Open source supporters are angry with the Indian government. Here’s why

Jayadevan PK November 4, 2016 3 min

Nearly a dozen organisations and top academics have opposed the Indian government’s move to work with Microsoft to build an ambitious online self-learning platform for millions of students. They want the government to use open source alternatives to build the platform.

In an open letter to India’s ministry of human resource development, institutions that support open source software as well as academics from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore and National Law University, Bangalore, have expressed their anger over the government’s move to hand over the project to Microsoft.

The three-year project will cost the government Rs 38 crore.

The letter said: “…Basing such a socially important platform on proprietary technologies will result in vendor lock-in and wastage of financial resources.” A committee set up by the government to build the platform, called SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds), had recommended that the state-owned Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) should build the platform using open source technologies.

In an open letter to the Indian MHRD, open source software supporters have expressed their anger over the government’s move to hand over the project to Microsoft  

“To our surprise, we have now learned through reports in the media that Microsoft Corporation has been engaged as the system integrator to develop the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) platform,” said the letter. According to reports, the tender to select a technical partner in November 2015 did not elicit any response.

A popular open source alternative is Open edX, a platform built by MIT and Harvard University to help create MOOCs. Anil Sasi, senior editor at The Indian Express wrote in August: “Even more intriguing is the fact that an MoU is already in place between IIT Bombay and edX, under which edX released the complete platform code in open source.”

At present, IIT-Bombay uses Open edX and IIT- Madras uses Course Builder, which is by Google. IIT-Kanpur has its own open source platform, Mookit. The new platform is supposed to replace all this, according to a source.

To The Indian Express story, a senior ministry official responded that edX was evaluated, but the technical committee assisted by consulting firm PwC voted against it because the intellectual property of the courses would be lost. To be sure, the very idea of an MOOC is to to democratise learning. So, it makes no sense to throw in the intellectual property argument when it comes to courses that you want to make available to the public at large.

According to the letter by open source supporters, the selection of Microsoft as the system integrator and the request for proposal (a government document which details out the specifications of the project to invite proposals) are against the Policy on Adoption of Open Source Software for Government of India.

In 2015, the Indian government had announced the policy, which said that open source software and hardware must be evaluated before choosing any other option to build government assets. At the time, companies like Microsoft had hit out against the government, calling the policy regressive.