Saturday, November 17, 2007

India should adopt Free Standards

When Raghu could not open a document received via email from a friend abroad, he decided to call his colleague Harish who was the local troubleshooter for all kinds of problems related to computers. Harish took a look at the file and told Raghu that he would not be able to open it in Word because it was a Lotus WordPro document. Raghu was, naturally, taken aback. He could not understand what Harish was saying. So Harish explained to him that Word is only one of the several word processors being used on
computers, albeit the most popular one, and that WordPro was another. WordPerfect and OpenOffice Writer are others. All these, except the last, stored their documents in formats that are understood well only by the respective applications. So it often happens that a document created using one wordprocessor cannot be opened using another.

This is a problem that many people have been facing, though not very frequently. But this is a potentially serious problem in future, especially for the central and state governments. In most cases, documents are generated in proprietary formats such as that of Microsoft Word or Excel. Five years hence, if it becomes necessary to open one such document, two conditions will have to be satisfied: one that Microsoft still exists and their applications still allow you to open documents in these formats, and two, you have the required Microsoft application installed. Which means that you are bound to use Microsoft applications always–a phenomenon known as vendor lock-in.

However, in many other areas where we have been using technology products, we don’t face such problems. For instance, we still continue to use plugs, holders and other fittings installed twenty or more years back. We can still connect our modern gadgets to them without any problem. This is possible because of standardisation. There already existed standards when these fittings were made and we are following the same standards now. Unfortunately, there were no standards for documents generated using computers, till recently that is.

This may appear to be a minor problem especially in a country like India where few people use computers, but it is not. Imagine a huge database for e-governance built on a proprietary database. The company who provides the database could say one fine morning that they are moving to another format and they would not continue to provide support for the older version beyond a certain date. Similar things have actually happened. For instance, Microsoft told users of their older system, Windows NT, that they would not provide support beyond December 31, 2004, and that those who are using it should move to their newer system, namely, Windows 2000. This meant that those who were using Windows NT and were happy with it had to remove it and install the new system, which often meant replacing the computer itself, migrating all data (sometimes including applications) to the new system and retraining the staff–a very expensive exercise in many situations. But it could have been worse: suppose the company itself was to wind up!

So what is the solution? The solution is to have a standard format for all documents. This was, naturally, realised by users in the developed countries long before us, as a consequence of which we already have an ISO standard–the Open Document Format (ODF). This includes standards for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings. And this is a Free standard.

Now, what is a Free standard? A Free standard is a standard that is no one’s property. It belongs to the entire humanity and is not controlled by any person or organisation. It may appear strange that there can be standards that are controlled by someone. But this is possible. For instance, Microsoft has proposed a document standard known as OOXML (Office Open XML, where XML is a language that is becoming widely popular for formatting documents and stands for eXtended Markup Language). OOXML has been accepted as a standard by Ecma (originally, European Computer Manufacturer’s Association), a private standardisation body. It is now under consideration for acceptance as a standard by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) but has lost out at the first stage. OOXML is a proprietary format of Microsoft and someone who wants to implement it will require their licence. This is one of the reasons why organisations like the Free Software Foundation and industries like Google and IBM are fighting against the acceptance of OOXML as an ISO standard.

India has voted against OOXML at the preliminary stage. Along with several other countries, India also has given comments that point to aspects of OOXML that are not acceptable to the country. Dr. G. Nagarjuna, Professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, and Chairperson of the Free Software Foundation of India, who was a member of the committee that decided upon India’s stand in the matter, says that Microsoft had submitted a six thousand page document for evaluation. Since they had asked for (and were given) the fast track route for acceptance, the time available for people to respond was just about one month. This was probably done deliberately so that people would not find the time to study the document, necessarily a highly technical one, in detail and find out the problems. In spite of this, teams in India and several other countries burnt the midnight oil to go through the document carefully and come up with major objections, at least some of which Microsoft may find difficult to counter. They get another opportunity to defend themselves against the criticism. If they are able to respond satisfactorily to the criticism raised by the various parties, then OOXML could become an ISO standard.

But India and other countries have the option of deciding upon the standard they will follow. And this should be a Free standard like ODF. Regions like the state of Massachusetts have already adopted this standard. If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, there is bound to be a lot of pressure on the governments to adopt it. We should not make that mistake.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Story of Free Software in Kerala, India

This is the story of Free Software in the state of Kerala in India. I wrote this for a book entitled Knowledge Society and Development -- Kerala Experience edited by Antony Palackal of Loyola College, Thiruvananthapuram, and Wesley Shrum of Louisiana State University. The article is published under a free licence, as mentioned at the end of the article. I am putting a slightly modified version here so that any interested person can make use of it.

Free Software in Kerala

V. Sasi Kumar

A friend, who had worked in Brazil for a couple of years, once told me, “Kerala is known in Latin America for Free Software.” This indicates the extent to which Kerala has dominated the Free Software scenario in India. It is not by chance that the headquarters of the Free Software Foundation of India happened to be situated at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The state is now poised to become the first in the country to introduce exclusively Free Software for IT education in high schools. We shall examine here how all this came about. But before that, we shall look at what the term Free Software1 means. Free Software is software that gives users freedom-four freedoms, to be precise. As the website of the Free Software Foundation ( says:

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free ice cream”. Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

• The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

• The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

• The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).

• The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Free Software began to be developed when Richard M. Stallman, a programmer with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned and started the GNU (recursive acronym for GNU is Not Unix) project in 1984. Later, he also started the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Today, there is a large volume of Free Software, and the most popular Free operating system is GNU/Linux (sometimes called simply Linux).

We capitalise the F and S in Free Software to distinguish it from proprietary software that is distributed free of cost, sometimes called freeware. We shall also use the shortened form, FS.

So, with that, we shall now take a look at the story of FS in Kerala. The story is bound to be biased by my experiences and limited by my knowledge. Individuals or organisations who have contributed to the Free Software movement in the state may have been left out from the narration, even though this is written after speaking to several people who were involved right from the beginning of the movement. I apologise for any such omissions and assure the readers that they are inadvertent and not deliberate.

The Beginning

The story apparently began with the introduction of TeX, the typesetting program that was designed in the 1970s by Donald Knuth, the author of The Art of Computer Programming, a four volume classic. TeX was introduced into Kerala by Prof. K.S.S. Namburipad of the Department of Mathematics in the University of Kerala. TeX could typeset mathematical equations very neatly, which no other software could do, especially in the 1980s when Prof. Namburipad brought TeX in fourteen floppy disks from the United States. He could bring the program and use it on a number of computers without any legal problem because it had no licences-it was in the public domain. It was, in a sense, the Grandmother of Free Software, as some people call it.

Prof. Namburipad encouraged his students to learn and use TeX, especially for preparing their theses. One of his students was E. Krishnan, now with the Mathematics Department of the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, a leading exponent of TeX and one of the auA thors of the very popular LaTeX primer2 published as an electronic book by the Indian TeX User Group. Dr. Krishnan also played an important role in establishing the Free Software Foundation of India. Another person inspired by Prof. Namburipad was one C.V. Radhakrishnan who used to run a small centre that prepared theses for the research students of the Kariavattom campus of the University of Kerala.

C.V. Radhakrishnan took serious interest in TeX. He found that there was business opportunity here and with virtually no competition. Eventually, he established a company in 1995, called River Valley Technologies, for doing typesetting of scientific papers and theses. He had his two brothers with him when he started the company. They used the DOS operating system running on Intel AT machines, along with Novell Netware for networking. Since Unix was rather expensive those days, they did not attempt to use it, though they were familiar with it. Around 1996, a computer vendor who supplied part of their systems suggested that they use Linux, which was very similar to Unix and was free. He also gave them a CD containing the Slackware distribution. It was around this period (March 1996) that the magazine PCQuest brought out CDs containing the Slackware distribution of GNU/Linux, the first commercial distribution of the Free operating system. It was probably a copy of this CD that Radhakrishnan got from the vendor. Though the operating system was primitive in some ways, and installing it on a computer was a tough job, it came in handy for the new company. As Radhakrishnan says, “It was very difficult to install Linux those days. It took us about one week to install it on one system. We could link it to Novell Netware since there was a tool for that. Later, we installed it on all machines and discarded Novell Netware.” River Valley Technologies thus took off as possibly the first Free Software based company in the state and almost certainly as the first TeX based company in the country. Since then, the company has been using GNU/Linux almost exclusively, except for one computer that still runs MS Windows mainly for opening MS Word files and for some editing of vector graphics for which Free alternatives are not sufficiently powerful now. Much of their work is automated so that human intervention is required only minimally.

Today, Radhakrishnan is one of the top TeX programmers in the world. His company has seventy employees and their clients include the Institute of Physics, UK, Macmillan (Nature) and Elsevier. The company uses Free Software and also sponsors India's first portal to host Free Software projects3.

Meanwhile, Satish Babu, CEO of the South Indian Federation of Fishermen's Societies (SIFFS), was using the new technology of the Internet to enhance the efficiency of his organisation. He learnt about the Internet when he went to the Hull International Fisheries Institute, UK, in 1993 for training in fisheries management, and he became highly interested in the technology. Though basically a management expert trained at the prestigious Institute of Rural Management, Anand, his interest in the technology prompted him to study computers and programming in depth and virtually made him a programmer. Today he is involved in running a software company4 in the Technopark at Thiruvananthapuram and is actively involved with bodies like the Computer Society of India and the Indian chapter of the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He is the Executive Secretary of the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE), an NGO promoting Free Software, and is an active member of FSF India.

After his return from the UK, he started using computers to improve the efficiency of the organisation he was working for. He learnt that email was being implemented through the Ernet network which used VSAT technology at that time. Leo Fernandez of the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, with which Satish already had links, helped him to link to the Ernet node in Bangalore through a telephone dial-up connection. This was in 1994. Satish configured his computer to dial-up in the early morning hours when telephone call rates were lowest, and send and receive mails. Though this was slow by today's standards, since an exchange of mails would take at least two days, it was enormously faster than using the postal service. Part of the software he used for this was actually Free Software, though he was not aware of it at that time. It was again Leo Fernandez who introduced him to Linux in 1995. Though not very confident about the new system, Satish and his friends soon grew to like it, especially since there were a lot of things one could do at the system level. As Satish says, “Once you learn to tinker around with the system, you really start enjoying it and it becomes a habit that is difficult to get over.” And GNU/Linux offered plenty of opportunities for such people. But Satish and friends were still not very much aware of the ideology of Free Software and its implications.

His first distribution of GNU/Linux, known as Slackware, was given to Satish by Leo Fernandez. Soon, SIFFS organised a training programme in GNU/Linux by Leo. In 1998, Radhakrishnan, Krishnan, Namburipad, Satish and others decided to set up a Linux User Group (LUG) in Thiruvananthapuram. Others associated with this included journalist K.G. Kumar, computer science student M. Arun, and P.M. Sasi, who was with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Thiruvananthapuram.

M. Arun was a student of Computer Science at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, when his father bought a computer from Keltron (in fact, the first computer Keltron sold). This had an operating system developed by IBM known as OS2. As Arun says, “This was much better than Windows 95, which was popular at that time.” One of his friends had got a Packard-Bell computer with MS Windows from the US and wanted to install Linux in it. Arun had a copy of the PC Quest Slackware CD and undertook the job of installing it in the machine. It installed neatly without any problem. So he decided to try it on his computer. But the result was disappointing. He could not get the graphical interface running. One of his friends suggested that he try the Red Hat distribution, and Arun wrote to a company, GTL Enterprises in Bangalore, for a copy of the Red Hat CD. They replied asking him to contact the local Linux User Group, which C.V. Radhakrishnan and others had just started. Arun went to Radhakrishnan's office with his friend Amit and not only obtained the CD but also joined the LUG. They started having weekly meetings.

Arun found that a few teachers in their college were interested in GNU/Linux. They got the college to purchase some manuals from FSF, Boston. Arun and a few of his friends had read about the ideology of Free Software and were attracted by it. In 1999, Wros Publishers organised a conference called Bang! Linux in Bangalore. Arun and a few other students went for the conference. Richard M. Stallman (known by his initials RMS), the founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, was there. This was his first meeting in India and his lecture impressed the students from Kerala. They came back thoroughly convinced about the ideology of Free Software. Today, Arun is the secretary of the Free Software Foundation of India and is also the co-ordinator of SPACE.

With the new millennium came the group known as Free Developers. This was started by one Tony Stanco, an advocate from the US, who proposed that they start a company that would do business using Free Software and eventually make it the leading software globally. He had corresponded with RMS about his ideas. Though RMS was sceptical about the feasibility of the project, Tony went ahead with it and managed to obtain support from a number of people, including C.V. Radhakrishnan, Arun and others in Kerala. This initiative helped in developing the dotGNU project, which was a free substitute for Microsoft's .NET, since several people from India joined the project.

The discussions in the Thiruvananthapuram LUG soon led to the ideology of Free Software, which the members found attractive. They discussed the idea of establishing a Free Software Foundation of India, and a unit of Free Developers. FSF India, they hoped, would act to supervise the ethical aspects of Free Developers. Radhakrishnan got in touch with Richard Stallman and got his approval for starting FSF India, and got him to agree to inaugurate FSF India. Satish Babu, who was then the Regional Vice-President of the Computer Society of India, took the initiative to organise the inaugural function. It was decided to inaugurate the Indian branch of Free Developers also at the same function.

Freedom First

The conference organised at Thiruvananthapuram in connection with the inauguration of Free Software Foundation of India was aptly called Freedom First. The name was suggested by the journalist K.G. Kumar and it must have immediately struck a chord with the others. Richard Stallman was the chief guest for the conference, and he was received as an honoured state guest by government officials to discuss the philosophy behind the movement.

The Organising Committee formed to conduct the conference included Radhakrishnan, Satish Babu, Arun, Krishnan, Rajkumar (who runs a Free Software business), P.M. Sasi, K.G. Kumar, Dr. K.R. Srivathsan (Director, IIITMK5), and others. The function in the morning, in which FSF India was inaugurated by Stallman, was chaired by the Secretary to the Government, Information Technology Department. About 300 people from all over the state and even outside were present, filling the auditorium beyond its capacity. “Computer users in India, as elsewhere, deserve the freedom to share and change software, the way cooks share and change recipes. So I am pleased to inaugurate the Free Software Foundation of India, which will promote the use and the development of free software in this country”, Stallman told the gathering. Later, he met the Minister for Information Technology and held discussions on promoting Free Software in the state. The afternoon session was devoted to the inauguration of Free Developers India and some technical presentations.

There were a couple of interesting moments during Stallman's visit. At the airport, a number of people were curious to see a figure with long hair and long beard and wanted to know who he was. When he understood what they were asking, he introduced himself, “I am Saint IGNUcious of the church of Emacs.”6 Possibly, some people took that seriously! There was a poignant moment when Stallman was going to a hotel for lunch along with a few other people. One of them told Stallman that Nelson Mandela had signed a Freedom Declaration that had been put up at the Free Developers website. “RMS just couldn't believe that and he almost cried. He said Mandela had always been his hero.” wrote Ramakrishnan (one of the others in the vehicle) later. When someone tried to compare Stallman with Mandela, RMS retorted that whatever he has done could never be compared with the 25 years in prison that Mandela had suffered.

It was an achievement of FS enthusiasts in the state that the government agreed to support the event and treat RMS as a state guest. As a report in Linux Today7 said:

Government officials and other Free Software supporters in the state of Kerala believe that Free Software meshes particularly well with Kerala's long tradition of democracy, equity and public action. Just as Kerala is often held up as a model of equitable social and human development in the region, Free Software supporters there believe they can leverage the inherent freedoms of Free Software to evolve an equitable Knowledge Society based on software independence and self- reliance.

The conference was a great success in many ways. It attracted a lot of media attention and made 'Free Software' and Richard Stallman' popular among the public.


There have been a few instances where the Free Software community was able to influence decision makers to choose Free Software over proprietary. In some cases, the decisive breakthrough was achieved by individual effort, while in some cases, it was a community effort. We shall look into two cases here, that of the implementation of a network by the Public Works Department and that of the introduction of IT education in schools.

PWD Network

One of the first successful campaigns for Free Software was in the Public Works Department of the state. InApp Technologies, the company started by Satish Babu, Amarnath Raja and others, was asked to make a proposal for a PWD project by one of the Secretaries of the PWD. InApp made it clear that while they do work with all technologies, they would quote only for a Free platform, as they considered it as most appropriate for any e-governance project.

The consultant to the Kerala Transportation Project, under which the application was being planned, felt that he did not know sufficiently about Free Software, and obtained quotes from Microsoft and Oracle. However, the Secretary concerned knew about InApp and suggested to the Principal Secretary that InApp's proposal should be considered seriously. A debate was therefore organised to (a) explain what Free Software was, and (b) what its advantages were over proprietary platforms. This debate was conducted by the then PWD Principal Secretary and was attended by two other Secretaries, the consultant to the Transportation Project, some Chief Engineers and senior people from the PWD.

Two people from Microsoft, one from Oracle, Amarnath Raja and Satish formed the participants. Satish was armed with a survey conducted among Technopark companies about their perceptions on Free Software in December 2002 (, which was conducted by Satish who was the GTech Treasurer. The study had clearly shown the features of Free Software that made it attractive especially for e-governance projects. Microsoft came prepared with their “sponsored research” findings. Since Satish and Amarnath were prepared for it, they were easily able to refute their findings. Microsoft possibly did not expect this, and perhaps had thought that this would be a walkover. The person from Oracle was unaware of the local politics and looked surprised by the ferocity of the debate. He started off pro-Microsoft, but shifted to the Free Software camp half-way through. The Secretaries were convinced about the need to go Free, and InApp got the order. The application was delivered and is running well.

IT@School Project

Another successful campaign, which was driven by a large number of FS enthusiasts and received much more publicity, was that for the inclusion of Free Software in IT education in schools. The Department of Education, Government of Kerala, started a project called IT@School for bringing IT enabled education to the high schools in the state. The project constituted a committee headed by Prof. U.R. Rao, former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, to make recommendations on the direction the project should take. After studying the status of education in the state and elaborate discussions, the Committee recommended that the project should aim to bring IT to high schools in the state to empower teachers and to use the technology for improving curriculum transaction in the classes. However, the project found that most of the teachers and the students possessed little IT skills. They, therefore, decided to start IT education at the high school level initially. IT was thus introduced in the eighth standard in the year 2002 after conducting training in IT for a large number of teachers. The teacher training was organised using help from the Intel Teach to the Future programme, and their course material, which was wholly based on Microsoft software, was used for the training.

Struggle for Free Software

The textbook for IT prepared by the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) was based purely on Microsoft Windows and other Microsoft applications like MS Office. The Free Software community in the state found this very offensive, since it ignored the existence of Free Software and promoted the products of one company ignoring even other proprietary software. The community responded by talking to people, sending letters, writing in the media and so on. The Free Software User Group in Kochi prepared a memorandum and sent it to several people involved in the matter, including the Directors of the IT@School project and SCERT, the Director of Public Instruction, the Principal Secretary, Education Department, and the Secretary, IT Department. They pointed out that:

• IT@School was promoting the software of one company at the cost of software produced by everyone else;

• the government would have to pay an enormous amount for licencing the software for the schools;

• even if the company gives the software for the schools free of cost, it is only a marketing ploy in order to reap benefits of having a pool of people who are familiar with their software packages and thus form an assured customer base, either as users themselves or as potential skilled employees;

• the Government's approach would result in compelling not only schools, but also the general public to purchase software from this particular vendor in the future. This would create a monopoly in favour of that corporation and expose the public, the State and the nation to the mercy of a single company;

• the corporation, whose brands and products are prescribed in the syllabus, does not publish the standards used in their software. This practice compels other people who have to interact with users of the products of this corporation (like the government and schools, in this case) to purchase software from this particular vendor only-a situation known as 'vendor lock-in';

• the government is promoting illegal copying and installation of software in the computers in the schools by not providing for software costs;

• handling licencing issues is not simple and there has been at least one instance in which a school in the US had to pay $ 300,000 as fine-even screenshots used in textbooks may have to be licenced;

• several software packages, both applications as well as operating systems, which conform to industry-wide standards, adopted and maintained by independent vendors, and with less restrictive licences, are available.

The Kerala School Teachers Association decided to throw its weight behind the demand from Free Software enthusiasts. The government and the IT@School project were still not willing to change. However, due to pressure from several directions, SCERT decided to incorporate Free Software also in the textbook and rewrote the textbook for the eighth standard for the academic year 2003-04. Sri N.K. Satyapalan, who was the person in charge of IT education at the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) played an important role in pushing Free Software into the textbook. Some schools, especially in northern Kerala, where there were teachers who knew how to install and use GNU/Linux, installed it and started IT classes using it. In order to ensure that all schools did buy sufficient computers and taught IT, it was also decided to include IT as an additional subject and conduct examinations, though with less marks than other subjects.

Computerised Examination

An important phase started when the IT@School project decided to conduct part of the IT examination using a software. They developed a software called Softexam for conducting the examination. This was designed primarily for the MS Windows platform and some of the schools using GNU/Linux had to install MS Windows to enable the software. There was immediate protest from the Teachers Association and the Project was forced to develop Softexam for GNU/Linux also. However, this is now being virtually discontinued, with the software being confined to presenting previously prepared questions randomly and saving the responses for later evaluation by teachers.

One problem with using GNU/Linux was that there were several distributions of the OS, each slightly different from the others, and schools had installed different distributions. Even preparing the textbook became difficult, since the screenshots, and sometimes even the procedures for using the software, could be different for different distributions. To solve this problem, the Free Software Foundation of India suggested developing a custom distribution for IT@School, and eventually created the distribution with funding from the Kerala State IT Mission.

Another problem that the IT@School project faced was that of providing support to the schools where GNU/Linux was being used. They called for private agencies who were willing to provide support to register with them. A number of agencies, including Free Software User Groups, responded and about twenty of them were short listed. A final solution to the problem came when SPACE (mentioned earlier) decided to offer support to IT@School, both in terms of updating the distribution used in schools and in providing support to the teacher community. The website of SPACE now has provided for teachers to post questions there, to which experts will respond, and also a page listing the Frequently Asked Questions and the answers to them. The IT@School project arranged for teachers to be trained in GNU/Linux and a majority of teachers have already been trained. A Resource Centre has been established in Kochi for conducting teacher training with technical assistance from SPACE.

In 2005, the government announced that the schools in Kerala will completely switch to Free Software in stages. Supplements to the textbooks were created to enable students to study using GNU/Linux, which also introduced some software that a child new to computers could use to learn the skills needed to use a mouse and a keyboard. Tuxpaint, a simple painting software, which a child could use even if (s)he was unfamiliar with the intricacies of saving or retrieving a file, and Gcompris, a set of games that helped the child to learn how to use the mouse and keyboard, became very popular with children. The textbooks for all the three classes in high school are now being revised to contain Free Software exclusively. Kerala is poised to become the first state in the country to use exclusively Free Software in its schools. It is also poised to become possible the first state to introduce IT enabled education in high schools in a big way.

Visits by Stallman

Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and FSF, has visited India several times and given lectures in several states. But the state he has visited most often is Kerala, probably because of the large support in this state for his ideology.

The first time Stallman visited Kerala was for the Freedom First conference in 2001. His next visit was in connection with the EMS Memorial Lecture constituted by Kerala University. Stallman spoke about the danger of software patents at the University Senate Hall on January 24, 2004. The same day he spoke about copyright law and freedom in science at Centre for Earth Science Studies. Both lectures were well attended and there were a number of questions from the audience at both venues. On Independence Day, he interacted with the students of the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala (IIITMK). During this visit, Stallman also met the then leader of the Opposition (present Chief Minister) V.S. Achuthanandan, who has been a strong supporter of the Free Software movement, and held discussions on how the government can support and benefit from Free Software.

Richard Stallman's latest visit to Kerala has been in August this year (2006). SPACE in association with Kerala State IT Mission conducted a seminar on Free Software for Kerala Development on the 23rd of August. Stallman gave the keynote address in this seminar. The seminar was inaugurated by the Chief Minister, who had a long discussion with Stallman. A report on Free Software Projects in Public Enterprises in Kerala, prepared by SPACE, was released at the function. Stallman was in India to participate in the GPL v3 conference at Bangalore on August 25 and 26.


A certain amount of Free Software development was done in the state even in the initial days. This includes localisation of the GNOME8 Desktop (that is, making the desktop available in the local language, Malayalam), a project monitoring application for the government and a portal for enhancing transparency in everyday activities of the government.

The localisation work was started by Arun and his friends Gopal, Sreekrishna and others soon after the establishment of FSF India. The Managing Director of Keltron, an undertaking of the Government of Kerala, offered to help them in their effort. The idea was that the government and other users could be provided a platform in Malayalam for their uses. They managed to get support from Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), an initiative developed and funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for the work. “Specifically, the project aims to create Free Font for Malayalam, create toolkit (toolkits are basic building blocks in creating Graphical User Interface based applications) with Malayalam support, and create a localised desktop and office productivity applications and documentation in Malayalam.”, says the project abstract9 . The work was undertaken by the Kerala Bureau for Industrial Promotion (KBIP) in association with FSF India. All menu and other text, like messages, were translated into Malayalam so that a person who knows only Malayalam could comfortably use a computer with the customised GNOME desktop. Unfortunately, the work was never released to the public because of official apathy.

Another Free Software based development was in connection with the Modernising Government Programme (MGP). MGP was drawn up as part of the strategy of the Government to overhaul and improve its services to the people of the State. One of the components of MGP was monitoring projects funded by the government. The Program Performance monitoring system (PPMS) was developed by Keltron (Kerala State Electronics Development Corporation) for tracking the performance of various departments as part of MGP. PPMS contain 4 major projects. The first project, PPMS1, is a performance monitoring system for 17 government departments. It covers a total of 93 initiatives of these departments, 50 of them in the first phase. The system uses result base management methods to measure performance based on impacts, outputs, outcomes & activities. PPMS2 is a set of service delivery projects. It addresses performance monitoring of 2584 institutions statewide like schools and community health centres and mainly deals with fund flow management, administrative payment orders etc. The Third project is a human resource module named e-bandham. It monitors attendance, leave, travel allowances etc of the program support executives. The fourth project is Sevanamudra, Quality Improvement Program & Performance Certification Mechanism for government institutions.

Another project done using Free Software is Sutharya Keralam, or Transparent Kerala. This is a Right to Information initiative of the Government of Kerala to ensure transparency and efficiency in everyday functions of the government. “The major objectives of the project are the automation of Chief Minister's Grievance Redressal Cell and convergence of all the available forms of Communication so as to guarantee People's Right to Information.”, says its website10. The project was developed completely on Free Software technologies by the Centre for Development of Imaging Technologies (CDIT), an institute under the Government of Kerala.

Other Free Software projects in the state include computerisation of the offices of milk producers unions in the state that come under the Kerala State Milk Marketing Federation (Milma), a Management Information System for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) developed by CDAC, a District Collectorate Suite developed by the National Informatics Centre and a computerisation project of Calicut University done inhouse. A study on Free Software projects in public enterprises in Kerala has been done by SPACE and is available online11.


The Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment, or SPACE, is a society promoted by Kerala State IT Mission with the objective of promoting alternative computing, that is, Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS). It has a government nominee in its Board of Directors and has support from professional societies (such as IEEE and the Computer Society of India) and the academia. It had as its first Chairman the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala, Dr. B. Ekbal, and members included Satish Babu, Amarnath Raja, P.M. Sasi and C.V. Radhakrishnan. Though it came into existence in 2003, it could not undertake much activity due to lack of funds. This problem was solved when SPACE entered into a tie-up with SOMA for working on joint projects. SPACE became active with the setting up of an office and recruiting a few people. Activities started in areas like promoting Virtual Micro Enterprises (VMEs) based on Free Software, advocating FS in colleges and setting up Free Software Cells where feasible, helping in training school teachers in FS, and so on.

Some of the achievements of SPACE did attract considerable media attention. One example is the development of a distribution of GNU/Linux specifically for electronics laboratories in engineering colleges. This was made available on one CD, and was named Free Electron. The distribution was created by the FS Cell in an engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram with help from SPACE. There were a number of requests from colleges inside and outside the state, and even one from abroad. Another distribution that SPACE created for system recovery purposes was distributed by a local IT magazine. A workshop SPACE conducted, in collaboration with another NGO (Mediact) involved in media education, at a village library for creating and publishing a village newsletter in Malayalam also attracted much interest. Another programme that became popularly known was the initiative for setting up a radio station for fisherfolk. Started on the initiative of a few young people from the fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram, Radio Alakal, as it was called, could not start regular broadcast due to some licencing issues, but started narrowcasting (using loud speakers at specific locations). All the work for Radio Alakal was done using Free Software. SPACE also helped the IT@School project to set up a teacher training centre in Kochi.Free SoFree Software in Businessftware in Business

Free Software in Business

There are several companies in the state doing business using Free Software. We mentioned River Valley Technologies of Radhakrishnan. Another enterprise in Kochi, Beta Computers, also does business using TeX.

An organisation worth mentioning is the Open Software Solutions Industrial Co-operative Society in Kochi. It is a cooperative effort which consists of some young programmers who were involved with the Ernakulam Industrial Infrastructure Development Project. The project started work for computerising the Panchayats (local self-government institution) in the district. They used only Free Software and computerised a few Panchayats. However, the state-wide programme called Information Kerala Mission for the same purpose, which used only proprietary software, superseded their efforts. The youth involved in the project started a co-operative society and started doing business with Free Software. They developed a software for co-operative banks, called Sanghamitra, which has been installed in a number of branches. This is also licenced under the GNU General Public Licence. They have been developing software for other purposes also, and are doing reasonably well.

Rajkumar (whose name has been mentioned earlier) runs a business called Linuxense at Thiruvananthapuram. “We are a GNU/Linux-based Enterprise providing software solutions of exceptional quality using cutting-edge technologies; creating a GNU/Linux ambiance for our distinguished clients in their demanding work environments.” says their website12 . They provide support for Asianet, a major ISP in the state, and their website proudly exhibits an appreciation by an Asianet official on the effectiveness of the antivirus support they have given. Linuxense ran a server break-in challenge during March 9-13, and won. No one was able to break into the server they had set up for the purpose.

Swatantra Software Solutions and Services (abbreviated to S2S2) is a small business in Kannur that has been involved in selling Free Software CDs and systems with GNU/Linux, and providing assistance to schools for installing computers and networks using GNU/Linux. Sujeevan, who runs the company, actively promotes Free Software and has participated in training sessions for teachers organised by the Teachers' Association and by FSFI. He has also helped in installing the customised GNU/Linux distribution for schools in existing networked computer labs in some schools. There are several companies that do business using Free Software along with other platforms -InApp Technologies, for instance. But I have not been able to identify one that does software development/support exclusively using Free Software.

Free Software Free Society

Free Software Free Society is the name of a collection of articles written by Richard Stallman. It was very appropriate that this name was chosen for a conference organised in Thiruvananthapuram by SPACE, FSF India, and others, because this conference, as the press release by the organisers stated, “explores the possibilities of applying the Free Software model in addressing broader questions such as Governance, Digital Inclusion, Development and Culture.” The conference was supported by Hipatia(a European NGO), Kerala State IT Mission, Free Software Foundation of India, and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala (IIITM-K), Thiruvananthapuram.

The conference had its origins at the World Social Forum held in Mumbai during Jan 16-21, 2004. Arun met some people from Hipatia, which also worked for promoting Free Software and its philosophy, at the venue. They agreed that there was a need for people from countries that are geographically far apart, such as India and Latin America, to come together and share their ideas about Free Software so that something fruitful could evolve. This idea evoked a lot of interest in countries as varied as Brazil, Venezuela, Italy and India, and the Government of Kerala agreed to extend support for such a conference.

The website of the conference explained the vision of the conference:

Located at the intersection of Free Software, Development and Society, the FSFS Conference will examine the application of the Free Software model for equitable sharing models for intellectual artifacts, and ultimately for human development. The conference will also address, inter alia, issues such as technology access and the digital divide; legal issues; and experiences of using the Free Software model in fields such as music and literature.

The conference was held in the beautiful campus of the Technopark at Thiruvananthapuram during May 28-31, 2004. Felipe Perez-Marti, eminent economist and ex-Minister of Venezuela delivered the keynote address. Another important participant was Senator Fiorello Cortiana from Italy. At the end of the conference, it adopted a declaration, now known as the Thiruvananthapuram Declaration. It called upon the “social and political institutions to eliminate systems that hinder the development of the gnowledge society (see”13


We saw how Free Software has come to stay in Kerala. The natural question this raises is, “Why Kerala?” There is no other state in the country where Free Software has made an impact that is anywhere near that in Kerala. This itself could be the subject for an entire thesis, and this is certainly not the place to enter into a serious analysis of the question. However, an article like this cannot totally ignore the question either. Therefore, an attempt, however feeble, is made here to answer that question.

When one talks of the state of Kerala, what comes to one's mind is the special place that it occupies in the country and the very different development path that the state has followed. Kerala is different from India as a whole in many ways: literacy rate in Kerala is about 90%, while the average for India is about 52%; life expectancy at birth in Kerala is 73 years compare to 61 years in India; Kerala's birth rate is 14 per 1000 females, while India's rate is 25. Kerala has one of the lowest ratios of disabled persons to service units-5,000, compared to the highest values of 17,000 in some states. Women outnumber men, live longer, are as educated as men and they dominate some occupations like school teachers. In spite of the small population of the state, it has produced some of the outstanding writers, cinematographers, cartoonists and journalists in the country. The Physical Quality of Life Index for the state is comparable to that in developed countries. At the same time, alcoholism, suicide rate, and drug abuse are close to the highest in the country. Wages are much higher than in the neighbouring states. Almost every other family has someone working abroad or in the IT industry in one of the major metropolises. “It is, in other words, weird-like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off.” wrote Bill McKibben14.

Kerala has a history of several social reform movements. One of the most prominent is that led by Sri Narayana Guru for the upliftment of the Ezhava community. Members of the community were barred from entering Hindu temples and even studying Sanskrit and the scriptures. He led a successful struggle against these and even established a temple himself. Ayyan Kali led a struggle against oppression of lower castes by upper caste people and the State. Mannath Padmanabhan led a movement by the middle level Nair community and established the Nair Service Society. The Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad promoted scientific thinking among children and adults and also spearheaded the total literacy movement. The Communist Party helped to liberate workers from virtual slavery and to bring about universal education. The Christian missionaries that have been active in the state for several decades also helped to take basic education to even the most down-trodden. While this is the background, it is difficult to understand why such things happened in Kerala but not in other states.

The unique history of this land has helped create a unique sense of democracy, equity and social justice among the people in the state. This is evidenced by the sometimes violent reactions to events that are perceived as violation of basic rights. Police action against tribals who had occupied government land in protest against the government's inaction in providing them land as promised, and suicide of a student who could not continue her education due to inability to pay the fees, are two examples of events that led to major protests. Freedom is a concept close to their hearts and the sense of personal dignity is high. People thus find it easy to perceive Free Software as a fight against exploitation by large software companies. Moreover, the penetration of communication networks (telephone, mobile, Internet) is one of the highest in the country, and two of the highest circulated newspapers in the country are in the local language. Thus people are aware of happenings in other parts of the world.

It is interesting that, in the 1970s, an eccentric film maker, John Abraham, considered by many as possibly the only genius in Malayalam cinema, produced a film Amma Ariyaan (which can be literally translated as For the knowledge of the mother), by collecting small donations and exhibited it everywhere free of charge. Like Knuth's TEX, this could be considered as a forerunner of Free Software, considering that the ideology of Free Software is being extended to creativity in other areas through movements like Creative Commons. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that the Free Software movement flourished in Kerala.


1 Those who would like to know more about Free Software can find plenty of material at the FSF website.

2 A LaTeX is a set of macros for TeX that is now commonly used for typesetting, instead of plain TeX.

3 (

4 InApp Technologies (

5 Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala

6 Emacs is the editor developed by Stallman that is very popular among users of Unix-like systems including GNU/Linux.

7 ( story.php3?ltsn=2001-07-19-010-20-PR-CY)

8 GNOME is one of the various desktops available in GNU/Linux.





13 The full text of the declaration is available at Page.



This document may be copied, distributed or republished in any media subject to the condition that this note is also included. The document may be modified and republished under the same conditions provided a reference is given to the original source.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Free Software, Free Culture

Prof. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at the Columbia University Law School, General Counsel of the Free Software Foundation, Boston, and Founder and Director-Counsel of the Software Freedom Law Centre, was in India in the first half of June 2007, and in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala State, during June 4-7. He spoke at the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala (IIITMK), he held discussions with the Kerala State Planning Board, and addressed a publick meeting at Mascot Hotel along with Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Vice Chairman, Kerala State Planning Board. Given below is a brief report of the public meeting.

The Seminar started at 5:30 and the hall was almost full. Mr. Jyothilal, Secretary of the IT Department, welcomed the gathering.

The first talk was by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik on Innovativeness in Property Relations. He spoke very briefly, but demolished the idea that innovation cannot happen without exclusion. He quoted Schumpeter, a great supporter of capitalism, to show that the concept of private property in ideas goes totally against capitalism. Taking the example of two companies, he showed that the best course for each company will always be to innovate. This is true even without the s-called "Intellectual Property Rights". These rights are in addition to the financial benefits they get from innovation.

Prof. Eben Moglen spoke next. His talk was called Freeing the Mind: Free Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture. But he seems to have departed much from his speech on this topic that can be seen on the Net. He started where Prof. Patnaik left. He said that this was the first time that he has had the government people on his side! His arguments were from the practical point of view which, in a sense, complemented Prof. Patnaik's theoretical analysis.

He said that monopoly rights for the innovator is not an essential pre-requisite for innovation to happen. As an example, he pointed to Free Software itself. He said that we have created software that is better than proprietary ones by any technological criteria. And this happened without any monopoly rights for anyone. He said that the company that has accumulated the highest amount of money has innovated very little. Its word processor, he said, was incapable of producing any good-looking document. He narrated an instance where he was asked by an advocate in the US what he used for creating legal documents for submission to courts. When he replied that he used a software called LaTeX, the other advocate wanted to learn LaTeX. Microsoft did not innovate, they purchased. The application called Word was purchased from the Palo Alto Research Centre of Rank Xerox. The company itself came to prominence because IBM did not want their own software to go
into the PC they designed and manufactured. He said that it is not possible to delve deeply into justifications for capitalism without encountering contradictions.

In his opinion, it was not capitalism that brought wealth to the US, but initiatives that were more socialist than capitalist. Like the free university education given to retired military personnel at public institutes. Another was the high spending in research during to the cold war. He said that steps like these had led to a lot of infrastructure development. Once the cold war ended, and the government started to reduce funding for research, things started changing. Developments in technology, he said, were not cutting at the roots of the structure that crated them. The copyright and patent laws that were supposedly meant to promote innovation were, in fact, slowing them down. Any innovation now involved negotiations with several people who held the rights. Information Technology now makes it possible to make infinite copies of different kinds of software -- programs, music, video, text, and so on -- and this is posing a threat to the companies that were making money from these things. This kind of a situation had been predicted by Marx and Engels, he said, though such technologies could not have been thought of in those days.

Prof. Moglen said that all patent laws, including the ones in the US are archaic. A cost-benefit analysis is done on everything the government does. But no such analysis is done to see whether a patent would do more harm than benefit to society before the patent is granted. In other words, innovation is given infinite weightage. The prevention of software patents would give enormous benefits to society, he said. The human species learned to manipulate the world, to control nature for its own benefit. All this happened because of the large brain and hands that were freed when homo sapiens became bipeds. There is the question of which came first. Modern research shows that man became a biped first and it was later that the brain enlarged. Surprisingly Frederick Engels had stated this two centuries ago. He had said that it was the use of hands for manipulating the
external world and experimenting with it that led to the increase in brain size.

Prof. Moglen said that computer networking had brought about a big change in the way we live. If we switch off the net now, deny the Internet to everyone, a lot of people will find it very difficult to lead a normal life. When a young woman decided to quit myspace, a new community was created to encourage her to come back to the site because she used to be the custodian of all their photographs. The network has changed even the job market.

The market is the central point of focus in economics and it decides how resources are allocated under scarcity. You have the demand curve and the supply curve and things like that to determine what shall be the price of a commodity. You have the fixed cost and the marginal cost and things like that. So you sell a loaf of bread for the marginal cost. But suppose there are people who cannot afford to buy the bread at the marginal cost, it leads to injustice. Suppose you have a machine which requires only one loaf of bread to begin with and you can generate thousands of loaves by just pressing a button. Then the marginal cost becomes zero, and it is unfair to charge for each loaf.

The network has made possible Free Software, which is frictionless at the network. Here, the fixed cost is covered because human beings love to create. The marginal cost is virtually zero. The economist, homunculus economicus, does not see human nature. The reductionist economist went on reducing until he reduced everything, including himself. This economic dwarf considers human beings as individuals. John Donne had said, "No man is." We are not islands. The guy who made Free Software did not do so because he had a monopoly. He did so because he could not have done anything else. This is what makes meaning in, and meaning of, life. People simply enjoy doing things, and one of the best examples for this is Wikipedia. He said that one aspect of Wikipedia is sufficient to demonstrate this -- the breaking news. He said that the breaking news in Wikipedia is better than any other media because people the world over are seeing/hearing news and putting it in Wikipedia. Prof. Moglen said that his blog is often behind Wikipedia when it comes to matters about himself. This is proof of the fact that a proof-of-concept + running code + community leads to production without property. He also mentioned his Correlative Corollary to Faraday's Law. He said that, like in Faraday's Law, take the community, wind the net around it and spin the world, and you get information flowing through the network. We take from people according
to their ability and give to people according to their need.

There were a few questions related to the topic, which were mostly kind of clarifying his statements. The meeting ended around 8 pm.

In the name of progress, big businesses are increasingly restricting our freedom. There is resentment in the United States against the manipulations of the Recording Industry Association and against laws like the Digital Rights Management (DRM), what Richard Stallman calls Digital Restrictions Management. There is apparently a law in India that prevents people from singing popular songs (film or otherwise) before an audience without getting permission from an organisation and paying them in advance. This is absolutely ridiculous and an example of the extent to which commercial interests can go to prevent your freedom -- even your freedom to sing. If we do not react to these challenges to our freedom, tomorrow we may even have to pay to speak in our mother tongue!

Also: Eben Moglen's speech at Bangalore -- Read the transcript here

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Misusing Freedom

I had written about misusing freedom earlier, and that was provoked by a television invading into the privacy of a couple of teenage children when they were in a miserable state. I have to write again about how a newspaper has used a photograph by an amateur photographer without either asking her permission or even acknowledging her.

The story goes like this. Seema has put in Flickr some of the photographs she has taken and made them available under a Creative Commons licence that permits others to make use of the photograph for any non-commercial purpose provided the author is acknowledged. One of the photographs is that of a building in the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, that had been designed and constructed by the late architect Laurie Baker. The Times of India, a leading newspaper particularly in the northern parts of India, made use of this photograph in an obituary to Mr. Baker published in the issue dated April 21. This was a leader article written by Amrith Lal. The photographer came to know about it only when someone who was familiar with the photograph pointed it out to her. She immediately wrote to the Editor.

Apparently, a response was not quickly forthcoming. So she went to the ToI office at Thiruvananthapuram and told them about it. They could only give her the phone number of their Delhi office. She called them but could not get the author of the story, since he was away in Uttar Pradesh. Apparently, she has received an apology from the Times of India. You can read about the entire episode in Seema's blog.

This is just another example of how media people carry their freedom too far. I wonder whether the apology given by Times of India (if they really have) is sufficient compensation. I believe that the newspaper, if they still have any sincerity left, should publish the name of the person whose photograph they stole, and also pay for it. No newspaper in this country (or elsewhere for that matter) is being published for charity. The intention is very clearly to make profit. Therefore, they have absolutely no right to make use of someone else's material and not compensate the author.

I too have been a victim of exploitation by another newspaper. This time it was The Hindu, a newspaper that is popular mostly in the southern parts of India. I was asked to write articles for their supplement for young people and four of my articles were published. They never paid me. Nor did they respond to the mails I sent. This happened a few years back and I left it at that. I should not have.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Freedom should not be misused

It is after a long time that I am able to write something here. Had been rather busy and also rather tired. :-)

This is something that I have been wanting to write about for some time, but have not been able to. Since this blog is called "Free as in Freedom", I thought this is the right place to write about it. As you must have guessed, it is about freedom. But it is not about fighting for it, but about the responsibilities freedom comes with. It is not very common for people to realise that freedom comes with responsibilities. Hence they tend to misuse the freedom. Sometimes, this is tolerated, especially if the concerned person has some authority. But it causes resentment among others. And people start talking, which tends to build up the resentment.

People who deliberately misuse their freedom often tend to become excessive. This is when the suppressed resentment breaks out. Someone eventually has to do something about it and that could lead to curbing of the freedom. So I would say, don't misuse your freedom, or you will lose it.

Just today, I heard a senior police official, a person who is well-known for his dedication, complain during a speech about how the media is misusing their freedom, often forgetting the agony they cause to the people they are harassing. He was most probably expressing the feeling that many officials and others have had for quite some time. Especially with the visual media becoming ubiquitous, and channels competing with one another for sensational stories, their harassment also has attained new levels. The media do enjoy a lot of freedom in a large part of the world, and they need to be aware of their responsibilities too.

I remember an instance of the reporter of a particular channel questioning two teenage children about their parents. The tragedy was that their father was dead and their mother was in prison. Just imagine how shattered the children would be. No one with any sense would aks the children to explain their relationship with their parents and the relationship between the parents. I was so shocked seeing the visual (telecast during a news programme) that I was angry and shocked that no one else present there (only neighbours) had sufficient moral indignation to slap the fellows. This happened several months ago, and now a senior official has expressed the very same feelings.

So, let me repeat, Do not misuse your freedom, lest you lose it.