Freedom movement

Print edition : May 07, 2010
in Bangalore

Prof. K. Gopinath of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, addressing the inaugural session of the conference.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

FREE software is often perceived as the hippie or counterculture movement of the technological world. Worse still, in India it has for long remained an obscure concept confined to the world of academics and specialists.

But advocates of free software believe that software freedom is most relevant if not critical today, particularly at a time when we stand on the threshold of large-scale information and communication technology (ICT) deployment and innovation. With 27 National e-Governance Programme (NeGP) projects with a total outlay of Rs.3,334 crore at stake, and several more on the anvil, the domestic information technology industry, too, is betting heavily on these contracts.

It is in this context that the National Free Software Conference, held in Bangalore on March 20-21, places itself. The national-level conference, the third in a series, took a deeper look at the practical relevance of free software and, more importantly, the large cost-advantage it offers in a developing country like India. It drove home the point that the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software used in public services and to avoid vendor lock-in by disallowing proprietary firms from monopolising this space is imperative today. Several sessions revolved around the importance of free software both the technology and the philosophy in implementing e-governance projects and delivering public e-services.

This debate is particularly significant considering that the controversial National Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance, prepared by the Union Department of Information Technology (DIT), has been in cold storage for months now. This progressive policy, first drafted in 2007, aimed to set guidelines that mandated the adoption of open technological standards in e-governance processes. The policy was delayed following stiff opposition from proprietary software lobbies that are backed by powerful industry bodies such as the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) and the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology (MAIT). These bodies had sought the replacement of open and free standards with royalty-based ones.

The inaugural session, which had the noted Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa and Professor K. Gopinath of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, speaking on the scientific and cultural aspects of software freedom, set the tone for the conference. The two-day event had panel discussions and presentations on issues ranging from the concept of the Creative Commons to how the use of free and customisable software can make a world of difference to the visually impaired.

With over 1,200 students participating, the conference exhibited the language of free software while not losing sight of the purely technical aspects of GNU/Linux. Coding sessions, handled by experts in GNU/Linux-based programming, exposed students to the free software culture that thrives in the Linux User Groups popularly called Lugs, these form the basic units of the free software movement in academic institutions and among software professionals across the country.

Taking the discourse beyond the classical free versus proprietary software tussle, often limited to the choice of computer operating systems or the software used, Gopinath said that the concept or philosophy of free software was critical in solving global, interdependent societal problems. Free software, he believes, could be an important lubricant in allowing for transparency and flow of information between science and society. For instance, in critical and global issues such as climate change, a great deal can be achieved if the data studied and generated across the globe are shared.

Gopinath pointed out that the software needed for computation in sustainability sciences such as climate change was varied: Fundamentally, credible and actionable scientific input is needed for decision-making at local and non-local levels, both at citizen and national levels. He said that free software was a necessary lubricant in building transparency and flow of information between science and society so that effective action could be taken.

The free software movement has shown that harnessing the energies of individuals can result in great collective works such as GNU/Linux systems that are developed and owned by communities, Wikipedia and open access published academic works. In the Indian context, he believes that the ubiquitous mobile phone is a promising tool. The mobile Internet, coupled with customised free software solutions, can even help solve deep social problems that are often exacerbated owing to a lack of a common ground between affected communities, government service providers and information sources, according to him. There is a desperate need for low-cost coordinating mechanisms for handling pressing social problems such as water shortage, pollution, transportation and global warming, especially in guiding socially optimal choices in the context of problems such as current groundwater/river water exploitation and pollution, Gopinath said.

In the run-up to the Free Software Conference, Namma Debian, the localised version of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, was released at the Ambedkar Community Computing Centre in a slum in Bangalore. The centre hosted an unusual programme that included a discourse on free software, song and dance.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

So why is the deployment of free and open source software (FOSS) in e-governance critical? The huge cost advantages that free software offers over proprietary alternatives, the security and the fact that the software can be customised or tinkered to suit local requirements are what tip the balance in favour of free software, says C. Umashankar, former Managing Director of Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited (ELCOT). An ardent supporter of FOSS, the Tamil Nadu bureaucrat has been instrumental in implementing FOSS solutions in several e-governance processes ranging from documentation to servers. He regaled his young audience with two inspiring talks on Why free software is going to rule the world.

His passion and enthusiasm for GNU/Linux was contagious. As he narrated the story of how he single-handedly engineered an enterprise-wide migration to Linux at ELCOT, and later shifted desktops and servers in government schools to Linux thus cutting licensing costs and increasing the creative output the audience was impressed. However, what was far more compelling was the heartening story of how his Linux interventions changed the lot of visually challenged students, teachers and computer users in Tamil Nadu. ELCOT organised large-scale camps for visually challenged students and teachers to train them in using Orca, the open source assistive technology that comes bundled with Free Operating Systems. Accessibility software such as screen readers for the visually challenged are largely proprietary and extremely expensive. Further, the software, being customisable, was localised to suit the requirements of the Tamil-speaking computer user.

Umashankar insisted that students must know, through live examples, what free software can do. Besides the ethics of it all, he said, the migration is driven by the sheer cost advantage it offers. While using Linux saves around 40 per cent of the costs per desktop, the figure is pegged at around 90 per cent in high-end servers that run the systems. A Gartner [market research firm] report (2007) says that in 10 years things will change. By 2017, you got to be crazy if you use a proprietary operating system. And it is countries like India, with huge demands and pressing cost constraints, that will lead this change, Umashankar said. Proprietary software accounts for 40 per cent of desktop costs; the more you scale up, the more the hidden costs, he pointed out.

Refuting a popular argument that FOSS is not suitable for Indian businesses, Umashankar said it was unfortunate that leading IT companies lack vision. Alluding to the controversial National Policy on Open Standards, which has the IT industry bitterly divided, he said that the stance taken by leading IT companies, represented by NASSCOM, was not in the national interest. By rooting for proprietary standards in critical e-governance processes, the companies were acting in the interests of proprietary software companies alone, he said.

Ashoke Thapar, Vice-Chancellor of West Bengal State University, made a case for FOSS deployment with a simple video clipping about a little-known success story from rural West Bengal. He presented the story of a small government school in Bijra, a village near Durgapur in Burdwan district, where students from Linux User Groups at the nearby B.C. Roy College of Engineering have set up and maintain a computer education centre.

Students went there to set up machines, most of them old hand-me-downs, loaded with Linux operating systems, servers and a Local Area Network (LAN), and customised in the Bengali language, Prof. Thapar said. The entire cost was just around Rs.60,000, and the simple intervention changed the face of the school, which had students from extremely backward communities and high drop-out rates. In the short film, a young girl looks confidently into the camera to say: This software is very simple. And now that these commands are all in Bengali and simple to understand, I am confident about what I am doing on the computer.

It is this advantage that makes the much-appreciated IT@Schools programme in Kerala, a programme for computer education in government schools, a runaway success. At a later session dealing with FOSS and ICT education, Anwar Sadath, director of the Kerala government programme, pointed out that ICT education has reinvented itself in the State. It has moved away from the outsourced, or Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT), model that is followed by all the other States in India. As pointed out in a study by the Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation IT for Change, outsourcing seems to build more or less permanent dependencies of the public education system on private players. The study also observes that in most States the larger goal of using ICT-enabled educational tools in classrooms have been abandoned.

This debate is particularly relevant today because the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development recently set up a Central Advisory Board of Education to look into the pros and cons of the BOOT model in ICT education. The committee is yet to come up with any concrete findings.

In Kerala, teachers have been trained in using Linux and are now using ICT as a learning tool in classrooms. Programmes that come bundled with GNU/Linux-based operating systems (or can be downloaded freely), such as Geogebra (for mathematics); Rasmol, Chemtool and Kalcium (for chemistry); and Ktech lab (for physics) are being included in training modules by teachers, and new content is being developed on these platforms by master trainers.

For instance, during the solar eclipse in January, the Kerala government issued notices to schools to expose students to the simulated version viewed on KStars, a free software package available in all schools. This when schools in many other States declared a holiday on account of the eclipse, reinforcing superstitions and myths that are traditionally associated with it.

Sadath pointed out that the programme, which completely moved to FOSS by 2008, is today much more than a theory or practical paper on IT. Critics argue that with the insubstantial power supply in Keralas rural areas, ICT education is a distant dream but the fact is that the IT@Schools programme is now funding the electrification of 20,000 classrooms in over 2,000 schools. Further, Sadath said that hardware clinics, where school IT coordinators repaired faulty machines in laboratories across the State, saved the government crores of rupees. For instance, in 2008-2009, around 5,200 computers and UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems were serviced at a cost of Rs.1.91 crore, compared with an estimated Rs.11.5 crore to replace these hardware resources, he said.

An entire session was dedicated to discussion on the current status of the National Draft Policy on Open Standards and the importance of lobbying against proprietary forces. Prabir Purkayastha, Delhi Science Forum member, and Venkitesh Hariharan from the Open Source firm Red Hat discussed the policy and the recent changes to the original draft.

Of particular significance was a session on the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) the ambitious project to provide a unique ID number (or card) to all citizens. Activists expressed concern over the kind of software (free or proprietary) that would be used to implement this large-scale project. Free software activists object to the fundamental premise of this endeavour more than whether the technological standards used in the project is open sourced or not. UID critics have criticised the lack of discourse on privacy rights (that they believe this all-encompassing card may infringe upon), the fact that private entities are part of the enrolment system, and the lack of clarity regarding the ownership of and access to the data.

While the conference emphasised FOSS and standards that must form the basis of this public-owned project (proprietary companies have evinced interest in becoming stakeholders in this ambitious venture), the session also debunked claims that the UID would streamline the delivery of welfare schemes.

The conference, which was attended by over 1,200 students and 350 delegates from at least 10 States, provided a forum for like-minded individuals to meet and deliberate on how to take forward this rather nascent movement.

Its organisers, who found the response from students overwhelming, feel that the time has come for the free software movement to concentrate on building the community in a bottom-up manner. While the advantages of free software are known, the move towards breaking free of existing proprietary chains can be driven only by a larger and more active community, they believe.

On the sidelines of this conference, delegates from across the country including public officials, academics, researchers and Linux users met to form a coalition called the Free Software Movement of India. It hopes to help consolidate efforts by FOSS activists across the country and perhaps build public discourse and help take free software, along with its ideological implications, to computer users across the digital divide.

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