Brave GNU India - at Belgaum

BraveGNUIndia By FN [Frederick Noronha]

Goa turns oppressively humid after March. Taking, therefore, a weekend break at this time of the year to Belgaum was a pleasant option.

Belgaum? Where’s that?

Okay, this city once caught in a border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra, and is just outside the Goa border. It’s home to engineering and medical colleges. In end-March, it also organised a free software festival – called GNUBeLUG – and graciously invited us Free Software fans from across the inter-state border.
Okay, the food was great. The climate was cool, and the hospitality was really warm. For us travelling by a small van, it was like a 34-hour unending GNU/Linux users group meeting. We had jokes, debates and disagreements as the road took us through scenic forested hilly areas, adjoining North Goa’s dam. But that’s not the point.

More sensible might be to re-look at some lessons learnt. In short, it gave us a hint of what is possible in a resource-poor, talent-rich country like India.

Like Pune and the GNUinify festival organised before it, Belgaum’s event had a few hundred students patiently tuned in to various aspects of Free Software. Open minds, mixed with the right dose of intelligence and commitment to breaking new ground.

Why so?

Lesson Number One is that for GNU/Linux to grow, evangelists must focus on small cities and towns. These are most receptive to new ideas, and have the time and energy and attention span to open up to what’s really possible.

Secondly, students need to be given leadership positions in the Free Software campaign. This was the case at Belgaum, and they did a fine job of it. Undeniably, the link between Free Software and university-based hackers – look at Richard M Stallman’s MIT days or Linus Torvalds and Helsinki University – has always been strong. Can we rebuild this to create magic in India too?

One of the most-important realities is the need for hand-holding the spread of Free Software in India. It’s not going to happen just by itself. Those who are already deep into it, need to set aside time and energy to promote it elsewhere. If we selfishly forget the community once we attain some prominence ourselves, that could be disaster. In Belgaum’s case, the young LUG there (which was launched only in the latter half of 2002) got some initial support from, among others, the Goa G/LUG. In Goa’s case, it was Mumbai that helped up while being set up in 1999. Bigger G/LUGs helping the smaller ones could spark off exponential growth.

This is Lesson Number 3.

Lesson Number 4 is simply this: small steps could bring in huge returns. Take the case of sharing knowledge.
Our friend from Pondicherry, Sukrit D <> came up with a good idea. His concept of a LittleLeague of GLUGs and LUGs, networked through Yahoogroup, makes sense to share and mentor each other. We all have something to learn. Can you make it work, Sukrit?

But we also need to go beyond intangibles. Sharing software is an excellent way to build interest in non-proprietorial code. Belgaum has been engaged in this two-way sharing; the engineering campus there has a high-speed download line. Take a look at Ajay Cuncolienkar’s neat (SoftwareForAll) site that helps people record what CDs they have, and what they’re willing to share. Lesson Number 5?
There’s one area where our friends at Belgaum are trying to do more. That’s keeping their mailing-list active. There’s nothing better than a busy mailing-list to keep contacts alive between once-a-month (or whatever) meetings of the GLUG/LUG. Rather, here’s a chance to think of each other on a daily basis, and share one’s own learnings. Even if sometimes people complain over the e-mail load … and not getting what they want, or getting what they don’t want. Lesson Number 6.

For a seventh lesson, we learnt at Belgaum the importance of never underestimating even what a single individual can contribute. Just one or two determined techies can play a pivotal role in launching this tech-revolution. Aniket in Goa first raised the potential of building links with Belgaum. Ashutosh, a Gogte student, graduated from being somewhat unsure of himself when we shared a room at Bangalore, to being a confident organiser. Rohan was a livewire; and there were many more whom this list is obviously missing out on. Passing on the passion from one to another, learning and teach others, expanding the circle, and giving us all some new ideas, they made it possible.

Given it’s implicit nature of sharing freely – not just software, but also knowledge, a field which has immense implications to the future of India – it was but natural that quite a few supporters rallied to the cause. ‘Tony’ Singh came from Islampur, while Bhaskar Ghosh rallied from Kolhapur.

Trevor Warren and Warren Noronha were there from the Mumbai LUG. There was a van-full from Goa. Moral support does make a difference. Let’s take it, and give it, generously. Lesson eight…

Lesson nine is that India’s engineers need not, rather should not, be sold GNU/Linux just as a “cheaper” substitute to proprietorial software. This would detract from its real qualities. Like one young engineer put it recently, with Free Software the “potential for learning is so high”. But, at the same time, let’s be non-arrogant in our canvassing for it. If someone is not willing to change his operating system merely to test out the power of Free Software, then maybe we should share a copy of GNUWin (Free Software programmes for Windows-TM) or even The Open CD, a similar venture using the Open Source phraseology. Let them then go on to ask questions like whether proprietorial software is the best way forward, and whether sharing knowledge or owning it is a priority….

Finally for the tenth lesson: have faith, it happens.

You don’t need to be a prophet to recognise that proprietorial software is going to try to block such possibilities. Or that giants like Microsoft will, as it has in the past three to four years, suddenly realise that the educational sector is critical (not for India’s future, but for their corporation’s continued dominance of the market). To this end, it now offers some ultra-low priced software to this sector. In one case, after reports of once-used PCs trying out GNU/Linux were widely noticed, the giant from Redmond has promised schools to donate software for free under its Fresh Start for donated computers program. So far, this is only for the US.

But, at the same time, we need to remember that Free Software has certain inherent pluses which it’s going to be rather difficult to negate. Can we look out for these hard enough? We need to, as the Belgaum event punch-line saucily put it, “spread the (Free Software) virus”. (ENDS)

Copyleft 2003 FN. Permission is granted to copy or distribute verbatim.

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