Why free software is Gods gift to India
are compelling reasons for the adoption of free software in India.
And as IndLinux localises GNU/Linux to Indian languages, a countrywide
computing revolution is in the offing. The free software approach
is absolutely apt for India in the digital age as it makes possible
cultural, political and economic freedom, says VENKATESH HARIHARAN.
[Adapted from his address at GNUnify 2003, held recently at Pune]
GNU/Linux represents one of the finest opportunities
for taking the benefits of information technology to the masses.
From the standpoint of cultural, political and economic freedom,
there are enormous reasons why the GNU/Linux operating system is
relevant to India’s future in the digital age.
That is the reason why IndLinux.org
was started, to localise GNU/Linux to Indian languages. I am happy
to announce the launch of the first release of IndLinux Hindi, called
Milan. The Milan software represents the culmination of three years
of work, and we plan to localise GNU/Linux in Marathi, Gujarati
and other Indian languages soon to spark off a revolution in computing
in Indian languages.
From a research standpoint, my
interest is in the history of technology and in the impact of technology
on society. Based on observed trends in the past, I predict that
there will be a hundred million computers in India. To work backwards
from this number, let me draw an analogy with other technology that
is fairly recent.
The TV revolution
The domestic software industry
today reminds me of the TV industry around 6-7 years ago. Around
six years ago, most of the TV channels were either in English or
in Hindi. So how does that compare to the domestic IT scenario in
Today, almost all applications
and operating systems are in English, a language spoken by a mere
5 percent of India. Even if you run Indian language software, it
is usually within an environment that is predominantly in English.
Compare this with the situation around six years ago when regional
languages were broadcast in two-hour slots on channels that were
mostly in English or Hindi.
How things have changed! In the
last six years, the explosion of regional channels has been absolutely
incredible. Tod-ay, each of India’s regional languages has at least
two TV channels. At one point in time one could never have imagined
an elitist channel like Star TV broadcasting in Hindi. Now, they
are looking beyond Hindi to other Indian languages. Who had heard
of channels like Zee or Asianet or Lashkara a decade ago? Who could
have visualised 60 million TV sets in India?
This reminds me of an old saying
in the technology industry. Old hands in this industry say that
in the near-term we always overestimate the impact of technology,
and in the long-term, we always underestimate it.
The reason for the explosion in
regional-language TV channels is simply because that’s where the
markets lie, and a similar thing is going to happen to the computing
industry in India.
Many countries do not have populations
that add up to the speakers of a single language in India. A few
years ago, when I was in Hungary, I saw that most computer operating
systems were in the Magyar script. Think about it. A mere 14 million
people speak the Magyar language, yet they have an operating system
of their own. Yet the third largest spoken language in the world—Hindi—that
is spoken by 402 million people, has no operating system! How can
we call India an IT superpower when we do not even have an operating
system in our largest spoken language?
If you look deep into the computer,
the only language it understands is the binary language that consists
of zeroes and ones. It is India that developed the concept of the
zero and gave it to the world. And we cannot even develop an operating
system of our own!
At IndLinux we wanted to create
an operating system for India, and when we looked around, there
was only one choice—GNU/Linux because we could not modify proprietary
operating systems. If I wanted to translate "file" into
the Hindi equivalent, I had no freedom to do that. The GNU/Linux
operating system was a natural choice because it gave us the freedom
to add interfaces in any language we chose. Speaking of any language,
as the table shows, the top twelve Indian languages are each spoken
by numbers larger than the entire population of Hungary!
|Click on image for larger view
Figures in millions
Source: Census of India
The first freedom I mentioned
was cultural freedom. From a cultural standpoint, GNU/Linux was
an attractive alternative because when linguistic groups come together
to localise GNU/Linux in a transparent manner, localisation can
be done in a manner that is far more culturally sensitive than any
For example, should "file"
be called a "file" in Hindi because the word is now part
of the popular lexicon among Hindi speakers or should it be called
something else? Who should decide this? Should a software company
decide this or should local linguistic groups decide this?
Apart from this, there are other
cultural issues that are so deeply embedded in computers that we
are not even aware of them. For example, the whole metaphor of "desktops"
and "files and folders" evolved from the work of Ben Schneiderman
who argued that the interface of the computer must reflect the real
world around us. In rural India, where most people have never owned
a desk and are used to squatting on the floor, desktops and files
and folders clearly do not reflect their reality. Yet, rural India
is where 70 percent of India lives. Therefore, an enormous amount
of research needs to be done to invent appropriate user-interface
metaphors for India and GNU/Linux is an ideal platform to do this.
Political and economic freedom
The second freedom I mentioned
was political freedom. We all know that we are in the digital age
and one of the most fundamental platforms of the digital age is
the operating system. Therefore, any sovereign nation has to make
vigorous efforts to control this platform. From a political standpoint,
GNU/Linux is one of the most attractive platforms for a sovereign
India, because of its openness.
The third freedom is economic
freedom. In developing countries like India, the per capita income
is around $410. If the cost of operating systems and application
software itself add up to this number, it is impossible for the
vast majority of India to afford this technology. In countries like
the US, where per capita incomes are around $30,000, it may be affordable,
but not in India. What India needs is software that’s priced in
rupees and not in dollars and GNU/Linux fits the bill since it is
Therefore, it is clear that there
are compelling reasons for the adoption of free software. IndLinux.org
is committed to keeping software free—free as in freedom of speech,
free as in free beer and free as in free chai! We want to empower
every Indian with this technology and believe that this effort is
fundamental to India’s future.
Venkatesh Hariharan is a
co-founder of IndLinux. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org