Venkatesh Hariharan ,Head, Open Source Affairs, Red Hat India Pvt Ltd & Co-founder, IndLinux.org
Sometimes, one good question is enough to change our lives. For me that one question came like a bolt from the blue in January 1997 when I interviewed a certain distinguished American professor: "Why is it that you produce software for the rest of the world, but very little for your own country?" he asked.
The software exports business was in a gung-ho mood, fears of the Y2K bug was driving business to Indian companies, and the domestic IT industry was a poor cousin of the dollar-earning software exports business.
I asked the good professor to explain what he meant.
Professor Keniston had visited several e-government projects in rural Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other places, and tracked their progress over the years. A social psychologist by training, he has a keen interest in seeing how rural India uses computers and the Web to promote development, political transparency, and social justice.
"Your country is very strange. All software is available only in English, an alien language."
My first reaction was, "Why should people who speak Hindi and other Indian languages need computers?" To my mind, computers were an urbanised, westernised phenomenon, and the idea of rural non-English- speaking people using computers was an alien thought.
The interview was published, and we kept in touch. I kept sending Keniston news items on language computing, and gradually developed an interest in this area. A few months later, I read about Harsh Kumar, general manager of Konkan Railways, who had developed Indian-language fonts that he was giving away for free. Manu Parpia, then president of the Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT), liked the idea. Manu and Vinnie Mehta, executive director of MAIT, helped us set up a stall at the IT India/Comdex 97 event in Delhi in December 1997, where we launched these fonts. That was an experience that truly brought home the need that Prof Keniston had so astutely perceived.
At the event, Harsh and I were giving demos of the Indian language fonts. Many of the people visiting our stall wanted to know how they could use their own computers in Indian languages-and they wanted the software NOW. Over the four days of the exhibition, we gave away thousands of copies of the fonts.
I spent 1998-99 traipsing the corridors of MIT and Harvard looking for appropriate, affordable technologies that could be brought back to India. Most of the professors and students there seemed to be using a geeky OS called Linux. Of all the cool, fantastic, futuristic technologies that I saw, the one thing that really stood out as being beneficial to India was the collaborative model of open source software development that led to the development of programs like Linux. The idea that sophisticated software programs can be developed by people collaborating over the Internet and distributed for free was highly exciting.
After returning to India, I joined the newly set up IIIT-Bangalore. The remarkable Prof S S Sadagopan encouraged me to continue my research on bridging the digital divide. It was at IIIT-B that I wrote an article titled "Why Linux Makes Sense for India." The thrust there was that if the collaborative model of open source was leveraged to localise Linux and other open source software to Indian languages, it could spark off a grassroots revolution and truly take IT to the masses. The upshot of this article was that Prakash Advani, who was setting up a company called FreeOS, came forward to fund this effort. This led to the creation of IndLinux.org, a non-profit that localised Linux to Hindi and worked with different language groups across India.
Looking back, working with Linux seemed very logical because our objective was to take computing to the masses. The GPL ensured that our work would be freely available.
Today, Linux and open source software like Open Office are available in all major Indian languages. Within the next five years, we will see a profusion of Web sites, search engines, blogs, and social networking sites evolve around Indian-language computing.
Looking back, I am struck by the irony of it all. It took an American to open my eyes to the need for computing in Indian languages! Such is life.