Kerala shuts windows, schools to use only Linux

Richard M Stallman—global free software guru, VS Achuthanandan's darling and almost a freewheeling adviser of sorts to the Kerala Government—may now have more reasons to break out into that jig that he abruptly did while being given a somberly reverential welcome in Kerala a few weeks ago.

Kerala is all set to become the first state in the country to completely banish Microsoft and allow only GNU/Linux free software to be used in the mandatory IT test at the state SSLC examinations that half a million students will appear for from next week. Till last year, they could take the exam using either free software or the Microsoft platform. Not anymore.

A few weeks ago, the Government formally ordered that only free Linux-based software should be used for IT education in high schools, using new the Linux text books developed by State Council for Educational Research and Training and the Free Software Foundation of India.

The hardline Left's familiar anti-MNC, anti-proprietory planks apart, another major plus of abandoning Microsoft, claim state IT Mission officials, is plainly the cost factor. "Going for a massive Windows-based infrastructure cost a lot. Linux can bundle all applications with the operating system facilitating a single installation kit".

The logistics for making Kerala the country's Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) destination—one of Achuthanandan's pet Red obsessions—may be daunting, but the state is coping with it. Since last September, some 15 lakh students have been busy training on or migrating to free software on 40,000 computers put up in 2,832 high schools watched over by over 60,000 IT trained school teachers (some 86 private training institutions train the teachers) besides 161 master trainers and 5,600 school IT coordinators. "We checked. It's the world's biggest mobilisation of its kind," says K Anwar Sadath, executive director of the state government's IT@Schools mission.

Every high school in Kerala, including the over a thousand government-run ones, will be wired to high-speed broadband Internet by this July, which will be another first in India. All, of course, will use nothing but free software. "We are now moving from IT education to IT-enabled education in our schools, using only free software," asserts Education Minister M A Baby.

When Stallman, who fathered the GNU project and developed text editor Emacs, flew down to Kerala for the first time in 2001—in his old patched jeans, long beard, free flowing hair and crumpled T-shirt—and told the curious who hadn't heard of him in Thiruvananthapuram that he was, really, "Saint iGNUcious of the church of Emacs", the then Congress-led Government was already busy getting the state's IT drive on keel, drawing in Intel and Microsoft. Achuthanandan, then Opposition leader, was quick to demand that both be got rid of, and launched a particularly vocal campaign against Microsoft being allowed to train Kerala school kids, calling it "exploitative".

The then A K Antony Government had not overly warmed up to Stallman, who opened Asia's first centre of his outfit, the Free Software Foundation-India, in Thiruvananthapuram. But Achuthanandan was keen, even when CPI(M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan originally favoured the Microsoft idea. Stallman then began regularly dropping down to Kerala. Two years ago, Achuthanandan, after vainly ordering Pepsi and Coca-Cola out of the state, declared that all schools will go the FOSS way.

Last year, in its state IT policy, the Left Government vowed to use only FOSS in all e-governance projects and declared it would even incentivise companies developing free software. Government departments, beginning with the state Secretariat, soon began switching from Microsoft to Linux. "There were some initial fears and some understandable resistance, but things have been smoothing out faster than we thought." says a a senior state IT official. The migration is at various stages in key Government arms now.

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