Foss time in India
February 27-March 10, 2008. As the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (Class x) exams unfold across government schools in Kerala, students appearing for 'it Practicals' key in their answers into a computer that runs on foss, acronym for free and open source software. These students are comfortable with foss usage. As 13-year-old Nalin Sathya, who will sit for these exams next year, puts it, "The system is very easy to use and I can now use it even without seeing the monitor. Python programming language is very easy. I am trying to learn it."
Sathya's confidence emerges from a series of events that began eight years ago.In 2000, the state government asked the state-owned Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (c-dit) to prepare a software for friends--acronym for Fast, Reliable, Instant, Effective Network Distribution of Services--envisaged as a hassle-free facility for people to pay their bills on services such as water supply, power, electricity and telephone. The application was developed by a company called Comtech it solutions in tandem with Microsoft Corporation India Pvt Ltd, and friends took off in Thiruvananthapuram. It was so successful here the state government wanted it extended to the other 13 districts.
Honeymoon turns sour
As friends expanded to district headquarters, Comtech it demanded Rs 13 lakh towards intellectual property rights (ipr) over the software. Remembers Joseph C Matthew, adviser to the state it department, "Microsoft then wrote a letter to c-dit saying Comtech owns the copyright." Comtech also billed c-dit a further Rs 14 lakh for additions to the software. Faced with the prospect of paying up crores of rupees in order to extend friends to all towns and panchayats, c-dit began to internally develop software alternatives. When it refused to pay Comtech it, the latter dragged it to court claiming ipr for the changed software. In 2004, the high court dismissed the company's petition and upheld the government order declaring as 'protected system' the software c-dit had developed for friends. Today, the case continues in the supreme court.
More proprietary trouble
Co-eval with the duration of the case, another state-run programme ran into proprietary software trouble. This was the it @school programme, started in 2002 to spread computer education in government-run and -affiliated schools, and for which the government had tied up with Intel and Microsoft India. Soon after it @school began, Microsoft began raiding schools for using pirated software. "We had asked Microsoft not to carry out raids," says Biju Prabhakar, former it @school project director, "but they did not pay heed to our warnings."
The Left Democratic Party (ldf), then in opposition, took up cudgels. It berated Microsoft for the raids, and for derailing friends. Kerala State Teachers Association (ksta) in collaboration with the Free Software Foundation began a campaign to sensitize teachers on the costs and restrictions of proprietary software, and to encourage schools to shift to open source software.
As a result, the state government was forced to include free software products such as Linux and Open Office in the school curriculum just a year after the project began. The prescribed computer syllabus was also changed; thus, the 2003 it textbook for class ix contained material on both proprietary and open source operating systems, and the corresponding application softwares.
But on the ground
it@school continued its training programmes in the Windows platform in view of conducting the 'it Practicals' exam for class x within three years. In March 2004 the Directorate of Public Instruction introduced, on an experimental basis, an online examination system for class ix students, with a view to applying the system for class x students the next year. Windows 98/2000/xp was used to develop the experimental package and this required installing Windows 98 and ms Office in computers in all government-run and -affiliated schools, even in those that by now had shifted to open source software for their it education.
ksta took to the streets, demanding foss be installed in computers in schools. "Teachers boycotted classes and said they would boycott examinations if the class x 'it Practicals' was held using the Microsoft package," recounts V K Sasheedharan, then a ksta member. The government buckled under the pressure and finally accepted the demand to include foss in the it@school project.
In 2006, the ldf came to power in Kerala. It introduced foss in the class viii syllabus, giving students the choice to opt for either foss or Microsoft. The very next year, it formulated an Information Technology Policy providing legitimacy to foss.
"The Government realizes that Free Software presents a unique opportunity in building a truly egalitarian knowledge society," reads clause 2.10 in the 'Vision and Mission' section. "The government will take all efforts to develop Free Software and Free Knowledge and mandate the appropriate use of Free Software in all ict initiatives".
The viewpoint is echoed in civil society in Kerala today. Says Sathyaseelan, master trainer at the blind school in Kasaragod district in North Kerala, "Ubuntu operating system has been very useful to us. The Microsoft software for the blind was very costly. So we could not buy one for each computer in our school. The free demo version would run only for 45 minutes. After that the computer had to be rebooted to use it again. That was very inconvenient."
Adds Jayashree Sreedharan, a former chemistry teacher and now a master trainer at the it@school project, "I have been exposed to both the systems, proprietary and foss. This new system gives us a sense of freedom, which we did not have in case of Microsoft. Now we can change it to suit our needs."