Push for open source soft­ware

Delhi has been aw­fully late in adopt­ing open source soft­ware, but the pol­icy is fi­nally there

Down to Earth - - COLUMN - DOWN TO EARTH

Itaken the gov­ern­ment of In­dia a decade and T HAS more to grasp a ba­sic truth—that open source soft­ware (oss) is the way to go. March-end, the In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy (IT) min­istry un­veiled, fi­nally, a pol­icy for adopt­ing oss as the pre­ferred op­tion in all e-gov­er­nance sys­tems im­ple­mented by var­i­ous gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions. The pol­icy, which makes it manda­tory to adopt oss, is in­tended to lower costs and en­sure strate­gic con­trol of th­ese sys­tems. It says the aim is to en­sure “ef­fi­ciency, trans­parency and re­li­a­bil­ity of such ser­vices at af­ford­able costs”.Sigh.

All one can say is that it’s been a long, long learn­ing curve for Delhi. Or­gan­i­sa­tions and gov­ern­ments across the world have switched from pro­pri­etary soft­ware, such as those pro­vided by Mi­crosoft, to oss not merely to cut costs (hugely) but to have con­trol of their op­er­at­ing sys­tems by re­duc­ing de­pen­dence on ven­dors. It al­lows bet­ter in­ter­op­er­abil­ity of sys­tems, is eas­ier to cus­tomise and also helps pro­mote the devel­op­ment of sys­tems in lo­cal lan­guages. If only IT min­istry of­fi­cials had cared to look at what was hap­pen­ing in one cor­ner of the coun­try it may not have taken them so long to for­mu­late a pol­icy on the use of oss in its var­i­ous arms.

Ker­ala is the not-so-far cor­ner where oss or foss (Free oss), as it’s also known, was recog­nised as the path to the fu­ture in 2001.It was the first state to in­clude the use of oss in its IT pol­icy.It ought to be made clear here that free here does not mean free of cost but free to use as the de­vel­oper wishes. foss as a rad­i­cal par­a­digm to democra­tise knowl­edge came into its own a lit­tle later in 2007 when the Marx­ist gov­ern­ment of V S Achuthanan­dan made the con­sid­ered de­ci­sion to use this plat­form to build an egal­i­tar­ian knowl­edge so­ci­ety.The goals were enun­ci­ated in the ti­tle of the pol­icy it is­sued: “To­wards an In­clu­sive Knowl­edge So­ci­ety”. By then prophets of the foss move­ment, no­tably Richard Stall­man, had made many vis­its to Ker­ala,preached widely and laid the foun­da­tions for a phi­los­o­phy that the state took to its heart.

An­other leap came with the set­ting up of an In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Free and Open Source Soft­ware (ic­foss) in 2011 to pop­u­larise foss for uni­ver­sal use and net­work with dif­fer­ent na­tions, com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ments to jointly pro­mote foss as “a pow­er­ful al­ter­na­tive to the mo­nop­o­lis­tic ap­proaches to knowl­edge cre­ation”. Its lofty char­ter and well-grounded work may have cre­ated waves glob­ally but not a rip­ple ap­pears to have touched Delhi.

In July last year, ic­foss helped Ker­ala cross an­other mile­stone when it’s Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly shifted to oss for record­ing its huge vol­ume of busi­ness. Com­mend­ably, the migration from Mi­crosoft’s XP sys­tem was com­pleted in a record three months, since the US soft­ware gi­ant’s sup­port ser­vices was set to ex­pire in that pe­riod. The mag­ni­tude of the task can be gauged from the fol­low­ing: 500 pages of text are keyed in daily on av­er­age when the As­sem­bly is in ses­sion and this is mostly Malay­alam,a com­plex Brah­mic script.

Should one ap­plaud or lament Delhi’s be­lated dis­cov­ery of oss? Even if it had dis­missed the Ker­ala path as a left­ist ex­per­i­ment how did it fail to no­tice the shifts tak­ing place the world over? Now, with a pol­icy fi­nally in place one can only hope oss takes off rapidly in the coun­try. And it could also pro­vide a new lease of life to the gov­ern­ment’s own Bharat Op­er­at­ing Sys­tem So­lu­tions which was plugged as an al­ter­na­tive to Mi­crosoft’s Win­dows plat­form but found few tak­ers for want of of­fi­cial back­ing and poor cus­tomer ser­vices. That should change.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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