
with science and technology, address an important issue in the development
of information technologies, particularly in poor countries. The issue is
whether countries such as India, which are pluralistic and have large poor
populations, should opt for expensive proprietary software such as Microsoft
(which cannot be altered) or go for cheap or free non-proprietary software
that can be changed around to suit the needs of a diverse multi-lingual
nation.

Of equal concern is the loss of choice, or freedom, that proprietary
technology imposes on democratic governments by controlling the programming
codes of, and being privy to, official government projects. Open-source
programming would remedy this, as well as allow local adaptations. Globally,
open-source software has not caught on in a big way, but it has notched up
some successes. Countries in which legislation has been passed urging
open-source use include Brazil, France, Italy and Spain. Countries in which
non-legislative actions have been taken include China, Germany and South
Korea. And among other countries where open source solutions are being
proposed are Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and
Venezuela.

Abhas Abhinav, a young IT entrepreneur in India's technology capital of
Bangalore, explains the features of an open-source software package called
Knoppix: "It's very simple. You have the same features as in a Microsoft
Windows application; you get secure, virus-free, regional-language options
in inexpensively-priced systems."

Abhinav runs DeepRoot Linux, a software company that developed Knoppix for a
radically different computer operating system: GNU/Linux.

It is the result of a dedicated group of computer programmers who set out to
create an open-source, free-software alternative to industry giants like
Microsoft and Macintosh. Members of India's open-source movement take time
off to visit your office or home and demonstrate GNU/Linux – for free.

India, with its IT sector employing half a million people and generating an
annual income of $10 billion, represents a huge growth market in software.
Nevertheless, commercial for-profit software – or 'proprietary' software –
still rules in India, especially within government departments. According to
Bob Hayward, Vice President (Asia-Pacific) of Gartner Research Services, the
Indian government spent $1 billion on IT in 2002.

"Microsoft now controls the database of various government servers," says
Abhinav. "Apart from losing intellectual property rights, proprietary
domination restricts technology-dissemination." Abhinav touches on the
concern that government departments will become 'locked in' to a system of
unalterable software with source-codes that are untouchable. Not having
access to the source-code means that not only do you never completely
understand the system, but also that you may end up being controlled by the
software itself – and, by extension, the software manufacturers.

Not only that, but proprietary systems cost money. In India, as in all
developing countries, most people cannot afford commercial systems and the
software that goes with them. So, with a proprietary setting in a poor
country, the number of people who can afford to be IT-connected will remain
small, with implications for economic growth and development.

But such concerns are rarely articulated by Indian leaders, Kalam being a
notable exception. In the south, where India's IT initiatives were
pioneered, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh state – the media-savvy,
laptop-toting Chandrababu Naidu – invited Bill Gates to set up his India
office in the IT corridor of the capital Hyderabad.

Among many members of India's ruling elite, Gates is seen as the most
important international personality after the President of the United
States. Gates has returned the complement. He has visited India thrice – in
1997, 2000 and 2002 – each time making significant donations to charities
and meeting with high-level authorities. Every visit has received saturation
media coverage.

In September 2000, 10 Indian chief ministers fell over themselves to heap
praises on Gates after a luncheon meeting with him in New Delhi. During the
2002 visit, at four days the longest so far, Gates donated $100 million to
the fight against AIDS, although Gates has said there is no connection
between his business and charity work.

Microsoft's India office in New Delhi did not answer queries from Panos
Features on whether its business strategy for India complies with the
anti-predatory and anti-monopolistic business practices being imposed on it
in various states in the United States. But the company did issue this
official statement from its headquarters in Redmond, US:

"Microsoft is committed to helping governments develop strong, sustainable
IT infrastructures that deliver ease of use, value through innovative
technology, a clear roadmap for future development, and access to
source-code to improve security and implementation. At the end of the day,
we believe Microsoft offers the best overall option of value, integration,
interoperability and support, without complexity or added dependency on
services."

An overwhelming 91% of government departments in New Delhi use Microsoft's
Windows 98 software; nearly 67% use Windows XP; with a mere 16% using
GNU/Linux according to a report in the Economic Times newspaper in India in
April.

Some thinkers view the issue of 'software localization' in political terms.
In many nations, says Prof. Kenneth Keniston of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in the US, the dominant positions in society are held by
cosmopolitan, internationally-oriented business, professional and
intellectual elites. "For them, 'localization' to vernacular languages and
local cultures may be unnecessary and/or even undesirable, since English (or
French, or Spanish, or another European language) may provide the best
possible access to the rest of the world."

In Karnataka state, with Bangalore as its capital, officials pass the buck
as to why proprietary software rules its roost. "Our Technical Advisory
Panel selected the best available options during the time," says the state
government's IT Secretary Vivek Kulkarni.

Yet sources within the Panel – a mix of scientists, management and technical
experts – speak of being presented with no alternatives. The e-networking
tender for the state government's secretariat, for instance, insisted it use
only Microsoft Windows, while Panel members preferred Sun Microsystems'
Lotus Notes or Star Office.

The costs are telling: Star Office 5.2 is free, while 6.0 costs about $45
per license (or computer) without an expiry date. Microsoft 2000 costs the
government approximately $375 per license, after a discount of roughly $100.
The license expires after three years, at which point the government has to
buy anew.

Rajeev Chawla, Karnataka's newly-designated 'E-Secretary' (head of an
E-Governance department that is independent of the IT department), is
dismissive of the costs of proprietary software. "Don't tell me to constrain
myself when my software costs are just 5% of my total finances," he said.
The costs involved may be a small part of government budgets, but activists
say using only proprietary software at government departments restricts
choice and sends the wrong signals to ordinary people.

There are other costs. One IT official told Panos Features on condition of
anonymity that the Karnataka government's decision to pay Microsoft Rs. 3.3
million (approx. $700,000) to have some of its software declared
'non-pirated', has caused debate within its Technical Advisory Panel.

Sunil Abraham, whose Bangalore-based firm Mahiti customises open-source
products for non-governmental organisations, believes there must be greater
transparency and civil society participation on IT issues in India.  "We
need independent audits set up to monitor e-governance because civil society
has no information on what is going on," says Abraham./PANOS

June, 2003 * 1,470 words
Keya Acharya is a Bangalore-based Indian journalist specialising in
development and environmental issues.

The Panos Institute * Visit our website at http://www.panos.org.uk
9 White Lion Street * London N1 9PD * UK * Phone: + (44) 207-239 7609

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