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Updated: May 22, 2012 01:16 IST

Cloudy outlook for Aakash

Ashok Parthasarathi
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SYSTEM ERROR: Union Minister Kapil Sibal displays an ‘Aakash’ tablet during its launch in 2010 in New Delhi.
PTI
SYSTEM ERROR: Union Minister Kapil Sibal displays an ‘Aakash’ tablet during its launch in 2010 in New Delhi.

The government's plan to develop and supply an inexpensive tablet computer to schoolchildren is in a mess.

In September 2010, the Minister of Human Resource Development & Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, showcased a tablet computer called “Sakshat” which the Ministry was to distribute to higher secondary school students. He said the tablet would be launched in January 2011. However the company, HCL Info Systems, which, through a tender floated by the Ministry, had won the contract to source and distribute the computers initially, backed out.

So the Ministry floated a subsequent tender in February 2011, which the Canada-based DataWind Ltd. (DWL) bagged. This tablet, named “Aakash” by the Ministry, was to be designed and developed by IIT Rajasthan, manufactured by a local company selected by DWL, and marketed and sold by DWL.

Tests show poor performance

The Ministry then ordered one lakh “Aakash” tablets from DWL, which chose a small Hyderabad company, Quad Electronics Ltd. (Quad), through an unknown methodology, to undertake its manufacture. DWL then placed an order for 50,000 tablets with Quad. Quad produced only 20,000 in the first lot and DWL lifted only 10,000. Of the 10,000, DWL-HRD provided 2,000 to IIT Rajasthan for detailed testing a week before the formal launch of “Aakash” by Mr. Sibal on October 5, 2011. That evaluation revealed severe poor performance. Therefore, DWL immediately ceased lifting anymore “Aakash” tablets from Quad.

Despite this, Mr. Sibal went ahead with his pre-determined launch — that is, despite knowing the severe poor performance of “Aakash” as evaluated by the very institution that designed and developed it, viz. IIT Rajasthan — and 500 schoolchildren were made to buy dud “Aakash” tablets at a subsidised price. At a per computer subsidy of Rs.750, indicated in several public documents, the total wastage of public money on that sale came to Rs.3.75 lakh.

But this is not all. There is also a serious “material accounting” aspect. Five hundred tablets were given to students, and 2,000 to IIT Rajasthan for testing. What happened to the remaining 7,500? Were they also sold to more schoolchildren at the subsidised price by the Ministry? If so, how many? If not, are they lying in some godown of the Ministry or DWL?

Case filed

There are other complex issues to be settled. Quad has filed a suit against DWL that DWL has not paid Quad even for the first 10,000 Tablets which DWL lifted from it. No payment has been made for the balance 40,000 of DWL's 50,000 order with Quad.

Then, ‘Aakash' version 2

In its legal response, DWL has said that: (a) the supply contract of DWL on Quad was an indivisible contract for a total number of 50,000 “Aakash” Tablets, all for sale by Quad to DWL, and not involving any sale by Quad directly in the open market; and (b) it (DWL) owns the copyright of the tablet; though merely a contract manufacturer to DWL, Quad was violating DWL's rights by collaborating directly with IIT Rajasthan for development of the device.

Moreover, the CEO of DWL, Suneet Singh Tuli, told the media on April 23, 2012, that DWL is working on a second generation “Aakash” tablet on its own. This messy dispute has brought the supply of “Aakash” to schoolchildren — its avowed objective — to a complete halt.

For his part, Mr. Sibal announced in Parliament recently that DWL had since ceased its collaboration with IIT Rajasthan and will now be supplying the one lakh “Aakash” Tablets in collaboration with IIT Bombay! This appears to be in total contradiction of what he told the media on the sidelines of the inauguration of the World IT Forum 2012 on April 17. He said, “We have invited companies from across the world for manufacturing and many are ready to manufacture it here. Currently we are looking at the design and other parameters. After we freeze the design and technology, manufacturing will take place.” More astonishingly, despite the huge work agenda listed by Mr. Sibal, he has concluded in Parliament that “the second version of ‘Aakash' will be launched in May!”

Questions and violations

His confused and inconsistent statements apart, key questions, issues and anomalies arise in this case.

Irrespective of the type of tendering process adopted by the Ministry for the second version of “Aakash,” DWL will get an order of one lakh tablets as per Mr. Sibal's announcement in Parliament. This, despite DWL's failure to meet its commitments on “Aakash 1.”

How much money was paid by the Ministry to DWL for the supply of “Aakash 1”? Was it for one lakh tablets, or 50,000 or 10,000 devices? Or was it for a totally different figure?

If neither the specifications nor the vendor of “Aakash 2” had been decided by the Ministry as late as April 17, 2012, how can the device be available in the market just four to six weeks later, in May?

Furthermore, has DWL leveraged its knowledge of “Aakash” technology to develop the “Ubislate,” its own tablet device, now being sold online to the general public? If true, was this permitted in its contract with the Ministry? Who, in fact, owns the international patent for “Aakash”?

Delays in the launch of “Aakash” have no doubt put off millions of interested people from buying this affordable tablet. But the Ministry projected “Aakash” as a tablet meant only for school students, and this is why public monies went into providing large subsidies for the project.

Many more inconsistencies and contradictions surround this project, and space constraints prevent a full discussion here. However, from the few facts and analysis that I have presented, it ought to be clear that what we have here is a monumental mess perpetrated at considerable public financial cost in the name of a project that could have been a genuinely exciting and useful one. If it is not a mess, the Ministry, which is the policymaker and manager of the “Aakash” programme, must come out immediately with a public statement clarifying this matter before Parliament and the people.

(The author is former Science Adviser to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and secretary of several major scientific departments.)

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The Datawind tablet is a great product. I recently received mine and its actually a really interesting device. I agree with Ramesh. IIT-Rajasthan and Quad have brutally dented the whole project. Media have just been focusing on everything Datawind is "not" doing and causing more chaos and uproar about their issues. Maybe the media can give a little more info on the drama IIT-Rajasthan and Quad have been playing and maybe focus on how they contributed to this mess. But naw, they just want to be biased in their own opinions.

from:  Gupta
Posted on: Jun 12, 2012 at 00:34 IST

Datawind is a great product. IIT-Rajasthan and Quad will pay for everything they have caused. Because of them datawind is having such a hard time getting back on their feet and getting the tablets to their waiting customers!

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Jun 4, 2012 at 23:57 IST

Online booking of the commercial version, UbiSlate 7+ is an automated process. In one name one can book a 100 times and one would get 100 IDs and over time 100 email to pay upfront for the deceiving "priority delivery". Upfront payments are not tagged to the online booking ID. Quoting just this online booking ID and inquiring of delivery results in request to make payment upfront. I had booked one on Feb 4, 2012 against an online booking ID of December 15, 2011. Four months have passed and their support personnel keep extending the date by 10-15 days. Now the new scheduled date is June 15th. Kapil Sibal is to be blamed for this mess for releasing an incompetent company unable to setup business in India. Kapil's patronage of this company has caused this company cheating the public of crores of rupees through payments upfront for a product, UbiSlate 7+, that has not even reached testing stage. To deceive the public more they have announced launch of UbiSlate 7C for 1k extra!

from:  gspal
Posted on: May 30, 2012 at 10:11 IST

What kind of problems should a Central Minister spend his time on? Consider this puzzle that no one has been able to solve: Indians have an amazing capacity for innovation when doing one focused thing–look at the number Nobel Prizes, the space probes, rockets and satellites, and software development – easily world class. But why is our mass-manufacturing and large scale production terribly lagging behind international standards? I have spoken to MD’s of manufacturing companies, veteran and young engineers, and midlevel managers. They admit they have no clue! This is what the Honorable Education Minister Kapil Sibal should concentrate on. Research, Education, and Training in mass production and large scale manufacturing technology – that is where India’s highest level of education should focus on – not on individual products. Indian technology is not able to convert a blue print into a mass produced product. IITs can provide excellent blueprints – not products.

from:  MUKUNDAGIRI SADAGOPAN
Posted on: May 24, 2012 at 20:29 IST

deliveries for ubislate 7+ have started. I just recieved my device
yesterday and its worth the wait.
All those who have paid in february are now recieving their devices.

from:  abhishek
Posted on: May 24, 2012 at 13:12 IST

First the 2G scam where Mr. Sibal said that there was not loss at all
to the exchequer. Mr. Kapil Sibal is confused, does not know how to set out plans, and assign time lines to them, does not look into the loopholes and other situations that might arise if "Plan A" fails to work. Does not know about patenting of ideas in order to preserve the integrity of the plans. This is not at all expected from a person who has the future of a million young minds to look after and give direction to. Please somebody ask him not to put at risk the hard earned money of the citizens of India and the expectations of the students of India on a guillotine for his improper plans, fantasies and whims to claim accolades.

from:  Manya
Posted on: May 22, 2012 at 11:44 IST

Another scam in the making. The moment I saw a 'canada' based company I began searching for an Indian CEO's name. And lo and behold I did find it. This is Tatra scam all over again. Except this is a tablet and the future of our children. But who cares about their future, as long as there is money to be made. This stinks of corruption from begining to the end.

from:  Jay
Posted on: May 22, 2012 at 08:55 IST

I too had done a booking in February to test the hype. The cheque was
debited after some weeks. But there was no acknowledgement. I started
sending mails to the customer support. But there was absolutely no
communication from Datawind. I sent a kind of warning mail to take the
matter to consumer court. There was reply after almost a month of that
mail and about 3 months of booking, asking for the cheque details for verification. I mailed back with thanks and the cheque details the
same day. Then again there is no reply even after another warning
mail. The team at Datawind are brazen enough to care a damn about what
people communicate to them. It looks they have a big (Political)
support behind them and can dare to play with public money and
sentiment without fear of consequences. This looks to have become a
common trend in our country. Their site shows that booking till June
is over.

from:  Bhabani Sankar
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 21:15 IST

A million of people booked Ubislate 7+ online . Much of people like me pay advance payment in February.A real disappointment by datawind can not deliver the product till date they avoiding delivary date time to time. If u call datawind helpline no they can not recieved your call & not revert your email . A media report said that 1 lakhs people paid advance.Datawind have found 30 crores rupee in advance i think its big amount to start a medium size form.They can not deliver the ubislate 7 on time how can he say he launch aakash 2 tabs. This is a fraud company that only make money in future i think a blacklisted company that only make money.

from:  Avadhesh kumar
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 19:49 IST

@ anupam rawat: 'Aa kaash" in Malayalam means " That Money; which is used where we mean " That money is gone!" That money was wasted from the pockets of already over-strained pockets of common man, state exchequre and from the dreams of those children who might have got bashings from their parents who lost the money for this Great Innovative Product from the 21st century Technologically Advanced India! Even Somalians are better than our ministers I guess, since they come to us telling you give us your money and live happlily with your family, else you may have to wait for them in Hell. Our Ministers dont even give us such a clue! Sibal at first once claimed that 2G spectrum losses were the fantacy of media and opposition. Yes, we are and have been fooled once again by this very minister. Hope the Wolf will not come for real in the third try, dear minister.

from:  Bibin Babu
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 19:04 IST

Aakaash has made its name as 'aa kaash' meaning 'i hope u come' in hindi. No doubt the politicians have made this like a justice denied to all the kids who were expecting this. DataWind is also making undue profits in this whole scam... they should at least close their websites and government should roll out an apology letter to people who booked this.

from:  anupam rawat
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 18:12 IST

Do you call this a sham or a scam?! Do you call it incompitancy or organized chaos to cover the real agenda? Does the parliament or people of India care to ask some pertinent questions and make the responsible pay or shrug the shoulders and resign to the fate!!? Amazing democracy!!

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 16:39 IST

Its a pity that everything the government does becomes a scam , Datawind
made a fool of everyone , they used governments "Aakash " publicity to
sell their new products named Ubislate which is an improved version of
Aakash... if the government has some credibility and responsibility to
people and students , kindly sue them ... but I do not expect anything
from this government ... from 2G to S spectrum , from common wealth
games to flats , from presidential election to tablet ,they made a
complete mockery of themselves... "God save India"

from:  krishnan
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 14:49 IST

Are we missing something here? The research and development of any new
device is not made by manufacturing 10,000 or 20,000 at a time. First
there will alpha and beta versions of the product in smaller
quantities for testing and then probably a limited release with few
hundreds may be to do real time testing. Once all these are done and
if the product comes out satisfactorily, the mass production can be
done. Why was this procedure not followed? Who needs to be accountable
for this? What is the reason for HCL to backout. If Indian companies
do not come forward with the spirit of helping our nation's growth, we
will always be at the mercy of foreign powers.

from:  Kirubakaran
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 13:55 IST

Informative article. Thank you sir. Since it is public money that was used for a novel scheme, it may be worthwhile to have CAG investigate the financial aspects of the schema. In a tough fiscal environment, the govt should not waste public money. Let us fix responsibility and accountability where it is due.

from:  Ravi S
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 12:38 IST

Akash is heading towards the fate of "Akashwani"!! Akashwani was one of the premier radio services in India ,established in a profitable market .Nowadays , it is the "private players" who rule the domain. Similarly ,when the concept of "Akash" was introduced the market was fresh and a successful "Akash" could have grabbed the market -for a low end tab. Now once again ,the product has been delayed enough for the private players to cash in. Seriously, makes us question the efficacy of governmental institutions in providing such "service oriented" products -be it BSNL ,DoorDarshan or AIR ....Now AKASH :(

from:  Ram
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 09:31 IST

A very important aspect in this entire project which is being continuously ignored is that the Govt has not bothered to fall back upon the contingency plan of roping in the bidders at L2 and L3 levels. This should have been a natural process. It clearly shows that despite the failure of the process Govt is not serious about finding an alternative. It has become the norm with our Govt to take the country and its people for granted. It is also intriguing to note that the so called opposition in the parliament has not been able to nail the Govt with the anomalies and provide a workable solution to the problem.

from:  Satish shukla
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 09:21 IST

A huge number of individuals have booked UBIslate 7+, by paying entire money in advance. Datawind has been repeatedly avoiding giving any specific date for delivery. So far not even one unit was delivered to customer. What is surprising is CEO of DWL, Mr. Tuli announcing second version. It appears to be clear case of forgery. Government on their part are announcing new dates for launch. DWL is shamelessly booking new orders. Customers must unite and should approach consumer court for violation of contract. Vijay R Shrawage

from:  Vijay R Shrawage
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 08:58 IST

policy making persons don't know the basics of economics: what is made? how is made? and who's going to consume? if government really want to help the schoolchildren than why not ministry just give money(may be in the form of scholarship) to the needy students and let them chose the tablet from the open market.

from:  hemant
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 08:12 IST

The "grown-ups" play games, and the children suffer. But it is fine for the politicians, and possibly for the contractors, because the taxpayers pay regardless. Unless, of course, enough taxpayers care about the children and their taxes someday to require that politicians accomplish something with their tax money.

from:  Edward Cherlin
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 02:10 IST
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