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India: Speaking your language

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations, a look at what the Indian government is doing in alternative software.

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations,
a look at what the Indian government is doing in alternative software.

Spotlight project:
The Indian government is funding an initiative to distribute free CDs containing open-source software. Around 3.5 million CDs of Tamil-language versions of open-source applications and 3.5 million Hindi-language CDs containing have already been sent out. There are plans to distribute software translated into all 22 official languages of India.

Open-source software has been deployed by both the national and state governments in India, although many of the large-scale deployments have happened in states. However, Madanmohan Rao, a research director at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, says there is still a "lot of Microsoft" in use by the Indian government.

The government of Maharashtra, India's third-largest state, has deployed on "thousands of desktops" and is using Linux in its treasury management and land record management departments, according to a recent article in The Times of India.

Open source and developing countries

Other stories in the special coverage:

Search for alternatives
Cost isn't the only motivator for foreign governments
Local software for local people
The spirit of community

The state of Kerala is using open source software for "many" of its e-Government initiatives, Ajay Kumar, the secretary to the Keralan government said in a conference speech. A number of schools across the state are using open-source software on PCs, including over 40 schools in the Kannur district.

Francois Bancilhon, the chief executive of Mandriva, said the Linux company is in talks with an Indian government agency at the moment and expects to deploy Linux on between 10,000 to 100,000 machines.

The Indian national government and the majority of state authorities have a neutral policy around open source. Kerala is thought to be one of the few states to have a policy that formally promotes open source.

"The Government wishes to encourage the judicious use of open source/free software that compliments/supplements proprietary software, to reduce the total cost of ownership of IT applications/solutions without compromising on the immediate and medium-term value provided by the application," the Kerala government states in its IT policy document.

The Indian government has funded a number of initiatives to promote and research the use of open source, including the foundation of the Open Source Software Resource Center, which aims to develop open-source software and training programs around such software, and the creation of a Web site to share the government's experiences with open-source software.

The president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, has advocated the use of open-source software on a number of occasions. Last year, he called for the Indian military to use it to ward off cybersecurity threats. The year before, he said it was "unfortunate" that proprietary software, such as Microsoft's Windows, was so popular in India and called for the broader adoption of open source.

The Indian government's relatively neutral policy towards open source is driven by a desire to keep U.S. companies happy, Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio said.

"The Indian government doesn't want to annoy its clients in U.S.," he said. The technology outsourcing industry is of vital importance to the Indian economy, with the top 20 Indian IT services companies generating a combined $5.77 billion from exports in 2003 to 2004.

Rao said the Indian government's attitude to open source has been influenced by "very strong" lobbying from Microsoft. The software giant has also been striking a number of partnerships with Indian outsourcing companies, including Infosys, with which it has jointly invested $8 millin to develop a portfolio of services.

Bancilhon from Mandriva disagreed that the Indian government is neutral. "The Indian government has a strong will to promote open source due to the potential to save costs and gain independence. India has a strong software expertise and wants to have the ability to control its own technology by being a partner rather than a customer," Bancilhon said.

Rao said the Indian public sector is more able to adopt open source than other countries in emerging markets, due to its supply of skilled technology staff.

"There is a very good pool of IT talent in India. Other countries who have tried open source don't have the talent pool or skill sets, while in India there are a lot of good IT folks," Rao said.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London