Microsoft and the Art of Notional Accounting

In September 2011, sflc.in came across a news item reporting a decision by the Government of Punjab torevise their decision to implement BOSS Linuxand to instead opt for Microsoft Windows. We had barely rejoiced properly the news which had appeared earlier in the year on February, 2011, about the use of BOSS in the ICT program for students et Voila! Here was a 180 degrees turn in the policy within a span of seven months. The newspaper item insinuated the transfer of IAS officers in charge of the Department of Education as the triggering point in the turn of events in this staged dramedy.

Through a series of applications filed under the Right to information Act, sflc.in obtained theminutes of the meetingin which the decision to switch over was effected.

The minutes bring to light an "honest" request by Microsoft’s directorial brigade with heads of education, marketing and public sector for a meeting with the Principal Secretary of Education, Punjab, post the announcement of their decision to use Edu BOSS in the Edusat Computer labs and Computer labs for providing computer education and training . And here our naivete had made us believe that all options must have already been considered and weighed before the decision to use BOSS was made in February by the then Chief Secretary to the Government of Punjab regarding the purchase of Operating Systems.

As per theminutes of the meeting, a director from Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) was also present in the meeting who did not wish to make any presentation as they had already submitted the necessary documents and nothing additional was required. However, he objected to the statement that "the states of U.P., Tamil Nadu, Assam had shifted back to Microsoft after using "Open Source". "Facts" in support of these bald statements were provided within two months in another meeting. Further, since only recent tenders and contracts were to be awarded to Microsoft, it did not seem to merit any further objections.

To quote this piece of poetry

"There was deliberation on the trend of reverting back to MS platform, to which CDAC representatives have told that their system is very new as compared to Microsoft to which Microsoft mentioned that the trend was on OSS/Linux which has been prevalent for the last 10 years and still there are switchovers (sic) happening now. MS representatives informed that prices offered for the purpose of school education are highly discounted as compared to prices available commercially" .

Providing cheaper software for "education" has been often used tactic to get children to follow the cult.

In fact, the data provided and recorded with respect to the switchovers (sic) in various states talks about tender documents wherein specific tenders demanding Microsoft's various products are made but no evidence of the so called switchover (sic) was to be found. Although, a brief statement about each state concludes with a qualifier that "However, [INSERT STATE NAME] never opted for EBOSS"

CDAC made a submission highlighting Government of Rajasthan's use of Debian along with Microsoft (sic) but these assertions did not carry much weight with the authorities.

The Committee headed by the Principal Secretary, School Education, Punjab reached the following conclusion.

" The above documents pertains to demand of Microsoft Windows in the recent tenders and support the contention that following states have shifted back to Microsoft from open source which was earlier dealing with open source and now they have demanded Microsoft (sic)"

The meeting also recorded Tamil Nadu ELCOT's decision about which we recently saw a report at tehelka.com here.

The following excerpts from the minutes makes one wonder at how could high level Government officials arrive at such conclusions without any factual data:

"Microsoft products are built on principles of interoperability and open standards and hence offer greater compatibility and tighter integration amongst offerings".

"Students will even go abroad where they will have to work on Microsoft operating system. Those who study E-Boss shall find lot of difficulties and cut a sorry figure when the employer would ask them that he needs a person having expertise on Microsoft Windows"(sic)"

"As a result it was decided that EBOSS may be installed in the Edusat labs of 2 districts as a pilot project and Microsoft operating system in the remaining 18 districts."

The part of the minutes that flummoxed us was a cost comparison chart between Microsoft and EduBOSS which is a masterpiece in fudging costs. The chart has an ingenious entry called "Wastage because of non-continuing Microsoft". The conclusion of the comparison is that "there will be a notional increase in expenditure of Rs.796.00 lakhs (I.e, Rs. 1581 - Rs.785 lakhs). Of this figure of Rs.1581 lakhs, Rs.1443 lakhs is the "notional" wastage "because of non-continuing Microsoft". An amount of Rs.138 lakhs (which itself is questionable as the software is distributed free of cost) budgeted for implementing EduBOSS is thus inflated many times to a mind-boggling Rs.1581 lakhs to justify implementation of Microsoft Windows

sflc.in filed another RTI application to get more details on this, especially as to how the "notional" expenditure was derived. As expected, the Punjab ICT Education Society chose toavoid our questions on this calculation. However, we couldprocure a copy of the lettersent by Mr J.S. Bhatia, Executive Director, CDAC, Mohali, Punjab. The letter emphasises that huge efforts in terms of time and money were spent in implementing EduBOSS in educational institutions in the state. The letter clarifies that even course books had been prepared for this. In the first RTI reply, in response to our query on the cost incurred in installing BOSS and printing text books, it was stated that "the department has not spent any cost for installing BOSS in schools (sic)". The department has chosen to ignore the amount incurred by the Department of Information technology and CDAC for implementing BOSS.

The decision of the Punjab Government to reverse the decision to implement EduBOSS is clearly a retrograde step and involves huge loss of money for the Exchequer. One is forced to wonder why can't an organization of Government of India sell its own products to State Governments or was it a bad sales job or was it something else?

The Government should reconsider this decision as the money saved could be utilised in improving the infrastructure of the schools in the state. Moreover, free software offers students the freedom to enable students to tinker with the software to study it and improve upon it which is not possible with proprietary software. This is highly important if the education system has to foster innovation.