The Indian Linux Community

Despite India having one of the largest numbers of Linux User
Groups in the world, we are yet to see a space for open source
software in the national IT policy.

To communicate in just a few pages the contributions of the Indian open source community to the FLOSS movement is quite a daunting task. After all, how do you do justice or document the enormous efforts that are scattered across the country? Almost every nook and corner of India today has an Indian Linux User Group (ILUG), Swatantra Software Community, the Free Software Forum (FSF), or a GNU/Linux User Group—just to name a few. These groups have done some major work on the the open source community in two major ways: disseminating developer education through freely accessible handbooks covering Indian language computing, and by writing open source software tools for real-world Indian language computing needs.

From the east comes the Indo-Bangladesh localisation project,
AnkurBangla, an initiative to put Bengali on the Linux map, done in collaboration with the Indic Computing Consortium. Another eastern endeavour is the Assam-based Luit Project, put in place on May 21,2004 by Jyotirmoy Saikia and Bhaskar Dutta, with support from G Karunakar and Meyarivan T of the Sarai Programme.
Luit, the other name for the Brahmaputra, aims to localise free and open source software in Assamese, with initial targets to integrate Assamese support into KDE and GNOME desktop environments,and finally provide a complete Assamese desktop in the Linux platform. In the West, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) of Mumbai has teamed up with Indictrans (the localisation effort of C-DAC along with Technology Development for Indian Languages) to create `Gargi’—an open type font in Devanagri
and `Padmaa’ in Gujarati.

Down south, Swatantra Malayalam Computing has come up with some major releases like Malayalam GNOME, Pano-Malayalam-Patch-Source, SMCConvert -0.1.0,SMC-Mgl – 0.0.2 version, among others—all downloadable from their website [http://sarovar.org/projects/smc/].
Joining the tide, the TamilLinux.org group is toiling hard to develop a Tamilian version of GUI for xwindow-based desktops, GNOME and KDE.

Other projects include PunLinux, initiated by the open source enthusiasts of Punjab; Rebati—the Oriya localisation project initiated by enthusiasts like Subhransu Behera, Staya Mohapatra, Gora Mohanty and Utkarsh; and localisation in Gujarati initiated by Nirav Mehta. There are also other projects in Kannada and Telegu localisation.

Pune-based BLUG (BCS-MCS GNU/Linux User Group), which has joined the drive on January 26, 2005, is busy localising KDE.
On a lighter side, these open source enthusiasts are also bringing in a touch of Indian romanticism into Linux.

Consider this: Nagpur-based paediatrician-turned-software guru, Dr Tarique Sani, hosts a website [aaina-e-ghazal.com] that offers a trilingual dictionary of commonly used words in `ghazals’. The Urdu text is written in Devanagri, the widely-used script of Hindi and other North Indian languages. The meanings of the words used in the `ghazals’ are given in English, Hindi and the regional language Marathi.

Creating Indian open source manpower

Almost all the successful missions across the world have invariably banked upon one pillar—the strength of young minds. The OSS community of India is no exception to localisation of Linux and Open Source Software (OSS), popularising the OSS concept among students through troubleshooting and information exchange, etc. Each group has worked in its own way to take the OSS movement ahead.

The L10n passion

The passion for Indianising or localising (L10n) Linux and OSS is visible everywhere, without any exception, from Gujarat to Orissa. The most talked about endeavour here is the IndLinux project taken ahead by the LUGs from across the country. Developed with the aim of creating a Linux distribution that supports Indian languages at all levels, the IndLinux project seeks to include the majority of India that does not speak English. Some of the major
activities of the project are to create expertise in the domains of I/O modules, the development of fonts, kernel enablement, word translations, etc. With its user interface based on GNOME and KDE, the IndLinux uses the Lesser General Public License. As of now, it has launched four distributions of IndLinux in Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi and Telegu. The average activity percentile mentioned in
sourcefoge.net is more than 80 per cent a week.

Another pan-Indian localisation initiative is the Indic Computing project, launched to create open source infrastructure code, and provide technical documentation on Indian language computing issues. It claims to serve this rule. It is, in fact, putting in a lot of hard work to impart education and training to young college students, and develop a talented pool of youngsters who are also
passionate about open source. Most of this training takes place in an innovative and informal manner. Take, for example, Mumbai-based Nagarjuna G, an active Free Software Foundation member and a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who is undertaking some interesting projects like Fostering Free/Open Source Technologies (FOST) to educate engineering students on OSS. He also runs a mailing list called GNU/Linux for Education (GNU/LIFE). Nagarjuna has also initiated a community-based portal [http://www.gnowledge.org/] to
freely distribute knowledge. As part of this endeavour, an
application, GNOWSYS—part of the GNU project, is being
developed that would enable all the willing members of
the community to share a common repository of
knowledge.

Further, in an effort to take open source knowledge to the mainstream, M.N. Karthik has launched a website, [www.metlin.f2s.com/linux/], which besides being a good repository of information on Linux as an OS, also attends to a novice’s queries. The site also has a tutorial and a how-to on accessing Windows partitions.

A small town around Kolkata,named Madhyamgram, has launched another innovative way of disseminating FLOSS knowledge. Initiated by Dipankar Das, a professor at one of the colleges in Kolkata, the project has been called GNU-Linux-Thek (GLT)-Madhyamgram or GLT-Mad. Its members describe GLT-Mad as a `physical helpdesk on matters regarding GNU/Linux’. Modelled to facilitate interaction on a personal level, the project is run by Mr Das. He collects the tutorial materials and educates students or anyone who is interested in knowing about GNU/Linux.
A free-of-cost tutorial model, GLT-Mad has compiled CDs which can be used by other such projects across the country. A GLT-book, `GNU/Linux Iskool’, is also being worked out. GLT-Mad is affiliated to the Indian GNU/Linux Users Group, Kolkata and the Free Software Foundation of India, West Bengal. Added to this, the
members of ILUG-Calcutta are a part of localised, low-cost computing initiatives in progress at the West Bengal Madrassa Board.

Still at its initial stages, members from the Pune BLUG visit colleges to train faculty. “We train people in their GNU/Linux set up and labs. Many a time, because we don’t have enough space or the necessary permission in colleges, we arrange this activity in friends’ houses,” says Amit Karpe of BLUG, Pune. The group has also arranged a number of workshops in colleges in Pune for BCS and MCS students. “Initially, we conducted some intensive
seminars on GNU/Linux installation in colleges and in the homes of our volunteers. We started with the basic use of GNU/Linux, with practical demonstrations, whenever possible.” All this free of cost! For the summers, the group is pursuing talks with members of the Pune University to arrange summer workshops for the BCS and MCS faculties.

From Goa comes another interesting project—Glibms—a library management software developed using PHP and PostgreSQL, to automate the different activities carried out in the library. It was put together by young engineering college students Sharmad Naik, Gaurav Priyolkar and Hiren Lodhiya [http://sourceforge.net/projects/glibs]. There is a discussion group in Yahoo, namely, Linux at Schools in India [http://in.groups.yahoo.com/group/linux_schools/”], to help schools set up and use GNU/Linux.

Adding desi spice to Linux

The Indian open source community is not only booming with activity, but also inspires others to move in the direction of FLOSS. Unfortunately, most of us in India are unaware of the high levels of activity in this sphere.

One of the unheard tales is about a small time village boy from Kerala, Sarath Lakshman, who has recently developed the SLYNUX desktop—that looks close to a Window’s desktop. Lakshman, taking his X standard examination, first encountered Linux as a result of the IT at School project, initiated at his school. He soon realised that although the OS is very smooth and secure, the
average user would be confused by the names given to programs in Linux. Hence, he came up with a simpler version of the Linux desktop—SLYNUX. SLYNUX has a pre-installed SLYNUX media player and a Linamp player.

So, the user can play VCDs and even DVDs using Xine. It also comes with a multi-purpose messenger program that can be used for MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Jabber and IRC messaging services. SLYNUX also comes with Mozilla Firefox, which can be used to access the Net. Among the big town silent missionaries is Mumbai-
based Amish Mehta, who has developed a cyberoam authentication client for various platforms, which has a 24-hour online working capacity [http://sourceforge.net/projects/cyberoam/]. Prabu Ramachandran has unveiled a scientific visualiser based on the open source platform. He’s named it MayaVi (magic) [http://mayavi.sourceforge.net/]. Vinod G. Kulkarni has come up with an IMV (Information Meta View) system that attempts to create a Web standard for information storage in a decentralised database. Information is stored as a graph-like structure spanning several service providers [http://sourceforge.net/projects/imv/].

Phew! The list is exhaustive. Another Linux enthusiast, Amit Kale, introduced a kernel patch that allows you to use gdb to debug Linux kernels. It’s called kgdb [http://kgdb.sourceforge.net]. It can detect breakpoints in kernel code. From the east of India comes an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for C and C++ on GNU/Linux. Developed by Naba Kumar, the IDE has been named Anjuta [http://anjuta.sourceforge.net]. It also aims to combine the power of text-based command-line tools
with the GNOME graphical user interface.

Information exchange

Discussion groups, mailing lists and daily updates are common features in every open source community website, particularly those of ILUGs. Such exercises not only keep the community updated with the surroundings but also encourage online interactions. Added to these are the periodical meetings that occur. Even the newly founded groups give a lot of importance to meetings.

Says Amit Karpe from Pune, “We arrange weekly workshops and seminars.” Adds Gora of ILUG Bhubanshwar (ILUG-Bbsr), “Currently, it’s just the monthly meetings that the ILUG-Bbsr holds with other Yahoo groups. We soon hope to have weekly workshops
and share the developments on Linux.” These groups are also a good means of exchanging news on job openings for people armed with Linux skills.

While groups like the Bangalore LUG have a dedicated section listing jobs on their website, most of it also happens on a personal contact basis. As Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay, member of ILUG-Cal and currently working with Red Hat India puts it, “This is more of a case of referrals rather than any structured initiative. The founder members or peers have industry contacts and, in
many cases, the industry members get in touch for the same reason.”

A significant step towards information exchange among the ILUGs is FLOSS Today, a network set up in 2003, and currently hosted by sarai.net. The main idea is to ensure that open source news in India percolates into every region of the country. In the introductory note of FLOSS Today, the Goa-based freelance journalist, Fredrick Noronha, says, “The list was initiated with the aim of having a cross-pollination of ideas and events, making
announcements, etc across India and elsewhere in South Asia.” The list aims to be an `event-centric’ announcement list. Reports of meetings to be held or already held, announcements of FLOSS events, gatherings, tech sessions, etc, would be its primary focus [http://mail.sarai.net/mailman/listinfo/flosstoday].

Working on Linux made smooth

Troubleshooting is again a core activity area of the Indian open source community. Apart from conducting workshops and seminars, ILUGs also visit schools and colleges that are using open source software, to render their services to whatever extent is possible. On a virtual level, their websites provide the best
means for users to reach out to troubleshooters through sections like FAQs, mailing lists, discussions, etc. The Bangalore LUG’s
(BLUG) site has a whole set of white papers on not only
the way Linux works, but also tips on how to start a Linux
User Group. Its resource section answers queries related
to Linux security. BLUG’s discussion list includes a sub-
list named `Tech list’, which answers questions relating
to issues ranging from Linux installations to operations.
On similar lines, the ILUG-Delhi, under its discussion list,
has sub-lists like Desktop Linux, which answers queries
relating to fonts, Windows Manager, etc. The site also has
a section on hardware support. These groups, on a regular
basis, also post news on the latest software releases from
the industry and review them. G Nagarjuna feels LUGs
are very active in this area. He says, “Most of the LUGs in
Mumbai and Pune are very active. The Mumbai GLUG has most of the FSF guys, who do one-day GNU Linux awareness workshops in local colleges and the Pune LUG runs a course on Linux.”

There are other private initiatives, like the one by
Bangalore-based Koshy, who volunteers to fix bugs and tweak
documentation. He is currently working on two projects—CIEE
Database (website for distributing information on various government funded schools in Karnataka), and Indian BSD (adapting FreeBSD and other BSD-derived OSs to support the languages of the Indian subcontinent)
[http://people.freebsd.org/~jkoshy/]. The Pune-based LUG will very soon start training corporations,
governments and school students who are below the line
of poverty on the GNU/Linux System, with the help of
Sarwangin Vikas Sanstha. They also plan to go outside
Pune to promote GNU/Linux in other cities like Nashik
and Satara, and fix problems that users are facing, if at all.
Another help site is the Linux India Help (LIH) website
[https://lists.sourceforge.net/lists/listinfo/linux-india-help], which helps people (especially newbies) install and
run Linux. Topics covered in the discussion range from
connecting to Indian ISPs (VSNL, MTNL, Satyam etc),
configuring popular hardware found in India, technical
questions about Linux, etc.

In retrospect

What we have compiled is not even a fraction of the
activities that are currently on in the Indian open source
community, with regard to localisation or education. The
Indian Linux User Groups have an amazing growth story.
Till the late nineties, the country did not even have 50
Linux User Groups and, today, India is said to have one of
the largest number of LUGs in the world. Still more
amazing is the way each group manages its finances.
Almost all the ILUG members across the country make
their own contributions to sustain this whole movement
in their respective regions. Says Fredrick Noronha, “We
hardly need any money to run a LUG. In the past five
years of running it, we must have spent Rs 10,000. And
whenever we do need it, everyone pays for their own
expenses. So there’s a lot of people dipping into their own
pockets, and making this movement self-sustainable. It’s
an amazing world out there!” Adds Mukhopadhyay, “It all
happens out of personal contribution based on various
events.” Even the newer LUGs are following the trend.
Says Gora of ILUG-Bbsr, “Everyone pays their way. Various
institutions have donated the use of their facilities and
others are donating their time for content development.”
But this is one side of the coin that shows what the
Indian open source community has done. The other side
has a whole list of issues the community is yet to attend to.
Thefactisthatthecommunityisputtinginitsbestpossible
efforts to spread OSS awareness
among the techies of India. It’s now
time to take this awareness to the
decision-making level or the
governmental level, if it truly wants
to realise the dream of bridging the
digitaldivide.TheIndiangovernment
remains the highest body that can
bring about this transition. It’s pretty
ironicalthatIndia,despitehavingone
of the largest number of LUGs in the
world, is yet to see a space for open source software in the
national IT policy. Slow rate of computer penetration
cannot be taken as a valid reason here, when we have a
country like Vietnam, which has not yet recuperated from
the Vietnam War, with a national open source policy in
place. That’s thanks to the very active LUG of the country.
It’s true that we do need a proactive government here, but
the first step needs to come from us. Placing a blueprint to
the government on the kind of IT policy that the country
needs, or the role OSS can play in the country with some
push from the government, is not an impossible hurdle to
scale. How come, our neighbouring Pakistan LUG could
convince its government to work towards creating a Linux
task force, while we haven’t even made an attempt on that
front! Ensuring good media coverage of various
developments in the FLOSS movement can add a lot of
momentum to the cause. Indian techno-journalists need
to play a role here. The lack of documentation of the
various efforts is another issue here. As Noronha says,
“This is a complex issue, not because little is being done,
but because so little has been documented. I think our
media and journalists have failed the Free Software world
on this!”

More from India….......

Sarovar.org: Sarovar.org [http://sarovar.org/] is India’s first portal to host projects under Free/Open Source licences. It is
located in Trivandrum and hosted at the Asianet data centre.

Planet FLOSS India: Planet Floss India [http://planet-india.randomink.org/] is a window into the world, work and lives of developers and contributors from India who are working on Free/Open Source Software.

Dhvani: Dhvani [http://dhvani.sourceforge.net/] (which means `sound’ in Sanskrit) is a text-to-speech system for Indian languages by the Simputer Trust. It takes phonetic input. Currently, there is support that accepts UTF-8 text in the Hindi and Kannada languages, and turns them into phonetics; therefore, text-to-speech is working for these languages.

Free Software User Group—Kochi: [http://puggy.symonds.net/~fsug-kochi/]
Formerly known as the Indian GNU/Linux User Group – Kochi, the Free Software User Group—Kochi, claims to have changed its name so as to better serve the purpose of its existence. This is to advocate and
promote the use of free software by providing technical assistance
related to free software, bringing together free software businesses and free software users, and
propagating the message of software freedom in and around the city of Kochi in Kerala.

Linux India General—general, non-technical discussions about Linux in India:[https://lists.sourceforge.net/lists/listinfo/linux-india-general] The
Linux India
General (LIG) mailing list is a general, non-technical general
discussion group on Linux.

Indian TEX Users Group (TUGIndia): [http://www.tug.org.in/] The Indian
TEX Users Group (TUGIndia) was founded in 1997 to provide leadership for users of TEX, a revolutionary typesetting system developed by Donald Knuth. It represents the interests of TEX users in India.

Indian contribution to KDE: KDE has a few Indians involved in its
development. Navindram Umanee and the Melbourne-based Sirtaj Singh Kang are prominent developers of Indian origin. Sirtaj has also developed KDOC (API doc generation tool), korn, karm, kview and kimgio (plugins for various image formats). More details: http://i18n.kde.org/

We leave you with another must-visit site:
http://linuxinindia.pitas.com/

By: Jhinuk Chowdhury, LFY Bureau.

The Indian open source community is not only booming with activity,but also inspires others to move in the direction of FLOSS.

PS: Though the article is covers a lot of ground, it is not complete.

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