October 2004

A Vision

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2020: Dadka village, in the district of Faridabad, North India
In the midst of a discussion, the village sarpanch1 fishes out his PDA2 and unfolds its two wings to get a small computer with keypad. He presses his thumb over the screen and the biosensor brings up his customised and friendly screen with relevant application programme icons, which he has done for himself, over last few months. He has an e-mail, a circular, which has been issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, informing the Gram Pramukh and the sarpanch about the budget for the villages in the panchayat3 for the current year. The fund transfer to each panchayat in the country now takes less than a day, thanks to the high security networking between all the banks in the country. Build on open source platform, it is an integral part of the NASF4 .

Last night his son used the same device. He had a long session of Quake5 with his friends in the neighbouring villages, along with kids at the village kiosk. They have been preparing for a Global Quake Championship semifinal, where they would be competing with kids from either Finland or Israel. Sarpanch is not much aware of this, thanks to the new version of the operating system released by Open Source India, which took care of his and many like him, long standing demand of personal space and application storage at the DnicS (District NIC6 Server).

Today, he is a happy man; he is not hooked to a device, but to the 'National Framework'. He has his 'Personal User Interface' along with application software, available to use anywhere across the country. All he has to do is to get an access to computing device, login to the system and go through the bio-verification and he is on the job. At the DnicS, he has for himself a terabyte of storage space and it takes him less than a minute to download files of 200MB from the DnicS to his hand held device.

Back in the village, the sarpanch who was moderating the discussion on which crop to sow in the coming Kharif season, once again had to rely on his trusted ally, the wise and knowledgeable DnicS. The database in the DnicS provides information on the crop obtained in the past two decades in his village, and the yield per hectare for each year, along with the market price which was realised. Soon he pulls down information on the crop grown by other villages in the district over the decade. Although more than 60 per cent of the agricultural land is now under corporate farming, there are people who love the independence to grow what they like. The Sarpanch gives a cursory look on the data available on the government subsidy for specific crop cultivation.

Soon he hooks on to the NIA7 , which has high-resolution data for the entire country accessible for the project planning and implementation. The NIA server authenticates the user by the way of thumbprint and the national authorised user database; soon it crops the satellite image for the locality and sends the image as compressed file to the sarpanch. The NIA also shoots a mail to the local Block Development Officer (BDO) about the use of the NIA archive by the Sarpanch. The BDO sends a 'Hi' to the sarpanch confirming the download of data from NIA. On learning about the discussion, the BDO decides to join the discussion from remote location. The sarpanch informs his fellow villagers about the BDO joining the discussion. There is small rumble and people straighten up a bit. They call a local boy to get the 'EM'8, an e-Conference device. Soon a webcam on tripod is placed in front of the gathering and the EM looking more like an A0 plastic sheet, is unrolled and hung on the nearby wall. Within couple of minutes the BDO appears on the plastic sheet sipping his tea and smiling at the villagers. While at the other end the BDO is watching the villagers in discussion. They are now ready for one of the many discussions, which is now a modus operandi. Referring to the information provided by the DnicS, the discussion moved from perception to fact analysis. This has been a result of culmination of a programme initiated by the Government of India (GoI) in 2010, to explore the new line of integrated operating system along with utility application in the event of 'Global Software Crisis'.

2010. Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Government of India
All the administrative units of the country down to the panchayat have been computerised in the country bringing roughly six lakh villages in the country into a wired framework. All birth, death, migration and education statistics are fed into the computer at panchayat, which is further linked to the district server which in turn is hooked to the national data framework. The census department is more focused on data analysis and the forecasting. They have an advanced super computer managing the data hub of the country with mirrors in unknown locations in the country. Data retrieval and access is subject to authorisation, but in general open to all the citizens of India.

Every individual in the country has his data tagged into the system including his fingerprints and voice. The massive effort taken by the government to computerise administration has been giving results. The service sector is now hooked to the national data framework and all services are available at the click of a button.

But while all seems to be going well, there was still an element of uncertainty. Last year, the owners of proprietary software formed an association and came into an agreement with the microprocessor manufacturers to further enhance the software security. In turn, they pledged a part of the revenue to the hardware manufacturers. Now every registration of the software is linked to the payment, and this is further ensured by the processor, memory, storage and motherboard, who's unique device number is used for registering the software. Over 60 per cent overlap in hardware combination is required for the re-registration of the same software elsewhere, hence forth, making it difficult for the pirated software users.

GoI intervened by subsidising the imports of the software. This was necessary to sustain the services exports. But this has left the GoI with a big hole in its Forex reserve.

The Ministry of Communication and Information and Technology in association with Ministry of Human Resource Development and Ministry of Home Affairs formed a 'task force' to explore the open source domain. The task force called 'Open Source India' was established under the leadership of three-member committee. The NASF set forth with establishing a high-speed network between the IITs, NITs, REC 9 and other premier institutions of the country. This has been a relatively easy job for the institutions wherein they had to prioritise the network usage between different users. The network structure was already in place.

The dilemma for the Task Force was: “Why do people pay when there is free stuff?”

The first virtual workshop was organised. The leading professors and scientists from all the premier institutions focused on:

  • Failure of the open source to penetrate the grass roots
  • Identify the vehicle to take the utility services to the masses

Attempts were being made to popularise the open source amongst the users at the grass root level. There were many successful implementations too. But the primary variable on which these successes hinged was the individual who was implementing the project. The open source movement although much talked and deliberated, but due to lack of mandate on behalf of the government still lacked the penetration which could see the open source software becoming the default platform for usage.

The workshop kept its focus on 'What is holding back open source software?'

Typical usage and proliferation of open source software have been concentrated in the areas where the level of user was quite advanced, the integration with the existing requirement was not a problem and the maturity of the software was comparatively high.

Open source software usage is still restricted to the hobby users in the technical institutions or advanced user in the commercial segment. The open source software user segment was fragmented and the failure to form the critical mass which could generate the self sustaining momentum was not there. Most of the funding provided by the international agencies went for the workshops/training and were limited to urban centres. While the government in principle agreed with the open source software, educational setups were teaching proprietary software as a part of curriculum, which later motivated the students to continue in the same direction; lack of coordination between various institutions, boards, councils and commissions failed to deliver the desired result. Government itself was buying proprietary software worth Rs. 20 billion (USD 500m) annually. Although desktop ruled the 1990s and 2000s, the 'Task Force' said that the future certainly belonged to the PDA with the convergence of mobile phone, computation device, entertainment, personal organiser and scratch pad.

The Task Force concluded with a common decision of coordinated approach amongst various government agencies and a policy level change which would make the use of NASF product mandatory for the government and educational setups. The task force also stressing on the role of private institutions in the development of strong commitment by the government, could see the reversal of the situation in five years time.

Footnotes:

1.      Elected public representative of group of villages, looking after implementation and monitoring of village development programmes

2.      A high utility device, invented in 1993 by Apple Computer, had eluded many in terms of ease of use since its invention.

3.      An administrative block formed out of a set of villages.

4.      National Application Software Framework

5.      A computer based game played by either alone or in group. Requires networking amongst the devices if played amongst a group of people.

6.      A Government of India initiative to centralise the activities related to computerisation and application software solution for various industry verticals.

7.      National Imagery Archive, maintained by the National Remote Sensing Agency, has archive of processed remotely sensed images.

8.      An electronic device, with synthetic paper appearance.

9.      Indian Institute of Technology, National Institute of Technology and Regional Engineering College.

 

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