Patrice Riemens on Wed, 26 Sep 2007 13:39:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> V. Sasi Kumar: The Story of Free Software in Kerala

>From the author's own blog "Free as in Freedom"

Original at: Bwo of the Bytes4All list, thanks to Fred Noronha

ARN: It's long, but very worthwhile. Take ur time & enjoy!

This is the story of Free Software in the state of Kerala in India.
I wrote this for a book entitled Knowledge Society and Development
-- Kerala Experience edited by Antony Palackal of Loyola College,
Thiruvananthapuram, and Wesley Shrum of Louisiana State University.
The article is published under a free licence, as mentioned at the end
of the article. I am putting a slightly modified version here so that
any interested person can make use of it.

Free Software in Kerala

V. Sasi Kumar

A friend, who had worked in Brazil for a couple of years, once told
me, ?Kerala is known in Latin America for Free Software.? This
indicates the extent to which Kerala has dominated the Free Software
scenario in India. It is not by chance that the headquarters of
the Free Software Foundation of India happened to be situated at
Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The state is now poised to become the
&#64257;rst in the country to introduce exclusively Free Software
for IT education in high schools. We shall examine here how all
this came about. But before that, we shall look at what the term
Free Software1 means. Free Software is software that gives users
freedom-four freedoms, to be precise. As the website of the Free
Software Foundation ( says:

?Free software? is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the
concept, you should think of ?free? as in ?free speech?, not as in
?free ice cream?. Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to
run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More
precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the

? The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

? The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your
needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for

? The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour
(freedom 2).

? The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to
the public, so that the whole community bene&#64257;ts (freedom 3).
Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Free Software began to be developed when Richard M. Stallman, a
programmer with the Arti&#64257;cial Intelligence Laboratory of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned and started the GNU
(recursive acronym for GNU is Not Unix) project in 1984. Later, he
also started the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Today, there is a
large volume of Free Software, and the most popular Free operating
system is GNU/Linux (sometimes called simply Linux).

We capitalise the F and S in Free Software to distinguish it from
proprietary software that is distributed free of cost, sometimes
called freeware. We shall also use the shortened form, FS.

So, with that, we shall now take a look at the story of FS in Kerala.
The story is bound to be biased by my experiences and limited by my
knowledge. Individuals or organisations who have contributed to the
Free Software movement in the state may have been left out from the
narration, even though this is written after speaking to several
people who were involved right from the beginning of the movement. I
apologise for any such omissions and assure the readers that they are
inadvertent and not deliberate.

The Beginning

The story apparently began with the introduction of TeX, the
typesetting program that was designed in the 1970s by Donald Knuth,
the author of The Art of Computer Programming, a four volume classic.
TeX was introduced into Kerala by Prof. K.S.S. Namburipad of the
Department of Mathematics in the University of Kerala. TeX could
typeset mathematical equations very neatly, which no other software
could do, especially in the 1980s when Prof. Namburipad brought TeX in
fourteen &#64258;oppy disks from the United States. He could bring the
program and use it on a number of computers without any legal problem
because it had no licences-it was in the public domain. It was, in a
sense, the Grandmother of Free Software, as some people call it.

Prof. Namburipad encouraged his students to learn and use TeX,
especially for preparing their theses. One of his students was E.
Krishnan, now with the Mathematics Department of the University
College, Thiruvananthapuram, a leading exponent of TeX and one of the
auA thors of the very popular LaTeX primer2 published as an electronic
book by the Indian TeX User Group. Dr. Krishnan also played an
important role in establishing the Free Software Foundation of India.
Another person inspired by Prof. Namburipad was one C.V. Radhakrishnan
who used to run a small centre that prepared theses for the research
students of the Kariavattom campus of the University of Kerala.

C.V. Radhakrishnan took serious interest in TeX. He found that there
was business opportunity here and with virtually no competition.
Eventually, he established a company in 1995, called River Valley
Technologies, for doing typesetting of scienti&#64257;c papers and
theses. He had his two brothers with him when he started the company.
They used the DOS operating system running on Intel AT machines,
along with Novell Netware for networking. Since Unix was rather
expensive those days, they did not attempt to use it, though they
were familiar with it. Around 1996, a computer vendor who supplied
part of their systems suggested that they use Linux, which was very
similar to Unix and was free. He also gave them a CD containing
the Slackware distribution. It was around this period (March 1996)
that the magazine PCQuest brought out CDs containing the Slackware
distribution of GNU/Linux, the &#64257;rst commercial distribution
of the Free operating system. It was probably a copy of this CD
that Radhakrishnan got from the vendor. Though the operating system
was primitive in some ways, and installing it on a computer was a
tough job, it came in handy for the new company. As Radhakrishnan
says, ?It was very dif&#64257;cult to install Linux those days. It
took us about one week to install it on one system. We could link
it to Novell Netware since there was a tool for that. Later, we
installed it on all machines and discarded Novell Netware.? River
Valley Technologies thus took off as possibly the &#64257;rst Free
Software based company in the state and almost certainly as the
&#64257;rst TeX based company in the country. Since then, the company
has been using GNU/Linux almost exclusively, except for one computer
that still runs MS Windows mainly for opening MS Word &#64257;les and
for some editing of vector graphics for which Free alternatives are
not suf&#64257;ciently powerful now. Much of their work is automated
so that human intervention is required only minimally.

Today, Radhakrishnan is one of the top TeX programmers in the world.
His company has seventy employees and their clients include the
Institute of Physics, UK, Macmillan (Nature) and Elsevier. The company
uses Free Software and also sponsors India's &#64257;rst portal to
host Free Software projects3.

Meanwhile, Satish Babu, CEO of the South Indian Federation of
Fishermen's Societies (SIFFS), was using the new technology of the
Internet to enhance the ef&#64257;ciency of his organisation. He
learnt about the Internet when he went to the Hull International
Fisheries Institute, UK, in 1993 for training in &#64257;sheries
management, and he became highly interested in the technology. Though
basically a management expert trained at the prestigious Institute of
Rural Management, Anand, his interest in the technology prompted him
to study computers and programming in depth and virtually made him a
programmer. Today he is involved in running a software company4 in
the Technopark at Thiruvananthapuram and is actively involved with
bodies like the Computer Society of India and the Indian chapter
of the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He is
the Executive Secretary of the Society for Promotion of Alternative
Computing and Employment (SPACE), an NGO promoting Free Software, and
is an active member of FSF India.

After his return from the UK, he started using computers to improve
the efficiency of the organisation he was working for. He learnt that
email was being implemented through the Ernet network which used VSAT
technology at that time. Leo Fernandez of the Indian Social Institute,
Bangalore, with which Satish already had links, helped him to link to
the Ernet node in Bangalore through a telephone dial-up connection.
This was in 1994. Satish con&#64257;gured his computer to dial-up in
the early morning hours when telephone call rates were lowest, and
send and receive mails. Though this was slow by today's standards,
since an exchange of mails would take at least two days, it was
enormously faster than using the postal service. Part of the software
he used for this was actually Free Software, though he was not aware
of it at that time. It was again Leo Fernandez who introduced him to
Linux in 1995. Though not very con&#64257;dent about the new system,
Satish and his friends soon grew to like it, especially since there
were a lot of things one could do at the system level. As Satish says,
?Once you learn to tinker around with the system, you really start
enjoying it and it becomes a habit that is dif&#64257;cult to get
over.? And GNU/Linux offered plenty of opportunities for such people.
But Satish and friends were still not very much aware of the ideology
of Free Software and its implications.

His &#64257;rst distribution of GNU/Linux, known as Slackware, was
given to Satish by Leo Fernandez. Soon, SIFFS organised a training
programme in GNU/Linux by Leo. In 1998, Radhakrishnan, Krishnan,
Namburipad, Satish and others decided to set up a Linux User Group
(LUG) in Thiruvananthapuram. Others associated with this included
journalist K.G. Kumar, computer science student M. Arun, and P.M.
Sasi, who was with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing
(CDAC), Thiruvananthapuram.

M. Arun was a student of Computer Science at the College of
Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, when his father bought a computer
from Keltron (in fact, the &#64257;rst computer Keltron sold). This
had an operating system developed by IBM known as OS2. As Arun says,
?This was much better than Windows 95, which was popular at that
time.? One of his friends had got a Packard-Bell computer with MS
Windows from the US and wanted to install Linux in it. Arun had a
copy of the PC Quest Slackware CD and undertook the job of installing
it in the machine. It installed neatly without any problem. So he
decided to try it on his computer. But the result was disappointing.
He could not get the graphical interface running. One of his friends
suggested that he try the Red Hat distribution, and Arun wrote to
a company, GTL Enterprises in Bangalore, for a copy of the Red Hat
CD. They replied asking him to contact the local Linux User Group,
which C.V. Radhakrishnan and others had just started. Arun went
to Radhakrishnan's of&#64257;ce with his friend Amit and not only
obtained the CD but also joined the LUG. They started having weekly

Arun found that a few teachers in their college were interested in
GNU/Linux. They got the college to purchase some manuals from FSF,
Boston. Arun and a few of his friends had read about the ideology
of Free Software and were attracted by it. In 1999, Wros Publishers
organised a conference called Bang! Linux in Bangalore. Arun and a few
other students went for the conference. Richard M. Stallman (known
by his initials RMS), the founder of the GNU project and the Free
Software Foundation, was there. This was his &#64257;rst meeting in
India and his lecture impressed the students from Kerala. They came
back thoroughly convinced about the ideology of Free Software. Today,
Arun is the secretary of the Free Software Foundation of India and is
also the co-ordinator of SPACE.

With the new millennium came the group known as Free Developers.
This was started by one Tony Stanco, an advocate from the US, who
proposed that they start a company that would do business using Free
Software and eventually make it the leading software globally. He had
corresponded with RMS about his ideas. Though RMS was sceptical about
the feasibility of the project, Tony went ahead with it and managed to
obtain support from a number of people, including C.V. Radhakrishnan,
Arun and others in Kerala. This initiative helped in developing the
dotGNU project, which was a free substitute for Microsoft's .NET,
since several people from India joined the project.

The discussions in the Thiruvananthapuram LUG soon led to the ideology
of Free Software, which the members found attractive. They discussed
the idea of establishing a Free Software Foundation of India, and a
unit of Free Developers. FSF India, they hoped, would act to supervise
the ethical aspects of Free Developers. Radhakrishnan got in touch
with Richard Stallman and got his approval for starting FSF India,
and got him to agree to inaugurate FSF India. Satish Babu, who was
then the Regional Vice-President of the Computer Society of India,
took the initiative to organise the inaugural function. It was decided
to inaugurate the Indian branch of Free Developers also at the same

Freedom First

The conference organised at Thiruvananthapuram in connection with the
inauguration of Free Software Foundation of India was aptly called
Freedom First. The name was suggested by the journalist K.G. Kumar
and it must have immediately struck a chord with the others. Richard
Stallman was the chief guest for the conference, and he was received
as an honoured state guest by government of&#64257;cials to discuss
the philosophy behind the movement.

The Organising Committee formed to conduct the conference included
Radhakrishnan, Satish Babu, Arun, Krishnan, Rajkumar (who runs a
Free Software business), P.M. Sasi, K.G. Kumar, Dr. K.R. Srivathsan
(Director, IIITMK5), and others. The function in the morning, in which
FSF India was inaugurated by Stallman, was chaired by the Secretary to
the Government, Information Technology Department. About 300 people
from all over the state and even outside were present, &#64257;lling
the auditorium beyond its capacity. ?Computer users in India, as
elsewhere, deserve the freedom to share and change software, the way
cooks share and change recipes. So I am pleased to inaugurate the
Free Software Foundation of India, which will promote the use and
the development of free software in this country?, Stallman told the
gathering. Later, he met the Minister for Information Technology
and held discussions on promoting Free Software in the state. The
afternoon session was devoted to the inauguration of Free Developers
India and some technical presentations.

There were a couple of interesting moments during Stallman's visit.
At the airport, a number of people were curious to see a &#64257;gure
with long hair and long beard and wanted to know who he was. When he
understood what they were asking, he introduced himself, ?I am Saint
IGNUcious of the church of Emacs.?6 Possibly, some people took that
seriously! There was a poignant moment when Stallman was going to
a hotel for lunch along with a few other people. One of them told
Stallman that Nelson Mandela had signed a Freedom Declaration that
had been put up at the Free Developers website. ?RMS just couldn't
believe that and he almost cried. He said Mandela had always been his
hero.? wrote Ramakrishnan (one of the others in the vehicle) later.
When someone tried to compare Stallman with Mandela, RMS retorted that
whatever he has done could never be compared with the 25 years in
prison that Mandela had suffered.

It was an achievement of FS enthusiasts in the state that the
government agreed to support the event and treat RMS as a state guest.
As a report in Linux Today7 said:

Government of&#64257;cials and other Free Software supporters in
the state of Kerala believe that Free Software meshes particularly
well with Kerala's long tradition of democracy, equity and public
action. Just as Kerala is often held up as a model of equitable social
and human development in the region, Free Software supporters there
believe they can leverage the inherent freedoms of Free Software to
evolve an equitable Knowledge Society based on software independence
and self- reliance.

The conference was a great success in many ways. It attracted a lot of
media attention and made 'Free Software' and Richard Stallman' popular
among the public.


There have been a few instances where the Free Software community was
able to in&#64258;uence decision makers to choose Free Software over
proprietary. In some cases, the decisive breakthrough was achieved by
individual effort, while in some cases, it was a community effort.
We shall look into two cases here, that of the implementation of a
network by the Public Works Department and that of the introduction of
IT education in schools.

PWD Network

One of the &#64257;rst successful campaigns for Free Software was
in the Public Works Department of the state. InApp Technologies,
the company started by Satish Babu, Amarnath Raja and others, was
asked to make a proposal for a PWD project by one of the Secretaries
of the PWD. InApp made it clear that while they do work with all
technologies, they would quote only for a Free platform, as they
considered it as most appropriate for any e-governance project.

The consultant to the Kerala Transportation Project, under which
the application was being planned, felt that he did not know
suf&#64257;ciently about Free Software, and obtained quotes from
Microsoft and Oracle. However, the Secretary concerned knew about
InApp and suggested to the Principal Secretary that InApp's proposal
should be considered seriously. A debate was therefore organised to
(a) explain what Free Software was, and (b) what its advantages were
over proprietary platforms. This debate was conducted by the then PWD
Principal Secretary and was attended by two other Secretaries, the
consultant to the Transportation Project, some Chief Engineers and
senior people from the PWD.

Two people from Microsoft, one from Oracle, Amarnath Raja and Satish
formed the participants. Satish was armed with a survey conducted
among Technopark companies about their perceptions on Free Software
in December 2002 (, which was
conducted by Satish who was the GTech Treasurer. The study had clearly
shown the features of Free Software that made it attractive especially
for e-governance projects. Microsoft came prepared with their
?sponsored research? &#64257;ndings. Since Satish and Amarnath were
prepared for it, they were easily able to refute their &#64257;ndings.
Microsoft possibly did not expect this, and perhaps had thought that
this would be a walkover. The person from Oracle was unaware of the
local politics and looked surprised by the ferocity of the debate.
He started off pro-Microsoft, but shifted to the Free Software camp
half-way through. The Secretaries were convinced about the need to go
Free, and InApp got the order. The application was delivered and is
running well.

IT@School Project

Another successful campaign, which was driven by a large number
of FS enthusiasts and received much more publicity, was that for
the inclusion of Free Software in IT education in schools. The
Department of Education, Government of Kerala, started a project
called IT@School for bringing IT enabled education to the high schools
in the state. The project constituted a committee headed by Prof.
U.R. Rao, former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation,
to make recommendations on the direction the project should take.
After studying the status of education in the state and elaborate
discussions, the Committee recommended that the project should aim to
bring IT to high schools in the state to empower teachers and to use
the technology for improving curriculum transaction in the classes.
However, the project found that most of the teachers and the students
possessed little IT skills. They, therefore, decided to start IT
education at the high school level initially. IT was thus introduced
in the eighth standard in the year 2002 after conducting training in
IT for a large number of teachers. The teacher training was organised
using help from the Intel Teach to the Future programme, and their
course material, which was wholly based on Microsoft software, was
used for the training.

Struggle for Free Software

The textbook for IT prepared by the State Council for Educational
Research and Training (SCERT) was based purely on Microsoft Windows
and other Microsoft applications like MS Of&#64257;ce. The Free
Software community in the state found this very offensive, since it
ignored the existence of Free Software and promoted the products of
one company ignoring even other proprietary software. The community
responded by talking to people, sending letters, writing in the media
and so on. The Free Software User Group in Kochi prepared a memorandum
and sent it to several people involved in the matter, including the
Directors of the IT@School project and SCERT, the Director of Public
Instruction, the Principal Secretary, Education Department, and the
Secretary, IT Department. They pointed out that:

? IT@School was promoting the software of one company at the cost of
software produced by everyone else;

? the government would have to pay an enormous amount for licencing
the software for the schools;

? even if the company gives the software for the schools free of cost,
it is only a marketing ploy in order to reap bene&#64257;ts of having
a pool of people who are familiar with their software packages and
thus form an assured customer base, either as users themselves or as
potential skilled employees;

? the Government's approach would result in compelling not only
schools, but also the general public to purchase software from this
particular vendor in the future. This would create a monopoly in
favour of that corporation and expose the public, the State and the
nation to the mercy of a single company;

? the corporation, whose brands and products are prescribed in the
syllabus, does not publish the standards used in their software. This
practice compels other people who have to interact with users of the
products of this corporation (like the government and schools, in
this case) to purchase software from this particular vendor only-a
situation known as 'vendor lock-in';

? the government is promoting illegal copying and installation of
software in the computers in the schools by not providing for software

? handling licencing issues is not simple and there has been at least
one instance in which a school in the US had to pay $ 300,000 as
&#64257;ne-even screenshots used in textbooks may have to be licenced;

? several software packages, both applications as well as operating
systems, which conform to industry-wide standards, adopted and
maintained by independent vendors, and with less restrictive licences,
are available.

The Kerala School Teachers Association decided to throw its weight
behind the demand from Free Software enthusiasts. The government and
the IT@School project were still not willing to change. However, due
to pressure from several directions, SCERT decided to incorporate
Free Software also in the textbook and rewrote the textbook for the
eighth standard for the academic year 2003-04. Sri N.K. Satyapalan,
who was the person in charge of IT education at the State Council for
Educational Research and Training (SCERT) played an important role in
pushing Free Software into the textbook. Some schools, especially in
northern Kerala, where there were teachers who knew how to install and
use GNU/Linux, installed it and started IT classes using it. In order
to ensure that all schools did buy suf&#64257;cient computers and
taught IT, it was also decided to include IT as an additional subject
and conduct examinations, though with less marks than other subjects.

Computerised Examination

An important phase started when the IT@School project decided to
conduct part of the IT examination using a software. They developed
a software called Softexam for conducting the examination. This was
designed primarily for the MS Windows platform and some of the schools
using GNU/Linux had to install MS Windows to enable the software.
There was immediate protest from the Teachers Association and the
Project was forced to develop Softexam for GNU/Linux also. However,
this is now being virtually discontinued, with the software being
con&#64257;ned to presenting previously prepared questions randomly
and saving the responses for later evaluation by teachers.

One problem with using GNU/Linux was that there were several
distributions of the OS, each slightly different from the others, and
schools had installed different distributions. Even preparing the
textbook became dif&#64257;cult, since the screenshots, and sometimes
even the procedures for using the software, could be different for
different distributions. To solve this problem, the Free Software
Foundation of India suggested developing a custom distribution for
IT@School, and eventually created the distribution with funding from
the Kerala State IT Mission.

Another problem that the IT@School project faced was that of providing
support to the schools where GNU/Linux was being used. They called
for private agencies who were willing to provide support to register
with them. A number of agencies, including Free Software User Groups,
responded and about twenty of them were short listed. A &#64257;nal
solution to the problem came when SPACE (mentioned earlier) decided to
offer support to IT@School, both in terms of updating the distribution
used in schools and in providing support to the teacher community.
The website of SPACE now has provided for teachers to post questions
there, to which experts will respond, and also a page listing the
Frequently Asked Questions and the answers to them. The IT@School
project arranged for teachers to be trained in GNU/Linux and a
majority of teachers have already been trained. A Resource Centre
has been established in Kochi for conducting teacher training with
technical assistance from SPACE.

In 2005, the government announced that the schools in Kerala will
completely switch to Free Software in stages. Supplements to the
textbooks were created to enable students to study using GNU/Linux,
which also introduced some software that a child new to computers
could use to learn the skills needed to use a mouse and a keyboard.
Tuxpaint, a simple painting software, which a child could use even
if (s)he was unfamiliar with the intricacies of saving or retrieving
a &#64257;le, and Gcompris, a set of games that helped the child to
learn how to use the mouse and keyboard, became very popular with
children. The textbooks for all the three classes in high school
are now being revised to contain Free Software exclusively. Kerala
is poised to become the &#64257;rst state in the country to use
exclusively Free Software in its schools. It is also poised to become
possible the &#64257;rst state to introduce IT enabled education in
high schools in a big way.

Visits by Stallman

Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and FSF, has visited
India several times and given lectures in several states. But the
state he has visited most often is Kerala, probably because of the
large support in this state for his ideology.

The &#64257;rst time Stallman visited Kerala was for the Freedom
First conference in 2001. His next visit was in connection with the
EMS Memorial Lecture constituted by Kerala University. Stallman
spoke about the danger of software patents at the University Senate
Hall on January 24, 2004. The same day he spoke about copyright law
and freedom in science at Centre for Earth Science Studies. Both
lectures were well attended and there were a number of questions
from the audience at both venues. On Independence Day, he interacted
with the students of the Indian Institute of Information Technology
and Management Kerala (IIITMK). During this visit, Stallman also
met the then leader of the Opposition (present Chief Minister) V.S.
Achuthanandan, who has been a strong supporter of the Free Software
movement, and held discussions on how the government can support and
bene&#64257;t from Free Software.

Richard Stallman's latest visit to Kerala has been in August this year
(2006). SPACE in association with Kerala State IT Mission conducted a
seminar on Free Software for Kerala Development on the 23rd of August.
Stallman gave the keynote address in this seminar. The seminar was
inaugurated by the Chief Minister, who had a long discussion with
Stallman. A report on Free Software Projects in Public Enterprises
in Kerala, prepared by SPACE, was released at the function. Stallman
was in India to participate in the GPL v3 conference at Bangalore on
August 25 and 26.


A certain amount of Free Software development was done in the state
even in the initial days. This includes localisation of the GNOME8
Desktop (that is, making the desktop available in the local language,
Malayalam), a project monitoring application for the government and
a portal for enhancing transparency in everyday activities of the

The localisation work was started by Arun and his friends Gopal,
Sreekrishna and others soon after the establishment of FSF India. The
Managing Director of Keltron, an undertaking of the Government of
Kerala, offered to help them in their effort. The idea was that the
government and other users could be provided a platform in Malayalam
for their uses. They managed to get support from Asia-Paci&#64257;c
Development Information Programme (APDIP), an initiative developed
and funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for
the work. ?Speci&#64257;cally, the project aims to create Free
Font for Malayalam, create toolkit (toolkits are basic building
blocks in creating Graphical User Interface based applications) with
Malayalam support, and create a localised desktop and of&#64257;ce
productivity applications and documentation in Malayalam.?, says the
project abstract9 . The work was undertaken by the Kerala Bureau for
Industrial Promotion (KBIP) in association with FSF India. All menu
and other text, like messages, were translated into Malayalam so that
a person who knows only Malayalam could comfortably use a computer
with the customised GNOME desktop. Unfortunately, the work was never
released to the public because of of&#64257;cial apathy.

Another Free Software based development was in connection with the
Modernising Government Programme (MGP). MGP was drawn up as part of
the strategy of the Government to overhaul and improve its services to
the people of the State. One of the components of MGP was monitoring
projects funded by the government. The Program Performance monitoring
system (PPMS) was developed by Keltron (Kerala State Electronics
Development Corporation) for tracking the performance of various
departments as part of MGP. PPMS contain 4 major projects. The
&#64257;rst project, PPMS1, is a performance monitoring system for
17 government departments. It covers a total of 93 initiatives of
these departments, 50 of them in the &#64257;rst phase. The system
uses result base management methods to measure performance based on
impacts, outputs, outcomes & activities. PPMS2 is a set of service
delivery projects. It addresses performance monitoring of 2584
institutions statewide like schools and community health centres and
mainly deals with fund &#64258;ow management, administrative payment
orders etc. The Third project is a human resource module named
e-bandham. It monitors attendance, leave, travel allowances etc of the
program support executives. The fourth project is Sevanamudra, Quality
Improvement Program & Performance Certi&#64257;cation Mechanism for
government institutions.

Another project done using Free Software is Sutharya Keralam, or
Transparent Kerala. This is a Right to Information initiative of the
Government of Kerala to ensure transparency and ef&#64257;ciency in
everyday functions of the government. ?The major objectives of the
project are the automation of Chief Minister's Grievance Redressal
Cell and convergence of all the available forms of Communication so as
to guarantee People's Right to Information.?, says its website10. The
project was developed completely on Free Software technologies by the
Centre for Development of Imaging Technologies (CDIT), an institute
under the Government of Kerala.

Other Free Software projects in the state include computerisation of
the of&#64257;ces of milk producers unions in the state that come
under the Kerala State Milk Marketing Federation (Milma), a Management
Information System for the Integrated Child Development Services
(ICDS) developed by CDAC, a District Collectorate Suite developed
by the National Informatics Centre and a computerisation project of
Calicut University done inhouse. A study on Free Software projects in
public enterprises in Kerala has been done by SPACE and is available


The Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment,
or SPACE, is a society promoted by Kerala State IT Mission with the
objective of promoting alternative computing, that is, Free, Libre
and Open Source Software (FLOSS). It has a government nominee in its
Board of Directors and has support from professional societies (such
as IEEE and the Computer Society of India) and the academia. It had as
its &#64257;rst Chairman the then Vice Chancellor of the University
of Kerala, Dr. B. Ekbal, and members included Satish Babu, Amarnath
Raja, P.M. Sasi and C.V. Radhakrishnan. Though it came into existence
in 2003, it could not undertake much activity due to lack of funds.
This problem was solved when SPACE entered into a tie-up with SOMA for
working on joint projects. SPACE became active with the setting up of
an of&#64257;ce and recruiting a few people. Activities started in
areas like promoting Virtual Micro Enterprises (VMEs) based on Free
Software, advocating FS in colleges and setting up Free Software Cells
where feasible, helping in training school teachers in FS, and so on.

Some of the achievements of SPACE did attract considerable media
attention. One example is the development of a distribution of
GNU/Linux speci&#64257;cally for electronics laboratories in
engineering colleges. This was made available on one CD, and was named
Free Electron. The distribution was created by the FS Cell in an
engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram with help from SPACE. There
were a number of requests from colleges inside and outside the state,
and even one from abroad. Another distribution that SPACE created for
system recovery purposes was distributed by a local IT magazine. A
workshop SPACE conducted, in collaboration with another NGO (Mediact)
involved in media education, at a village library for creating and
publishing a village newsletter in Malayalam also attracted much
interest. Another programme that became popularly known was the
initiative for setting up a radio station for &#64257;sherfolk.
Started on the initiative of a few young people from the &#64257;shing
community in Thiruvananthapuram, Radio Alakal, as it was called, could
not start regular broadcast due to some licencing issues, but started
narrowcasting (using loud speakers at speci&#64257;c locations). All
the work for Radio Alakal was done using Free Software. SPACE also
helped the IT@School project to set up a teacher training centre in
Kochi.Free SoFree Software in Businessftware in Business

Free Software in Business

There are several companies in the state doing business using Free
Software. We mentioned River Valley Technologies of Radhakrishnan.
Another enterprise in Kochi, Beta Computers, also does business using

An organisation worth mentioning is the Open Software Solutions
Industrial Co-operative Society in Kochi. It is a cooperative effort
which consists of some young programmers who were involved with the
Ernakulam Industrial Infrastructure Development Project. The project
started work for computerising the Panchayats (local self-government
institution) in the district. They used only Free Software and
computerised a few Panchayats. However, the state-wide programme
called Information Kerala Mission for the same purpose, which used
only proprietary software, superseded their efforts. The youth
involved in the project started a co-operative society and started
doing business with Free Software. They developed a software for
co-operative banks, called Sanghamitra, which has been installed in a
number of branches. This is also licenced under the GNU General Public
Licence. They have been developing software for other purposes also,
and are doing reasonably well.

Rajkumar (whose name has been mentioned earlier) runs a business
called Linuxense at Thiruvananthapuram. ?We are a GNU/Linux-based
Enterprise providing software solutions of exceptional quality using
cutting-edge technologies; creating a GNU/Linux ambiance for our
distinguished clients in their demanding work environments.? says
their website12 . They provide support for Asianet, a major ISP in
the state, and their website proudly exhibits an appreciation by an
Asianet of&#64257;cial on the effectiveness of the antivirus support
they have given. Linuxense ran a server break-in challenge during
March 9-13, and won. No one was able to break into the server they had
set up for the purpose.

Swatantra Software Solutions and Services (abbreviated to S2S2) is
a small business in Kannur that has been involved in selling Free
Software CDs and systems with GNU/Linux, and providing assistance
to schools for installing computers and networks using GNU/Linux.
Sujeevan, who runs the company, actively promotes Free Software
and has participated in training sessions for teachers organised
by the Teachers' Association and by FSFI. He has also helped in
installing the customised GNU/Linux distribution for schools in
existing networked computer labs in some schools. There are several
companies that do business using Free Software along with other
platforms -InApp Technologies, for instance. But I have not been able
to identify one that does software development/support exclusively
using Free Software.

Free Software Free Society

Free Software Free Society is the name of a collection of articles
written by Richard Stallman. It was very appropriate that this name
was chosen for a conference organised in Thiruvananthapuram by
SPACE, FSF India, and others, because this conference, as the press
release by the organisers stated, ?explores the possibilities of
applying the Free Software model in addressing broader questions
such as Governance, Digital Inclusion, Development and Culture.?
The conference was supported by Hipatia(a European NGO), Kerala
State IT Mission, Free Software Foundation of India, and the Indian
Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala (IIITM-K),

The conference had its origins at the World Social Forum held in
Mumbai during Jan 16-21, 2004. Arun met some people from Hipatia,
which also worked for promoting Free Software and its philosophy, at
the venue. They agreed that there was a need for people from countries
that are geographically far apart, such as India and Latin America,
to come together and share their ideas about Free Software so that
something fruitful could evolve. This idea evoked a lot of interest
in countries as varied as Brazil, Venezuela, Italy and India, and the
Government of Kerala agreed to extend support for such a conference.

The website of the conference explained the vision of the conference:

Located at the intersection of Free Software, Development and Society,
the FSFS Conference will examine the application of the Free Software
model for equitable sharing models for intellectual artifacts, and
ultimately for human development. The conference will also address,
inter alia, issues such as technology access and the digital divide;
legal issues; and experiences of using the Free Software model in
&#64257;elds such as music and literature.

The conference was held in the beautiful campus of the Technopark
at Thiruvananthapuram during May 28-31, 2004. Felipe Perez-Marti,
eminent economist and ex-Minister of Venezuela delivered the keynote
address. Another important participant was Senator Fiorello Cortiana
from Italy. At the end of the conference, it adopted a declaration,
now known as the Thiruvananthapuram Declaration. It called upon the
?social and political institutions to eliminate systems that hinder
the development of the gnowledge society (see


We saw how Free Software has come to stay in Kerala. The natural
question this raises is, ?Why Kerala?? There is no other state in the
country where Free Software has made an impact that is anywhere near
that in Kerala. This itself could be the subject for an entire thesis,
and this is certainly not the place to enter into a serious analysis
of the question. However, an article like this cannot totally ignore
the question either. Therefore, an attempt, however feeble, is made
here to answer that question.

When one talks of the state of Kerala, what comes to one's mind is the
special place that it occupies in the country and the very different
development path that the state has followed. Kerala is different from
India as a whole in many ways: literacy rate in Kerala is about 90%,
while the average for India is about 52%; life expectancy at birth in
Kerala is 73 years compare to 61 years in India; Kerala's birth rate
is 14 per 1000 females, while India's rate is 25. Kerala has one of
the lowest ratios of disabled persons to service units-5,000, compared
to the highest values of 17,000 in some states. Women outnumber men,
live longer, are as educated as men and they dominate some occupations
like school teachers. In spite of the small population of the state,
it has produced some of the outstanding writers, cinematographers,
cartoonists and journalists in the country. The Physical Quality of
Life Index for the state is comparable to that in developed countries.
At the same time, alcoholism, suicide rate, and drug abuse are close
to the highest in the country. Wages are much higher than in the
neighbouring states. Almost every other family has someone working
abroad or in the IT industry in one of the major metropolises. ?It
is, in other words, weird-like one of those places where the starship
Enterprise might land that super&#64257;cially resembles Earth but is
slightly off.? wrote Bill McKibben14.

Kerala has a history of several social reform movements. One of the
most prominent is that led by Sri Narayana Guru for the upliftment
of the Ezhava community. Members of the community were barred from
entering Hindu temples and even studying Sanskrit and the scriptures.
He led a successful struggle against these and even established a
temple himself. Ayyan Kali led a struggle against oppression of lower
castes by upper caste people and the State. Mannath Padmanabhan
led a movement by the middle level Nair community and established
the Nair Service Society. The Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad
promoted scienti&#64257;c thinking among children and adults and
also spearheaded the total literacy movement. The Communist Party
helped to liberate workers from virtual slavery and to bring about
universal education. The Christian missionaries that have been active
in the state for several decades also helped to take basic education
to even the most down-trodden. While this is the background, it is
dif&#64257;cult to understand why such things happened in Kerala but
not in other states.

The unique history of this land has helped create a unique sense of
democracy, equity and social justice among the people in the state.
This is evidenced by the sometimes violent reactions to events that
are perceived as violation of basic rights. Police action against
tribals who had occupied government land in protest against the
government's inaction in providing them land as promised, and suicide
of a student who could not continue her education due to inability to
pay the fees, are two examples of events that led to major protests.
Freedom is a concept close to their hearts and the sense of personal
dignity is high. People thus &#64257;nd it easy to perceive Free
Software as a &#64257;ght against exploitation by large software
companies. Moreover, the penetration of communication networks
(telephone, mobile, Internet) is one of the highest in the country,
and two of the highest circulated newspapers in the country are in the
local language. Thus people are aware of happenings in other parts of
the world.

It is interesting that, in the 1970s, an eccentric &#64257;lm maker,
John Abraham, considered by many as possibly the only genius in
Malayalam cinema, produced a &#64257;lm Amma Ariyaan (which can
be literally translated as For the knowledge of the mother), by
collecting small donations and exhibited it everywhere free of charge.
Like Knuth's TEX, this could be considered as a forerunner of Free
Software, considering that the ideology of Free Software is being
extended to creativity in other areas through movements like Creative
Commons. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that the Free Software movement
&#64258;ourished in Kerala.


1 Those who would like to know more about Free Software can &#64257;nd
plenty of material at the FSF website.

2 A LaTeX is a set of macros for TeX that is now commonly used for
typesetting, instead of plain TeX.

3 (

4 InApp Technologies (

5 Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala

6 Emacs is the editor developed by Stallman that is very popular among
users of Unix-like systems including GNU/Linux.

7 (

8 GNOME is one of the various desktops available in GNU/Linux.





13 The full text of the declaration is available at Page.



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