‘Aakash’ Lost in Ministry Mess

It is unfortunate and shameful too. It is more so where it has become a conflict between the HRD ministry and IIT, Rajasthan. A country can develop its own indigenous advanced interceptor missile and successfully test it. It can compete with the advanced countries in technologies related to nuclear plants. However, if one has followed the recent launch of Aakash (Images), the tablet by Kapil Sibal with so much of fanfare and the mess thereafter, India is so poor in manufacturing.

As I could understand the Aakash project of the HRD Ministry, it was meant for students in schools up to class XII and not for the students for graduate courses in engineering, post graduate or PH.D. As the first thing, I couldn’t understand why the IIT, Rajasthan was given the responsibility of creating the specifications of the tablet and not to other older and mature IITs. Fortunately now the ministry has involved three of them.

I can very well infer that the IIT, Rajsthan prepared the specifications target for just schools. But after the launch, someone in HRD ministry decided to make it for the use of IIT students. And the officers collected feedbacks from IIT students, who knew of Apple’s tablet iPad the best in its class. Datawind’s Aakash was declared as under-specified.

And look at the expectations now “The IIT or HRD now wants Aakash 2 to run at – 20 degree and up to 50 degree Celsius, withstand steep and sudden fall and waterproof against rain with a 1.2 Gega Hertz (Ghz) microprocessor as against 366 mega hertz (Mhz) in Aakash and random access memory (RAM) of 700 megabytes, double of the original. The battery specified can run up to eight hours.” One can produce tablets of this specification if the price is not a constraint. But then why not buy the Apple’s iPads? The schools in India require 220 million tablets. And the 90% or more will require it to be cheap at around $50 a piece.

Aakash must be in two three models- one for the students of lower classes up to Class VI, the second one for the students from class VII to XII and the third one for the students of the higher education, all with increasing prices and better specifications for the applications.

It amazes me also to know that the HRD ministry wishes PSUs such as Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) and Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) to produce the Aakash Tablets. I couldn’t understand the rationale for this thinking. Why couldn’t the government call HCL and Wipro that are already in manufacturing of computers and doing a lot of work in the field of education too in big way through its foundation and seek its assistance? May be that these companies could have found the solution of a tablet for the students in the desired price range effectively.

If the mess is not cleared, it will be another failure of the government missing an opportunity to help in bridging the digital divide of the student community. And the result as someone says will only be disastrous:

“Huge amounts will be spent, either on delivering a crippled device or, perhaps, on not delivering anything, if there are further procurement issues. Economies of scale count, and 220 million is a huge number. Globally, 67 million tablets were sold in 2011. If we assume a price of $50/unit (Rs 2,500), that could work out to a total spend of Rs 55,000 crore. Just for comparison, the entire 2011 HRD ministry budget was Rs 52,000 crore.”

Let the Montreal based Datawind execute the order it got an order if it can execute it with a quality required for school application. For the higher end tablets, HCL and Wipro may be roped.

Shiv Nadar has recently made a statement in an interview: “Five years from now, the entire school will be on a tablet — like an iPad, at a very low cost. India will make an effort to do it. Our Foundation is also working on it. A very good teacher will play the role of augmenter. Also, the teacher will be located anywhere and helping students”. It gives a hope.

I wish HRD Ministry could name a technocrat some one like N R Narayana Murthy for this project.

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