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India IT minister: No government edict on open source

IT official says Indian government will not back open source to the exclusion of proprietary software

BANGALORE (IDG News Service) — The Indian government will not back open-source software to the exclusion of proprietary software, according to Arun Shourie, India's minister for information technology and communications. The government is a key buyer of information technology in the country, and backers of open-source software were hoping that the Indian government would throw its weight behind open source.

"In India we always like to think in terms of either-or. The formula we want to adopt instead is 'and also,' and encourage all kinds of software development in the country," Shourie told reporters shortly after the formal launch in Bangalore on Tuesday of the PARAM Padma supercomputer, designed by the government-run Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) in Pune [see "India agency offers build-to-order supercomputer" Dec. 17, 2002].

"If there is an important security software that we need urgently, for example, we are more likely to buy it, than spend time deciding whether we should develop it in India in open source," Shourie added.

Earlier in his address to the staff of C-DAC, Shourie said that in cases involving national security, it was wiser for government research agencies and laboratories to develop software in-house. However, Shourie clarified later that the decision to import software, or develop the software entirely in-house in open source or on any other platform, would be taken at the level of the specific government agency on a case-by-case basis.

"Do not expect a general decision from government on this," Shourie added.

Shourie's statement is the first categorical statement by a senior Indian government official in the debate about whether to adopt open-source or proprietary software. The controversy was sparked in November last year during a visit to India by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates.

During his visit to Delhi, Gates announced that his company planned to invest US$400 million in India over the next three years in a number of areas, including computer literacy and localization of its software products. Gates's announcement was seen by analysts as an attempt to pre-empt the Indian government from making a formal decision to adopt open-source software.

Gates announced that in addition to contributing software to schools, Microsoft will also assist in training about 80,000 school teachers and 3.5 million students in government-run schools in India.

"This 'gift' is no act of generosity," said Richard Stallman, president of the Boston-based Free Software Foundation. Stallman was also in India in November to drum up support for free software, but found that media and government attention had shifted to Gates's high-profile visit. "Giving Microsoft software to school children is like giving them cigarettes -- it is a way to get them hooked, so that once they grow up, they will be a captive market for Microsoft."

Microsoft has tried to win over the Indian government to its Government Source Licensing Program (GSLP), but there have been no takers yet in the government, according to informed sources. The GSLP was designed to give government agencies access to Windows source code to develop applications for their own internal use.

Last month, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc. in Santa Clara, California, also made a pitch to woo Indian universities and researchers by announcing $300 million in free software and training to promote key Sun technologies in India, such as Java and Sun ONE (Open Net Environment).

Though the Indian government will not take sides, some government agencies and laboratories are already using open-source software. The National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) in Delhi is assessing the feasibility of using Linux for e-governance projects in India, according to Kiran Karnik, the association's president.

"Linux can play an important role in spreading e-governance in India since there would be a need to develop low-cost local language applications," said Karnik. "It can also help in accelerating IT education in schools which today cannot afford high software costs."

However, before Linux can be widely deployed, the services and support infrastructure around this platform will have to be developed in the country, according to Karnik.

More Stories By John Ribiero

John Ribiero is a Bangalore correspondent for the IDG News Service, a Linux.SYS-CON.com affiliate.

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