March 7, 2007

South Asians "for" regional co-operation

Tushar Abraham Mathew writes "IOSN South Asia conducted its first event for the year 2006-2007 on the sidelines of Linux Asia 2007 at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.Titled The Round Table Discussion of South Asian Countries, it was conducted as a forenoon session that started at 11:15 am. The focus was on E-governance and Education using FOSS tools and technologies and it saw active participation from most of the South Asian countries. Maldives and Bangladesh were the only countries that couldn't make it. The following were the representatives from the South Asian economies -

1)Mr.Mohammad Khansari, Director, National FOSS Project, Iran

2)Mr.Sufyan Kakhakel, Project Manager, OSRC, Pakistan

3)Mr.Mohamad Babar Haq, Server Technology Expert, OSRC, Pakistan

4)Mr.Omar Mansoor Ansari, Executive Director, ACSA, Afghanistan

5)Ms. Touba Alam, Council Member, ACSA, Afghanistan

6)Mr. Subarna Shakya, Executive Director, NITC, Nepal

7)Mr. Pema Geyleg, Project Co-coordinator, Dzongkha Localisation
      Project, DIT, Bhutan

8)Mr. Chamindra De Silva, Acting Executive Director, LSF, Sri Lanka

9)Mr. S. Basu, Scientist-G and Group Co-ordinator, FOSS Initiatives
    Cell, DIT, India

10)Mr. M.R. Rajagopalan, Director, IOSN South Asia Node, India

11)Mrs. Suchitra Pyarelal, Technical Director, E-Governance Standards, NIC, India

12)Mrs. Shampa C., HOD, Computer Science Department, NSJT, India

13)Dr. S. Srinivasan, Project Scientist, NRCFOSS, India

14)Mr. Dhanesh K.K., IOSN South Asia Team, India

15)Mr. Tushar Abraham Mathew, IOSN South Asia Team, India

Apart from these persons, some members from both industry and the
community also took part. The deliberations started with introductions and status of E-Governance in each country.

For a country in which technology of all sorts -even Radio and
Television - were not till recently accessible, Afghanistan has experienced an enormous jump in technological advancement in the last year. Currently there are many small scale IT projects underway in various areas such as education, health, administration, economy,
infrastructure, consultation etc. As of March 2003, Afghanistan has been assigned its own domain name, “af”. Yet it was conceded that an integral IT concept was lacking in Afghanistan and lot more needed to be done.

Iran was in the process of setting up a National Data Centre fully based on FOSS technologies. The physical structure was completed and so was the software plan. Mr. Khansari reported that some proprietary solutions like CISCO routers might be used. There were a lot of portals that used the LAMP stack both in Government as well as Industry from where cost savings were reported. Iran, to date, has lacked a legislation or approved plan for FOSS and towards this a FOSS Policy was being framed which would soon be sent for the approval of the President and the Parliament. A number of new projects had also been initiated using FOSS but one issue that was pointed out was with respect to Databases. It was preferred to use an Oracle DB instead of PostgreSQL or MySQL as they were not really proven for large scale deployment. The general public were comfortable with using the English version of Windows and cost was
not much of a concern. Therefore, it was mentioned that there was no
real incentive for FOSS apart from the piracy issue.

In Pakistan, a Federal Data Centre was being set up to connect various Ministries and make data available to everyone. The server side would be completely FOSS based and the Ministries would be connected by optical fibers. Already about 11,000 computers had been deployed for this purpose. It was decided to use OpenOffice as the office suite and the Government had made huge savings due to this. The Open Source Resource Centre (OSRC) set up by the Pakistan Software Export Board is tasked with promoting FOSS in Pakistan and has been credited with a number of initiatives. Copies of OSRC's compilation of FOSS materials were distributed to all the delegates. Pakistan was also a partner country in the PAN Localisation project, a regional initiative to develop local language computing capacity in Asia.

Bhutan had received funding under the PAN Localisation Project about
three years back and that was when the Dzongkha Localisation Project was started. Today it has materialized and seen numerous deployments. In Phase I of the project, 2 persons from each of the 20 Dzongkhas(equivalent to districts) were to be trained in using FOSS. Phase II is intended to cover Ministries, Local Governments, Educational Institutions and others. “Training the Trainers” is the strategy that is to be used.

Nepal's National Information Technology Centre is tasked to provide
E-Governance solutions and has been provided expertise by the Republic of South Korea in this regard. The Asian Development Bank has also funded a massive $30 million initiative to provide training and assistance in IT. In this initiative, training is to be provided to different sectors on a priority basis. As of now, schools are not
included in this initiative but are being seriously considered. Also, a lot of attention is being paid to improve infrastructure. Madan Puraskar Pustakalya, an organisation that actively promotes FOSS, has also come out with a localised version of GNU/Linux in Nepali, the most commonly spoken language.

Mr. Chamindra De Silva from Sri Lanka made it clear that in his country, the choice of the platform was left to the end user. But the Government was pro-Open Standards. It had also set up a number of Nana Salas or Internet Kiosks to provide IT services to the people. It was also actively engaged in providing micro-credit to entrepreneurs for the same. The Lanka Software Foundation, a non-profit foundation, was set up to encourage FOSS contributions from Sri Lanka and has ensured that the FOSS world does not judge the country by its size. One of its co-founders, Mr. Sanjeeva Weerawarana, is also on the board of the OSI and this fact is an acknowledgment of the same.

India has formulated a Rs 23,000 Crore National E-Governance Plan (NEGP) to provide better services to its citizens. An initiative of the Department of Information Technology (DIT), Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT),Govt of India, the first phase is set to execute 27 mission mode projects. But of serious concern was the lack of standardisation. Some other issues that needed to be addressed were interoperability, localising E-Gov applications in the 22 official languages, expanding networks and infrastructure, quality, documentation and legal enablements. The DIT had also set up the National Resource Centre for Free/Open Source Software (NRCFOSS) as a joint effort of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) and the AU-KBC Research Centre of Anna University. The former focuses more on R & D and productisation while the latter on HRD. CDAC has come out with an Indian version of GNU/Linux christened BOSS which presently supports Hindi and Tamil. BOSS is already being deployed at the DIT and is expected to be taken up at both the Central and State levels. The AU-KBC Chapter has been instrumental in introducing FOSS I and II as electives in the Anna University curriculum which will apply to around 250 Engineering colleges under its fold. The entire course material is available for download at http://www.nrcfoss.org.in/index.php?option=com_con tent&task=view&id=91. This move is expected to provide the valuable manpower required to sustain a FOSS ecosystem. They have also conducted regular Teacher Training Programmes. TTP-1, TTP-2 and TTP-3 have so far covered 89, 66 and 52 teachers respectively.

On the education side, the countries found the model followed by NRCFOSS interesting and noted that including FOSS as a formal curriculum in engineering colleges would provide dividends. Everyone also agreed that promoting localised E- learning tools was also necessary to reach out.

The ideas kept coming and and the discussion began eating well into
lunch time till some of us had to remind everyone that breakfast was not the only important meal of the day.

The Round Table Discussion concluded with everyone agreeing to keep in touch through mailing lists and IRC.

Some of the participants had, on the previous day, also spoken at a
panel discussion titled OSS in Asia. After the Round Table Discussion, CDAC hosted a Penguin Party in the evening as a networking event. A touch of colour was added to it with rarely seen folk dance performances from different states."

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