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Open Source e-governance in India

by Nicolas Bossut last modified 2008-06-06 17:58

Sunil Abraham, manager of United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) International Open Source Network, is a staunch advocate of open standards. It is freely available, maximizes choice, has no royalty implication, and does not include any predatory practice, he asserts. Sunil is also director of Mahiti an Indian business expert in open source and member of Zea Partners network.

Excerpts from an interview of Sunil Abraham from our Indian partner SME, Mahiti, published by CIO India

How does the International Open Source Network (IOSN) look at e-governance?

After working on FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and related issues over the past three years in 42 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, we have identified core principles for e-governance from the FOSS perspective.

First, intellectual property created using public funds should be freely licensed to the public. Whenever the government creates software, it should be available under a FOSS license.

Second, the public should not be forced to purchase or pirate software to interact with the State. The government should use truly open standards without any royalty implications. Open standards drive down the costs of technology, retard obsolescence, and improve usability and interoperability.

Third, public digital infrastructure, which directly impacts the quality of citizenship, should stand public scrutiny. For example, if the State expects citizens to download and install tax computation software on their personal computers, then citizens should be allowed to reverse-engineer this software to make sure that the State is not spying on them by accessing browser and media player history.

What role does FOSS play in e-governance initiatives in India? Is it enough?

FOSS is playing an increasingly important role in Indian e-governance. The National Informatics Center (NIC) has built several portals and applications using Plone, a FOSS-based content management system. CDAC-Chennai has developed BOSS, a GNU/Linux distribution that is aimed at government departments. Many states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and also Delhi, are migrating to FOSS in small steps. FOSS is becoming politically mainstreamed. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has asked the Centre to use FOSS in all its e-governance initiatives. The draft IT policy of the government of Kerala recommends the use of FOSS in e-governance.

Only 15 percent of e-governance projects are successful. What are the common causes for failure?

Many e-governance projects fail because governments focus on technology and institutions rather than people. There are two types of technologies in the world: first, technologies that empower citizens and build communities and, second, technologies that disempower citizens and destroy communities. Wikis and blogs fit in the first group. They have tremendous potential in areas such as the Right to Information, especially for proactive disclosure. But most e-governance projects look at citizens only as passive recipients of information.

If there was one thing you could change about e-governance in India, what would it be?

I would like to see greater adherence to open standards. We are losing out on the network effect by locking our applications into proprietary silos. Even though we are a country with a huge population, adoption of e-governance is still slow. The Internet was such an extraordinary success because it was founded on open standards. Different players — private and public, large and small — were able to innovate around these open standards. We should try and emulate this success in the area of Indian e-governance.