January 2005

Open Source The Indian e-Governance scenario

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World over, governments are finding that Open Source solutions offer significant benefits – strong enough that some are considering or mandating its use

Information Technology has gained lot of attention in recent times due to its ability to change the face of economies. It is a technology vital for development. But the opportunity cost of achieving development through Information Technology is huge due to the high cost of proprietary software. This is more true in the case of governments in developing countries where the e-Governance trumpet has been sounded high. Lot of hype has been created recently by the e-Governance industry, and many of the projects undertaken under the e-Governance agenda have not been able to see the light of the day due to cost overruns (the major hindrance). A related issue which few developing countries have fully confronted is that of copyright and software piracy. Complying with international standards means ending widespread copying of software (endemic in most developing countries), and the prospect of very high and recurrent software costs. Other problematic issues are security and virus problems. A not so recent development which is attracting much interest, especially in developing countries, is Open Source software and the Linux operating system in particular. This type of software goes a long way in helping to resolve the issues mentioned above.

What is Open Source?

Open Source is, in essence, a way of creating and distributing software. We use the term ‘open-source’ to refer to software that is made readily available in the form of source code. This includes open-source software, free software, ‘FOSS’, software libre, and ‘FLOSS’. Rather than keeping the human-readable programme instructions (called source code) hidden from users, as traditional software companies such as Microsoft, Intuit and Apple typically do, open-source programmes give away the source code to one and all. Such access enables users skilled in programming to become de facto software developers by adding to or modifying the software code and then redistributing it. Nor is open-source software licensed to single users or companies in the typical fashion––users can pass on the software to others if they choose. Instead of preventing the software from being shared, open-source licenses dictate how the software is shared. For example, software licensed under the widely used GNU General Public License (GPL) allows any user to redistribute a programme without charge, but requires that any redistribution be accompanied by the source code.

Why FOSS for Governments?

World over, governments are looking into Free/Open Source Software and in many cases finding that they offer significant benefits- strong enough that some states/countries are considering or are already mandating the use of FOSS software in governments. These benefits are not necessarily the same benefits that are driving the wide scale adoption of FOSS in commercial companies. National priorities are different from corporate priorities, and FOSS supplies some benefits that are reaped at the national level, especially in developing nations. Some of the benefits driving government FOSS adoption are:

  • Reduced Reliance on Imports
  • Low cost of adoption
  • Developing Local Industry
  • National Security Issues
  • Open Standards and Vendor Lock-in
  • Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and Piracy
  • Localisation

Right now, Governments are confronted with the following questions.

  1. How to get government applications and relevant content developed?
  2. How to get the common masses to use Open Source products?

We will get the answer to the former question, if we focus our attention towards the development of applications. Firstly, there should be a proper definition of the problem. Once that is served to a programmer, they could come out with an innovative application effectively. These applications should not be developed and used and re-used in isolation but techies should be ready to share their knowledge with each other. For this to happen, techies have to put their head together and work towards the common cause. Open Source community is a right platform for these programmers to get together and come out with innovative applications. Moreover, these communities can work on a regional basis for the development of content locally. There would be better interaction among programmers if they work in teams on a regional basis.

Linus Torvalds put the codes out for he had a few problems to solve and he could definitely use the support of several others to get them solved. Being a charismatic co-coordinator, he got several people to contribute. The latter question as how to get the common masses to use Open Sourced products begs a patient approach. Here various concepts of management such as marketing of products and services, value proposition, delighting the customer etc. come into the picture. Secondly, while designing e-Government solutions, the opinion of masses must be taken in to account. For instance, are developers interacting with common masses for analysing, designing and implementing e-Government solutions? It may seem little unreal here and critics would question the scope for developers to go to villages asking for user’s opinion after spending 12 hours in front of their computer screens writing the programme code. However, when we talk of using Open Source at the national level by developing applications for defence, it is must that we take the user’s perspective of the application in mind. Only then would concepts like customer delight be a reality.

 

 

Advocates of Open Source software have different ways of expressing themselves

One of the critical factors, which could make the diffusion of Open Source in the Indian e-Governance scenario a success is the involvement of the student community. For Open Source to succeed in India, it is vital to educate and involve the student community (preferably from the first year). In fact, it is better off formalising the involvement, say for instance, via a course on Open Source, and demanding the students to contribute (examination would take the form of evaluating their contribution). In the process, students get organised, be a part of something, and train in developing solutions. But here again one has to move out of the league. The Indian education system has been criticised time and again for focusing more on quantity and less on quality. For that to happen the education system should give students the opportunity to collaborate among themselves (work in groups, share responsibilities, etc.) and actually model requirements by interacting with common masses/users, design and implement systems, and smartly build upon other systems developed by their seniors. A student feels a sense of belonging when he develops such an application. For the Indian economy to develop at 10 percent, students have to contribute as well. Common masses would be happy when students from engineering colleges interact with them with the intention of mapping their requirements. Students on the other hand get opportunities to learn about the country. Students learn by experience when they capture requirements interacting with common masses. Students then realise that they have to decide on whom (in the public) they should interact with; to what extent the public should be involved in designing the system, and so on. Such interactions are in a way fun. Some of the students exposed to Open Source would most likely continue contributing. This might even result in a lot of entrepreneurial activity. The type of experience they would get and the type of confidence they will have while sitting for the interview can only be imagined.

Whatever has been proposed above cannot happen when students are asked to sit in class from nine to four for the whole year. The education system ought to change where the number of classroom hours has to be minimised and the focus is on working with practice/Open Source. The education system ought to come to terms with the fact that not everything can really be taught. Students have to take efforts and learn on their own. Indian engineers are well trained in hard science. Offshore employers simply mould and put them to good use; that is what happens in M.S. education. It is worrying as to why the same processes are not replicated back home.

If students get to work for Open Source during their college years, then there is no need for any marketing strategy or market effort for the diffusion of Open Source in the Indian e-Governance market. This form of marketing will have a positive effect on the uptake of Open Sourced government applications. If we get the student population to contribute regularly towards Open Source, then the rest will fall in place all by itself.

Current Status of Linux adoption in India

While the Indian federal government currently has no official position on the FOSS/proprietary software, India represents a hotbed of FOSS development. There are many department level initiatives:

  • The Central Excise Department has moved 1,000 desktops to Linux.
  • The government supercomputer arm, the C-DAC, has moved over entirely to Linux35.
  • The Supreme Court has several pilot projects under way.

At the state level, there have been several FOSS initiatives. The most prominent of these is by  the Madhya Pradesh state government. The state will use Linux in its e-Governance and  Headstart programmes. While Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra are  already exploiting the advantages of Open Source software (Linux), corporates like the Life  Insurance Corporation have started migration from SCO-Unix to Linux to take advantage of      the cost-effective alternative. Red Hat has installed its version of Linux on over 6,000 desktops in schools, with more likely to come. More and more state governments, educational institutions and corporates are exploring the possibility of adopting Linux operating systems. There were other state level initiatives announced, but little has been heard about these initiatives since Microsoft’s much-publicised investment in 2002. According to Red Hat India’s Director Javed Tapia, over 25 percent of servers shipped in India run on the Linux operating system. Similarly, of the total desktops shipped annually, over two lakh desktops run on the Linux operating system.

Conclusion

Open Source is a revolution, which is spreading like wildfire in the Indian e-Governance scene. It has given sleepless nights to Microsoft’s strategists sitting back in Redmond, USA as well as  in India. The need of the hour is to help this revolution grow. This is possible only when policy  makers sitting in the aisle of power understand the benefits accruing out of its usage and put  all their cards in the Open Source basket. At the same time there has to be a change in the   mindset of the users towards this change – from Microsoft products to Open Source products.

 References

  • Online Discussion among the India-egov yahoo group members on the Diffusion of Open Source in e-Governance in India
  • Research papers on Open Source from MIT website. www.opensource.mit.edu/online_papers.php
  • Analysis of the research work done by the author which he is carrying out for his thesis titled “Diffusion of Open Source and Open standards in Indian e-Governance Scenario”

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