In its technology statement, Aadhaar, the massive Government of India project that seeks to enrol citizens, puts on record its commitment to using open technological standards. However, the government of Kerala — the only State that mandates the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in governance — recently found that the client enrolment software used is only compatible with Windows, the proprietary operating system owned by Microsoft.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) mandates that all ‘middleware' used in Aaadhaar must be vendor neutral. However, by using software that is only Windows-compliant, UID applications have already established a clear vendor lock-in. In Kerala, which has embraced open platforms, this is a vexatious issue because Virtual Device Managers – that provide an interface for applications to devices such as biometric devices – are not Linux-compatible.
Speaking to The Hindu, Ashok Dalwai, Deputy Director-General, UIDAI, said this is a “Kerala-specific issue.” He confirmed that all enrolment software is “purely for the Windows platform.” “For now, we have asked Kerala to go ahead with laptops with Windows. Our developers will work towards Linux compliance later.”
However, public agencies implementing Aadhaar in Kerala find this unacceptable because it violates the State's FOSS policy. Kerala is slated to implement the project in November. The three enrolment agencies — IT@Schools, Keltron and the Akshaya project are all government agencies — use only Linux operating systems. Prior to the first training session conducted in Bangalore mid-October, the agencies wrote to the UIDAI regional office in Bangalore pointing out difficulties in complying with a Windows-only regime.
“It is highly embarrassing and disappointing to see that proprietary applications are necessary, at least to start with,” says Anvar Sadath, executive director, IT@Schools. He emphasises that this is not a debate that pits Kerala versus UIDAI. “It has larger implications for a ‘knowledge society.' Can we imagine a situation where we revert to proprietary vendors to provide necessary upgradation/support to the data repository of over one billion people?” he asks. Besides, FOSS operating systems/applications offer huge cost-advantages, thereby saving precious public money (by using FOSS, IT@Schools alone saves up to Rs. 11 crore per year). Mr. Sadath insists that vendors be forced to develop/manage the necessary plug-ins or drivers for Linux support.
“This must be included in all tenders floated by the agency.”
FOSS activists find the proposal to “migrate to Linux later” unacceptable. Says Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum: “This is doubly problematic as it would drive an organisation [in Kerala] which is on an open platform to a closed platform, harming their own work. It also violates the UIDAI's declared policy.”
He believes that in the hurry to politically show results, UIDAI should not land up on closed platforms at the cost of policy and long-term goals.