August 26, 2005

Linux thrives in left-leaning Kerala

Author: Sreelakshmi Haridas

Kerala, a tiny coastal state in south India, is a site of significant popularity of free software and GNU/Linux. What lessons can Kerala teach other areas about using free and open source software?

Kerala, as a state, is strongly grounded in principles of socialism. Most of the educated middle class is leftist, at least in principle. The state is credited with a near 100% literacy rate and better social statistics than most of the rest of the country. And all this is reflected in a spirit among the people to question any decision imposed on them. They resent lack of choices, and by extension, oppose monopolies. What better fuel for an open source/free software movement to thrive on than a society like this?

The extent to which the state has taken to FLOSS is evinced in the government's own enthusiasm in promoting and supporting the cause. Cynics may decry this as wooing the 'educated' voters, but even they will admit that many a step the government has taken in this regard has been in the right direction. The launch of the ambitious Linux Technology Extension (LiTE) program by the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT) is a recent example. Through this program, C-DIT aims to convert a number of computer training institutes spread across all 14 districts of Kerala to LiTE centers. These centers will spread awareness amongst users of an alternative operating system that can serve as a drop-in replacement to existing setups. They will also help users migrate to Linux. Their activities will include assistance in configuring PCs and peripherals such as printers, CD/DVD drivers, webcams, scanners, and modems to work with the Linux operating system, training in use of Linux applications, including the suite, and distribution of C-DIT-developed tools and software such as the Kairali Linux distribution, a complete desktop distribution localized for Malayalam (the state language) and designed to remove proficiency in English as a requirement for using Linux.

Earlier this year, IT examinations in state schools had to be postponed following protests from some teachers that open source software was not being adequately covered and that students were being exposed to Microsoft technologies only. This led to a lengthy debate, but has culminated in a state-initiated move to migrate the entire high school IT education to GNU/Linux platforms. Kerala is, thus, the first state to actively promote free software in school education. By doing so, the government will save considerable amounts of money previously expended on licensing proprietary OSes, applications, and educational software. FLOSS advocates hope that they will invest some of the savings in encouraging adoption of free software in other public offices and providing incentives to proponents of the FLOSS movement.

Several of these developments have been suggested, triggered, and pushed by the Free Software Foundation-India, which is based in Kerala. The Indian chapter is popular with students. Most colleges in Kerala have been 'Linux-ised' for ages. Nearly everybody is familiar, if not conversant, with the OS. Indeed, a number of students in Kerala's engineering colleges have contributed to the community by means of patches to the Linux kernel, active propaganda, articles in prestigious magazines, documentation, and of course, free software. Not surprising then is the fact that the state was chosen by open source guru Richard Stallman to launch the Free Software Foundation's first affiliation in the whole of Asia.

Despite all the positive developments to date, FLOSS proponents need to be wary of supporters who are in it only for political mileage. Admittedly, some political support goes a long way in popularizing the adoption of a new technology, but this sort of support is fickle and comes with obligations. When a more 'appealing' cause makes its appearance, this brigade will drop away. At the end of the day, the reason Linux and the FLOSS movement are here to stay in Kerala is that the user base is not just casual users, but evangelists who continually spread the word.

One lesson that is obvious from most of the above is that the key to promoting the adoption of Linux is to take it to the masses in a manner they understand. Present it to them, highlighting tangible benefits. Make it easy for them to move. Prepare migration paths mentored by professionals. Train them at nominal costs. And always strive to create not users, but 'missionaries.' Today, a state, tomorrow, a country, next year, the world!


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