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Reality sinks Aakash tablet dream

New Delhi, March 22: India today virtually dumped its vaunted project to produce the world’s cheapest computer tablets and provide them free to its school and college students, as the gap between promise and practicability increasingly became glaring.

Human resource development minister M.M. Pallam Raju announced a freeze on his ministry’s plan to seek cabinet nod for floating tenders for the manufacture and supply of 50 lakh Aakash tablets.

He appeared to be scripting an elegy for the project: “Aakash was a very good initiative. It generated very good interest…. Let us not get obsessed with the hardware.”

The Rs 2,276 tablet had been touted as India’s answer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s One Laptop Per Child programme, whose computers cost more than twice as much, and was meant to showcase the country’s genius in “frugal innovation”.

World leaders had lavished praise on the audacious effort that promised to revolutionise a struggling education system from the grassroots. The name, Aakash, appeared to suggest that the sky was the limit for a poor nation that had emerged as an information technology “super power”.

But NRI-promoted Canadian firm DataWind, which was to manufacture and supply the initial 100,000 tablets by March 31, got overwhelmed by the project and went into the red by last year-end after supplying just 20,000.

The fiasco has cast doubt on the whole idea that small companies contracted by the Indian government can succeed where even China’s technology manufacturers might fear to tread given the price stipulated. This realisation, officials said, was behind the latest decision.

Raju’s cautious answer to the obvious question — whether the project was dead — was: “Today, devices are changing. Technology is changing so much. Prices have come down. We leave it to the market.”

He claimed the Aakash project had changed the market, bringing down prices. “Because the Aakash initiative was taken, so many others got into it (making cheap computers).... So, the prices have come down. So, even if the supply of Aakash fails, there are others who have come into the market,” Raju said.

Under the ministry’s original plans, local manufacturers would have been given preference in the contracts for 50 lakh tablets, which were to be distributed among schools, colleges and universities at further subsidised prices.

Sources said the students were not supposed to pay for the tablets but to borrow them from the institutions. By freezing the plan, the ministry is now practically asking the students to buy computers from the market, where similar tablets now cost about Rs 8,000.

The Aakash was developed by scientists from Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, under a ministry programme called NMICT. “We are reviewing the NMICT scheme,” higher education secretary Ashok Thakur said.