ON July 10, the Union Cabinet approved the continuation of the information technology-research hub Media Lab Asia (MLA) but in a restructured form. It will now be wholly-owned government institution with an annual budgetary support of Rs. 65 crores. The lab had been established at the initiative of the former Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Pramod Mahajan, in 2001 as a collaborative venture between the Government of India and the United States' Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the MIT-Media Lab being run under the stewardship of Prof. Nicholas Negroponte as the model (Frontline, July 4).
The venture had envisaged a total investment of over Rs.5,000 crores ($1 billion) over a period of 10 years with 80 per cent of the funding coming from non-governmental sources. However, after the exploratory first phase of the collaboration (18 months after MLA came into being), the collaboration was terminated under controversial circumstances. According to Arun Shourie, the present Minister of Communications and Information Technology who effected the break-up, the collaboration agreement was not renewed after March 31 as MIT's value-addition and inputs to the projects undertaken by Indian institutions were not in evidence in spite of the hefty sum (Rs.9.5 crores) paid to MIT and the exclusivity of the tie-up. Also, private sponsorship that had been expected had not materialised at all. MIT, on the other hand, had maintained that it was MIT that had pulled out of the collaboration on its own when it realised that the new Minister differed with MIT on the manner in which MLA should function.
A restructuring plan for the MLA, which did not have any exclusive links with any specific institution, was then submitted to the Cabinet by the Minister with a much scaled down investment for the remaining period of nine years. The plan envisaged much more realistic contributions from the private sector. The plan envisaged a total investment of Rs.900 crores for the Tenth and the Eleventh Plan periods with Rs.250 crores coming from non-governmental sources. The Cabinet has basically approved this Rs.650 crores funding from the government, which essentially works out to Rs.65 crores a year, the same as what had been invested during 2002-03 with MIT's participation.
In 2002-03, of the Rs.65 crores allocated, Rs.33 crores had been spent. In its initial phase, funding has been approved till the end of the Tenth Plan; that is, for the next four years. A Steering Committee will review MLA's performance at the end of this period and decide on its future course.
The reworked structure gives a greater role for the Human Resource Development Ministry since institutions such as the IITs that will carry out projects under the MLA hub come under it. The Steering Committee will, therefore, include the Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Shourie, the Secretary of the Department of Information Technology (DIT) and representatives of academic institutions associated with MLA. The institutional linkages will be non-exclusive and on a project-by-project basis. According to sources, corporate funding will be sought once guidelines on sharing intellectual property rights are worked out.R. RAMACHANDRAN