India's Rickety Bridge Across Its Digital Divide

Why India's low-cost tablet is a flop.

The device was supposed to democratize and accelerate India's march into the information-technology era. It was supposed to be India's answer to Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project: an indigenous brand that brought computing power to children in village schools, and to students of all ages from poor families, at a third of the cost estimated by Negroponte. Even before it hit the market, it generated glowing coverage for its ambitious scale, reach and price. After its pilot version faltered and was sent back to the drawing board, its second incarnation was presented late last year by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as an example of "frugal innovation."

That was about as good as it got, though, for Aakash ("sky"), the $35 computing tablet promised in 2010 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Two and a half years later, the project is on life-support. Almost every promise made, or intimated, has failed to come true.

The tablet was launched in October 2011 by the human resource development minister, the ambitious and outspoken Kapil Sibal, and distributed to 500 students from all over India. "The rich have access to the digital world, the poor and ordinary have been excluded," Sibal said. "Aakash will end that digital divide."

The device that Sibal proudly displayed was manufactured, to specifications set by the government, by DataWind Ltd., a small Canadian company, which had won the tender to produce a first run of 100,000 devices. Within weeks of the tablet being launched, it had more than 1 million pre-orders (some of them at a market price of about $60, while those bought by the Indian government were to cost about $50 and would be sold to students and educational institutions at a subsidized rate of $35).

Even then, cracks were beginning to appear in the story. First, as reviewers of the pilot devices noted, the Indian research and development contribution was minimal though some of the country's elite engineering institutes were involved. A set of specs for the device was provided to DataWind, which then began to source the components for the tablet from markets where they were available most cheaply -- that is, China.

A report in the Hindustan Times last year showed that the company had bought a large batch of tablets from Chinese manufacturers to be passed on as Aakash tablets, meaning that the only thing Indian about the device was the branding.

And then there was the gap between the blueprints and the realization of the tablet on a mass scale at the advertised price. As of March 2013, DataWind had still been unable to deliver the first batch of 100,000 devices to the Indian government, partly because of disputes over the details of the contract and delays in payments made to DataWind, and partly because of bickering between the Indian engineering institutes. At one point, it even seemed that the Aakash would have more of a long-term presence in Indian courts than in schools. Last week, the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay announced that it was charging DataWind an "0.5 per cent penalty per week for delayed delivery."

With no devices to hand out, the ministry was left red-faced, and had to scale back on its plans to order 5 million tablets. The initial batch received savage customer reviews that pointed out the many problems created by sloppy design and cost-cutting. Meanwhile, other manufacturers have begun to make low-cost tablets with better specs than Aakash.

Many well-informed observers in India's tech world think it would make sense for the government to abandon the Aakash project. In "What Went Wrong With the Aakash Tablet," the journalist Seema Singh wrote in Forbes India about the project's impractical top-down approach and unfeasible obsession with price at the eventual cost of minimal quality. In another piece, Singh asked last year:

"What is Indian about it? Which Indian institution or Indian company has done its two bit to call it an innovation? Does the battery last for a full college day, since it is meant for college students? Or does it charge under the sun? Or is it designed to help a student read the problem and work out the solution? Has it been 'engineered' for education?"

And in a biting report in Fast Company last July, April Rabkin provided a tour of the sites associated with the project and interviewed many of the leading figures behind it. Rabkin listened to plenty of high-minded blather and cant as she negotiated a maze of bureaucrats, but couldn't lay her hands on a single Aakash tablet:

"One afternoon in Mumbai, I visit the city's largest electronics hub, Lamington Road, to gauge the state of the nation's computer-manufacturing industry. I stop to chat with Bimal Jhaveri, who owns Hardtrac Computer Services, a chain of 11 retail stores that sell laptops, desktops, and tablets. Not a single product in Hardtrac's inventory is made in India. `India has never invested in computer-hardware manufacturing,' he says. `It's always promoted software. The government would need to help manufacturers with land and tax breaks.'

"...The Aakash has become an object lesson in the Indian government's ability to create great expectations and its inability to deliver on them. The bold overpromise and subsequent underdelivery says a lot about not only India's managerial and technical shortcomings but also the desire of its politicians and media to promote a story of India as a rising superpower."

Last month, the new minister of human resource development, Pallam Raju, seemed to accept this, criticizing the "obsession with hardware" that marked recent thinking about innovation in education. "Aakash is only a tablet, he said. "There are other such devices as well." The Indian Express reported that the ministry had decided to delay its tender for 5 million Aakash tablets and had created two committees to review the project.

But Sibal, who had taken much of the credit for the project, and who now holds the post of minister of communications and information technology, shot back:

"`I don't want to comment on a distinguished colleague of mine. I only know that as far as we are concerned Aakash is alive and kicking. For me, it will provide the platform for the future and not just for children but for all citizens of India.'"

The Aakash debacle wouldn't be so tragic if all it revealed was the Indian government's misguided attempt to use economies of scale to make computing technology widely available at a low price. After all, the government hasn't made a huge investment; all that it did was circulate a tender for the production of the device by a third party. For every tablet it does manage to sell eventually, it will absorb a loss of $10-15 -- hardly a black hole compared with the cost of corruption.

What is most problematic and Panglossian about the project is the confidence with which it was presented as the solution to widespread structural deficits in education in India, especially primary education. It's the vision of the tablet as teacher, miraculously allowing millions of students to work their way into knowledge and empowerment, that's most flawed and dangerous. Aakash might be a case study of what the writer Evgeny Morozov calls the folly of "solutionism," or the idea there is a fairly simple technological fix for any human problem. In "Tablets and a Lesson To Learn," Meeta Sengupta wrote last December:

"A tablet cannot supplant a teacher. An absent teacher is a different problem and throwing content via textbooks or shiny devices at it does not resolve that fundamental issue. The issue of content for pedagogical engagement is crucial to the discussion on a technology solution to upgrade the quality of education."

Perhaps the best that can be said about Aakash is that it has alerted manufacturers to the vast demand in India for low-cost computing devices. While doomed to failure on its own terms, it has stimulated the market in a productive way.

A more depressing conclusion, however, is that Aakash was, and continues to be, a faddish attempt by an influential faction in the Indian government to bridge the country's perceived "digital divide." And this was possibly done to distract the world, and themselves, from the reality that in almost seven decades the Indian state hasn't even been able to bridge the literacy divide between its rich and its poor. Solving that preliminary problem requires commitments made by human beings to other human beings -- and not just to technology or tablets.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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