As a young journalist many moons ago, I got fascinated with the idea of the power of information. Not information itself, but its subversive and productive potential when freely shared. It doesn’t take much time to realise that ideas passed around multiply and enrich all involved.

This point came home even before the Internet became widely popular in India, around the late 1990s. In those pre-Internet days, one would clip out interesting articles, photocopy them, create a kind of rough-and-ready newsletter, and despatch them to friends interested in my part of South Asia.

Goa, the former headquarters of the Portuguese empire in the East, has a colourful history. The first Gutenberg-style printing press in Asia was set up here as far back as in the year 1556. Because the Portuguese were early conquerors, they also brought with them (and took out, too) seeds, fruits and plants that created a rich germ-plasm exchange between Latin America, Africa and Asia. Of course, Europe was the primary beneficiary and cities like Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam were built from the wealth of the spice trade. But our regions also ended up as beneficiaries, having some of the richest plant diversity globally.

By the early 1990s, the impact of the Net was making itself felt among a lucky few in parts of India. A friend from Mumbai (then Bombay) had set up a not-for-profit email exchange service. It was called IndiaLink, and run out of the Centre for Education and Documentation, a centre in Colaba which well understood that information is power. For some reason, they offered access to their email service to journalists too besides NGOs (non-governmental organisations). 

This meant early access to cyberspace. Even if it meant that your cyber-mailbox was located 600 km away, in Bombay. To afford access, you had to use costly long-distance calls to access the same.

By then, Bill Gates had already changed the very nature of the computer industry, starting in the late 1970s itself. Software, which was crucial to do anything, cost money—big money. Unlike, say, books, which were priced affordably in lower-income parts of the globe, you were expected to pay global (read: affluent world) prices. If you couldn’t afford the outsized prices of software, you were quickly labelled a “pirate”. As were maybe 90 per cent of computer users on the planet, particular in the so-called developing world.

For many months—maybe a year or two—after launching the group, I would be consistently ribbed by the others. What kind of Free Software/Open Source promotion was this, they’d ask, if I myself was not using Free Software? Others were more gentle, and suggested that I try by using “at least a few” FLOSS products.

At that time, as an option to proprietary software, a category of software existed, called freeware, or shareware. Freeware was free to use under certain conditions. In theory, one could use it for free, or pay on a volunteer basis, or pay up after a certain number of days of “free” use. But shareware was, in fact, a form of “crippleware”. You could use it for a very limited period of time under certain restrictive conditions. For instance, you could use it for 30 days, and then it stopped working. Or, you could use only some of its capabilities if you didn’t pay up, and so on.

For a while, I thought it would make sense to build a collection of shareable software and pass the same around. Turned out that the software available for 'free' was not very useful, and the better ones quickly turned into “crippleware”.

Making software available—instead of creating an artificial scarcity, the usual practice after Bill Gates’ open letter to hobbyists—makes a world of difference to the user.

It was then that I ran into the idea of Free Software (also referred to as Open Source since the late 1990s, to emphasise on a different aspect of its philosophy). We had been reading about it for awhile. A friend abroad sent across an entire set of Red Hat 5.4, which was capable of running an entire computer.

Free and open-source software (F/OSS, FOSS or FLOSS) grants users a lots of rights. Users can freely use and copy it. Theoretically, they could also study, change and improve it. Many Free Software tools are in wide use today, including in industrial environments. You would surely be using such tools in cyberspace, without even knowing that you're using them.

Making software available—instead of creating an artificial scarcity, the usual practice after Bill Gates’ open letter to hobbyists—makes a world of difference to the user.

Some years later, friends from the Free Software Foundation of India (FSF-India) created a logo that morphed a CD-looking circular shape into a charkha, the symbol of India’s freedom movement. “Weave your own code,” the message ran. Clearly, there were political overtones here.

But what would this mean to a country which made its technology mark, in significant part, by servicing the global proprietary software sector? Would it cut into India’s interests? If you can earn from writing software, why create it and share it for free? Or would it take software usage in India to new heights?

In tiny Goa, the first thing we did was to band together in a group. This is exactly what dozens of tiny groups—by one count over a hundred at its peak—were doing in diverse parts of India. The “community” has played a key role in promoting Free Software and Open Source.

Unity in strength. This was easy enough to get going. We had friends like techie Arvind Yadav and Physics professor Gurunandan Bhat who were tech-savvy enough to understand what FLOSS was all about. Others quickly joined in, and learn from the free talks on the subject.

But let’s face it. Free Software can be hard to get started on. You need support before you can start using it. It's easy for a newbie to get stuck on it. If you have a problem with your computer, don’t expect every third person down the street to simply come in and do a rough re-install—as is often the solution with the many problems with Windows computers. Then, one day it happened.


I suddenly told the friend who had come over to install some software, to shift my entire email over to the Free Software partition of my comp. The escape route was snapped. I began using it completely, and liked it. Tremendously. 

At this point, sometime in the late 1990s, user groups were being set up across India. From small towns to university campuses, and the big cities of India, branches of the “India Linux User Groups” began sprouting. As mentioned, there were over a hundred such branches. Even if some were tiny, the played the role of spreading the knowledge across the land. 

Seen from an Indian perspective though, it still seemed like a lonely journey. Everyone then believed that Indians were only users of FLOSS, and not contributing back to it, as it should be. There were islands of skills—like in Bangalore where Atul Chitnis and team built the network, Delhi (with Kishore Bhargava), Mumbai with its FSF-India, Kerala and Kolkata. But how did this link up with the wider world?

The Net was still in its infancy. Techies were faster than the rest, and were using cyberspace quite effectively to communicate with one another. Meanwhile, reporting on this tech-movement was more interesting than covering repetitive and meaningless politics for a journalist like me.

Sitting till 11 pm in cybercafes, the closing hours then, one tried to piece together stories of who’s-doing-what in the India FLOSS space. This soon made it clear that many more were contributing back to Free Software from here than one would have expected.

From expat Hindu priests in the US, to lady-techies in Bangalore working on hardcore complex kernel-level stuff, from youngsters from small town India being picked up for their skills, to students who suddenly found the open access to software very liberating... all this was happening and more.

For instance, US-based Indian expat Jaldhar H Vyas had the unusual combination of Hindu priest and Free Software (Debian) geek. Other Indian expats were helping to prop up the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) efforts to boost development through Free Software, via Malaysia and Thailand.

Suddenly, everyone discovered that expat Indians were contributing significantly to the growth of Free Software and Open Source in diverse parts of the globe. If you took South Asia into account, the contribution was even more significant. 

For instance, anonymous coders of desi origin have been significantly writing lines that built Free Software into a remarkably robust, virus-free system. Rishab Aiyer-Ghosh, based in the Netherlands, was himself responsible for creating the acronym FLOSS. (It stood for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, and incorporated both Free Software and Open Source, apart from overcoming the ambiguity that one comes across in the English language by spelling out “free” as “libre”.) Not just that, he put together a number of impressive studies on FLOSS in different parts of the globe. 

At another level, Niranjan Rajani, a Sindhi expat of Pakistani origin, undertook a report of Free Software (and Open Source) in the developing world. I happened to be involved. in a modest role, in compiling reports from across Asia, and explain what different countries were doing, for that report.

Tongue in cheek, in an article published in Linux Journal, a US-based journal, I call this highly-efficient form of creating and sharing code as “liberation technology”. And not without reason; it was helping people to be less dependent on dominant corporations, and build their own skills in a 21st century, tech-dependent world.

On surveying the field, Rajani, a philosopher who took to computing to earn a living, had few doubts about the usefulness of FLOSS, which he said would be “extremely relevant” in any of the poorer parts of the globe. As he then put it, “Take the example of education. In terms of computer education, FLOSS has no match. Nothing else provides [as] much value to learners as FLOSS does. You’re free to tinker with the code. Not only that, you can get in touch with the people who wrote the code and ask why this or that was done in a particular piece of code.”

He added: “[FLOSS] offers low entry barriers. That’s how it should be described. It reduces the barriers for anyone wanting to enter this field by making everything open. So much so, that many people fail to appreciate that fact. Besides, there’s the element of cost. Most of the studies show that, in terms of cost, free and open-source software is unmatched. Some studies have been made which tend to show that, in certain cases, FLOSS may have more immediate costs. But I doubt the seriousness and validity of these studies on the ground that these studies do not take into account what would be happening if there was no FLOSS. Where would the cost structure of the current software be?”

Rajani agreed that “there is no magic bullet or magic wand, and neither FLOSS nor computers (by themselves) can provide a great leap into development". Development, he argued, comes about by humans determined to make changes in the direction they are moving. “But FLOSS can do wonders in terms of savings (on software), educating and building a solid base needed for going ahead”, said the ex-Karachi philosopher-techie.

“Going through the 20+ countries mentioned in the Asia report, the highest overall FLOSS-related activity seems to be taking place in countries like India, China and Taiwan (excluding Japan, which was not studied) followed by South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,” summarised Rajani. In Latin America, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina top the FLOSS-related activity scores, both in terms of usage and code-contribution. They’re followed by Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. 

Latin American programmers have made a useful contribution, and created some impressive products. In Africa, initiatives like of South Africa, is helping translations to make Free Software available to South Africa’s 11 official languages; OpenLab, in South Africa and Nigeria.

Slowly, it became clear that a world without windows and gates was opening up strong new possibilities for techies here to create solutions and products, and make these easily available to a far wider section.

With amazing regularity new heroes emerged, inspiring others by their example. In one of the prestigious events held at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, the Free and Open Source Software movement in India was surprised to realise that their new poster boy was actually a young lady! Suparna Bhattacharya, the star of the show some years ago, was recognised as then one of India’s most respected Linux kernel developers.

(The Linux kernel is at the core of the operating system kernel used by the GNU/Linux family of Unix-like operating systems. It is considered to be one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software.)

Amid intense applause, the soft-spoken and lightly built Bhattacharya took the stage. One of her first slides read, self-depreciatingly: “In case you are wondering why I am the keynote speaker, you are not alone.” She declined interviews with “I’m more comfortable discussing technical issues”, and only relented after a while.

New ways of doing things were creating a new generation of local heroes. It has been noted that the freedom offered by FLOSS is of “paramount importance in more than one way” in the Third World. Even the price aspect is “very important, without which developing nations would not be able to significantly meet the challenges of the computing age”. 

Somewhere along the way, the Delhi-based Sarai offered me a fellowship to study the contribution of Indian techies to Free Software and Open Source.

In return, I convinced them to start a micro-grant scheme for techies willing to spend a few weeks or months to create FLOSS software products, and then willingly share these with the rest of the community.

We were inspired by the work of techies from tiny regions like Nepal. For instance, to promote local language solutions in computing, NepaLinux was released quite a few years back (2005). India too had its own campaign for promoting local language Free Software and Open Source computing solutions.

In the meanwhile, the Electronics for You publishing group in Delhi went ahead and brought out a monthly magazine exclusively focused on FLOSS. It is edited by Rahul Chopra, the grandson of the man who some five decades ago promoted electronics knowledge across the country through a magazine that is still going strong.

Others, too, recognised the role of India in shaping the future of computing, one way or the other. Richard M. Stallman, who is widely credited with taking some of the earliest and most determined steps to promote the worldwide growth of Free Software, visited India on a number of occasions. He still does. During one such visit, both Stallman and one of the key fathers of the idea of proprietorial software—Bill Gates, now a philanthropist—headed to India at the same time. The presence of both was noted here, and led to some differences of opinion in the media too.

But sometimes change walks in slowly. This story isn’t as dramatic as an election result or a cyclone that wreaks disaster. Yet, line by line, the contributors to the FLOSS code were shaping the world of tomorrow. 

Initially, those who supported it complained that the Government of India was doing little to promote FLOSS. Subsequently, initiatives were set up in places like Chennai, to promote FLOSS nationally.

The techies who grew up in this movement have since moved on. Many started their own initiatives, or secured good jobs. Some like Kalyan Verma have switched lines—maturing into top notch wildlife photographers.

This is not about software alone. It’s about a different way of doing things.

As Niranjan Rajani argued in another context, the ideas of free software have been spreading to other fields, as seen in terms of open law, open-source biology, MIT's opencourseware, e-books put on-line through volunteers under Project Gutenberg, free dictionaries, the open music movement and the like. In India itself, campaigners like S. Arunachalam have been pushing to build open access archives of research articles, which are otherwise sold at outrageously overpriced rates by the middleman.

Today, FLOSS can run an entire computer, and plays a domineering role in cyberspace or on web servers. You can do just about anything you need to, using FLOSS on your computer.

Some are of the view that it no longer needs evangelical promotion as it once did. As it has already made its impact on the mainstream. While this may be true, this debate goes far beyond just software to deciding how we create and share knowledge and information in so many different fields.