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Devangshu Datta: Aakash's the limit

Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

In October 2011, when Aakash launched, I expressed doubts about the device’s quality, and also about the government’s ability to develop and deliver a mass-adoption device. Readers castigated me for unpatriotic doubts and some accused me of being paid by rival tablet makers.

The government placed an initial order of 100,000 Aakash tablets. Manufacturer Datawind said it would deliver 8-10 million units by March 2012. As of now, Datawind has delivered 30,000 units, some of which have been rejected.

The GoI has asked for an upgrade to a new version (Aakash2) for the next 70,000 units. Aakash2 will launch by April 2012. The public-sector Indian Telephone Industries has been pulled in as an alternate supplier. The R&D skills of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Rajasthan have been supplemented with that of three more IITs. The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry has also announced it will indigenise while rolling out 220 million units.

Instead of a cost $35-50/unit (Rs 1,700-2,500) equivalent for Aakash1, the estimates for Aakash2 range between $60 (Rs 3,000) and $100 (Rs 5,000). The government will keep it subsidised or even free. Economies of scale count, and 220 million is a huge number. Globally, 67 million tablets were sold in 2011.

So, the HRD ministry targets subsidising roughly three times current global volume. If we assume a price of $50/unit (Rs 2,500), that could work out to a total spend of Rs 55,000 crore. Just for comparison, the entire 2011 HRD ministry budget was Rs 52,000 crore.

The global electronic components industry is located in East Asia. It took the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Chinese and Thai electronic component industries an average of 10 to 15 years, with full government support, to achieve their current scales. Even allowing for the fabled efficiency of India’s public sector, it will be challenging to hit the projected scale in a meaningful time frame.

The specs of Aakash2 are already obsolete. Low-end cellphones already have faster processors and memory. Processors double in power every 18 to 24 months. So Aakash may need multiple upgrades before the 220 million rollout completes. India has little competency in chip design and this means a major R&D effort.

I will commit the sin of being unpatriotic all over again and doubt the ability to achieve this. There are reasons of comparative advantage, which explain why India doesn’t already possess these skill sets and capacities. Perhaps a push from the HRD ministry will be sufficient to overcome this?

However, Aakash wasn’t really supposed to be about giving the Indian electronics industry a leg-up. It was about bridging the digital divide and e-enabling education. There are less convoluted, and perhaps far more efficient, ways to do that.

Regardless of hardware, there is an imperative to focus on developing free educational content that is platform-independent, and widely accessible. There is also a need to train teachers to handle such content. As of now, even standard CBSE and NCERT textbooks aren’t available in e-editions. I haven’t yet seen any Budgetary estimates, or tenders from HRD, to address the content gap.

Instead of spending resources on a device that is behind the curve before its launch, the GoI could just offer a flat cash subsidy to students to buy any tablet of choice, to access educational content (that it hasn’t yet developed). There are multiple available options.

Unbranded Taiwanese and Chinese tablets (with specs like Aakash2) are available from $40 up. The new solar-cum-hand crank powered device from the One Laptop Per Child project (which the GoI abandoned) is priced at $100. A certain telecom service provider (who is sadly not paying me!) has announced the intention to offer 4G access via a Rs 4,000 tablet.

However, none of these common-sense options is grandiose enough. The GoI will bash on regardless with its commitment. Huge amounts will be spent, either on delivering a crippled device or, perhaps, on not delivering anything, if there are further procurement issues. Either way, the digital divide will not be bridged.

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First Published: Sat, February 11 2012. 00:40 IST