One Laptop Per Child Gets The Green Light in India

An Indian organization expects that large scale deployment will start from March or April next year, with an initial import of 20,000 to 25,000 laptops.

by / December 4, 2007
India may have been a late starter in adopting the powerful computer-based education program One Laptop Per Child (popularly known as OLPC), a brainchild of MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte to bridge the technology divide between rich and the poor children in the developing world. But with the formation of an Indian edition -- called OLPC India -- the program, which aims to equip millions of world's school children with cheap laptops, is not only set to make an entry into India but also promises to do it with a bang.

According to Sumit Chowdhury and Bhalchandra Joshi, the two co-founders of OLPC India, this "movement" first introduced in the country as a pilot project in October. The this pilot ran in a tribal school in a village in Khairat, located in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Now the self-described movement is gaining momentum and in the next few months, OLPC India hopes to import at least 20,000 laptops.

"We have received excellent response from at least a dozen state governments in India and we expect that large scale implementation will start from March or April next year, with an initial import of 20,000 to 25,000 laptops. And after that, subsequent imports could far exceed that number" said Joshi.

Backing OLPC India is one of India's largest mobile telecom companies Reliance Communications (RCOM) which has tied up with the global OLPC alliance, the OLPC Foundation, to promote e-learning for children. According to RCOM, along with OLPC Foundation, it has assumed the task of evangelizing the concept in the country by working with government agencies, non-government organization (NGOs), content developers, translators, teaching communities and project managers to create a successful ecosystems, and help proliferation of OLPC in India.

OLPC India will also fund the initial imports of laptops drawing upon multiple funding sources, including RCOM's own contribution, grants from the governments, NGOs and even some willing donors from the corporate sector.

However, against Negroponte's wish of making the laptops available as cheap as $100 each, the India imports could cost around $190 a piece. Branded as XO, mass manufacturing of these laptops under a mandate from the OLPC Foundation has already started by Taiwan-based Quanta Computers, the world's largest laptop manufacturing firm. According to reports, the laptop will come with a 7.5-inch TFT screen, video camera, a microphone, long-range Wi-Fi and Linux as the operating system.

But although the "Initial cost is much higher than the $100-target, given India's potential, we are sure that the price could go down even below $100 as import volumes increase with the proliferation of OLPC in the country," said Sumit Chowdhury, the other co-founder of OLPC India.

The brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, also the founder of MIT Media Lab, the One Laptop Per Child project is an initiative launched in January 2005 to provide inexpensive laptop computers to children in the developing world as a means of bridging the digital divide. The main driver behind this project is the thought that just as a kid needs to own a pencil and a slate -- a kid cannot really function if those were owned by a community -- it is also important to own a computer to be able to experiment and explore the new opportunities in today's digital world.

According to Negroponte, like pencils and slates, "a computer too can be a powerful tool" with which one can think, work, play, and learn. "Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something -- like a football, doll, or book -- not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care," he says.

The concept, as some say "was captivating in its utter simplicity." Consequently it found support from many, including world leaders like the former UN secretary General Kofi Anan and global companies that include

marquee names like AMD, News Corp, Google, and Red Hat. Nevertheless, despite the initial brouhaha, the concept did not really catch on as per expectations. Against Negroponte's initial prediction that the project would sell at least 100 million laptops to developing countries by 2008, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, "only about 2,000 students in pilot programs have received computers from the One Laptop project."

One reason why Negroponte's projections stalled is that the Foundation was unable to develop or find a laptop maker that could make an efficient and dependable laptop as cheaply as $100. (The Foundation says that it has now found such a maker in Quanta and this manufacturer is already successfully making the $188 laptops as per OLPC specifications.) But the other and more serious reason why this project has failed to take off in the real sense, say critics, is that leaders in many developing countries didn't have enough confidence in the whole scheme.

Libya, for instance, which had planned to buy over a million of the laptops, reportedly backed out at the last moment due to concerns over its operating system (Linux rather than Windows) as well as the lack of service, teacher training, and future upgrade possibilities. Libya eventually decided to import 50,000 of the $300 Intel Classmates machines that have emerged as a competitor to OLPC's XOs.

Reports also suggest that Negroponte recently had failed to persuade other developing countries like Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Thailand to buy one million laptops each, all of which backed out for similar reasons.

"This is where OLPC India's objectives will be a little different from that of OLPC Foundation," says Joshi. "We know that OLPC will find it difficult to take off in India too if the project is promoted only as a low-cost laptop-scheme for the poor children. Instead, it needs to be promoted as an integral education system where a cheap laptop would just be an important tool."

OLPC India's effort, therefore, would include development of content, training of teachers, creating an appropriate infrastructure like a network, etc, "all of which would create a foundation through which the concept could be spread and computers could be distributed," says Chowdhury, who is also the CIO of RCOM. (Joshi too is an employee of RCOM)

OLPC India founders are confident that soon OLPC would not only be a "very successful" project in India but perhaps on-track to become be the largest such project in the world eventually.

"With a billion plus population and the country's massive literacy efforts, it is not a difficult target," says Chowdhury. "Moreover, RCOM is supporting the OLPC initiative in India with its Internet connectivity, network backbone, logistics and support -- all which would cover over 25,000 towns and 600,000 Indian villages by March 2008. With that kind of an infrastructure support, the sky could only be the limit."

That may be true, but the question is could OLPC India dominate e-learning for the poor in India? And more importantly, is it going to be the cheapest? Already, OLPC is facing competition. Tara Akshar Literacy Program, for instance, a laptop-based literacy program funded by UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID), that has already brought literacy to about 50,000 women (from 6 year to 60 years) since April. This initiative reportedly cost just $60 per head.

"I do not think it is possible to do this any cheaper," says M. S. Ahluwalia the main coordinator of Tara Akshar. "And we have been able to keep it that way (dirt-cheap) because giving computers to each learner is not our main focus; we use it just as a tool with one laptop for every 8 learners. But we focus more on content and distribution and teaching capabilities, which I believe are the key components of success. Moreover, our overheads are low."

But that doesn't bother OLPC India. "India is big enough and needs many more OLPCs," says Joshi.

Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.