In a period that has witnessed a revolution in the way India perceives technology and its dynamics (yes, I’m talking about Shreya Singhal) comes another heartening development. The Government of India has adopted a policy of utilising, where available, Open Source Software (“OSS”) to fulfil its software requirements in Central Government organisations for e-Governance applications systems and while replacing existing software applications. The Central Government has also indicated that it is open to the States (the State of Tamil Nadu had attempted this in the past) to adopt this policy and implement it. The Preamble of the document makes a very encouraging observation,
“…to prepare India for a knowledge based transformation into a digitally empowered society and a knowledge economy. Under the overarching vision of Digital India, GoI aims to make Government services digitally accessible to citizens in their localities and to ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs.” (Emphasis added)
This clearly indicates that the Government is cognisant of the advantages that OSS affords to organisations. In countries like India where the government is slow to react to advances in technology, the recognition that these advantages are accorded best by OSS is in itself quite monumental.
The manner of implementation of the policy requires that the Government organisation in their respective requests for procurement of software impose a condition that OSS would be preferred over “closed source software” and vendors responding to this procurement must attempt to answer with OSS solutions, failing which they have to justify as to why a “closed source software” solution is better to the exclusion of an OSS one. The policy is also quite aware of the some of the difficulties that OSS could present like security and capability, and grants the government the option to consider proposals on these grounds as well.
In addition to these measures, the document also goes the extra mile to put into place some effective measures to create an ecosystem in which OSS functions best. Two measures are of particular value: collaboration with domestic and international OSS communities and partnerships with industry, academia and the setting up of an institutional mechanism to provide a suitable support system for the effective implementation of OSS. Due to the community intensive nature of OSS, I cannot stress how critical these measures are to the effective functioning of this ecosystem. Participation with academia and relying on the fairly active OSS community in India is quite strategic as it taps into the vast reservoir of young human resource capital that the country has developed over a few years. It must be noted that there was previously an initiative already set up for the purpose of a foray into OSS by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India called the FOSS initiative cell. This initiative cell seems to be fairly active with a few projects and programmes. The document now allows better collaboration allowing this initiative cell as well as independent OSS projects in the country to receive some support.
If at all one were to point out areas where this document could have been improved, it could have been in two areas:
- The definition of OSS as provided under the document only includes a part of the OSI definition of Open Source Software. While in spirit, the definition at least appears to achieve all the advantages of OSS, there are certain elements like bundling of software etc., that necessarily needs to be catered to, to truly make the software Open Source.
- There appears to be no emphasis on interoperability in the document at all. When a request for procurement is presented to vendors, interoperability of the solutions received with other solutions received, at least in e-governance schemes that are accessed across the country, should have been a factor for evaluation under the document. Interoperability is one of the major advantages of Open Source Software that would play a significant role to promote access across the country to e-governance schemes, implementation of interoperability would therefore be a huge shot in the arm for the digital governance initiatives currently being carried out in the country.
Despite these criticisms, the document is no doubt a welcome measure from the government. Here’s hoping that it is implemented successfully!