India's US$35 Touchscreen Tablet Circus

It was a project of great national pride - to beat the rest of the world to an affordable touchscreen tablet for online education delivery. Touted in 2009 by Kapil Sibal, then Minister of Human Resource Development as India's low-cost US$35 tablet breakthrough for students, the Aakash made headlines around the world.

The Aakash is now making headlines for failure.

DataWind, the company that pitched the idea to Kapil, received 1.4 million prepaid orders by February 2012. But instead of delivering promptly, DataWind offered 'rebates' for its higher-priced US$77 and US$96 UbiSlate 7 models, angering consumers who refused to take the up-sell bait. Many who did receive their US$35 Aakash found its screen awkward, its battery life too short and with annoying glitches. Many more were left angry with neither tablet nor cash.

Although DataWind secured the tender for 100,000 units for subsidized distribution to schools, the company's second deadline passed at the end of March after it missed its December shipment date. Only 20,000 have been supplied so far - a shortfall of 80 percent on a globally publicized government breakthrough claim.

Suneet Singh Tuli CEO of DataWind blamed India Customs' verification process for the delay in delivery. Declaring his commitment to the Indian hi-tech industry, Tuli claimed that "In addition to the four new Indian manufacturing partners for the Aakash 2 tablets, DataWind has also set up India's first touch-screen lab in Amritsar." He reiterated that the outstanding units for the HRD tender are being readied for shipment to the Indian Instititute of Technology in Bombay - the executing agency.

The made-in-China Aakash

Another embarrassment occurred when President Pranab Mukherjee officiated at a high-profile presentation of the Aakash last November, puffed with national pride. The new HRD minister, Pallam Raju, and minister of state Shashi Tharoor beamed alongside him. But then India Ink, a news website owned by the New York Times, reported on Nov. 26 that its investigations into the Aakash found the units had actually been sourced from four Chinese manufacturers. Telephone and email checks by India Ink with the Chinese firms confirmed that components and assembly of the hardware were executed there.

Suneet Singh Tuli told India Ink that "for expediency sake we had the motherboards and kits manufactured in our Chinese subcontractor's facilities, and then the units have been 'kitted' in China at various manufacturers," Tuli said the assembly, and programming was done at DataWind's lab in Amritsar and in Delhi.

New minister reviews Aakash project

Minister Sibal's successor at HRD, Pallam Raju, has appointed two review committees to report on the project and DataWind - pending a new tender deferred from February for 5 million units. One committee is headed by Prof Goverdhan Mehta who is chairman of the board of governors at IIT Jodhpur and the other is headed by NIIT Chairman Rajendra Pawar. Prof Mehta's report has reportedly been submitted to the ministry which is waiting for Rajendra Pawar's before deciding which way to turn on the embarrassment.

IIT Jodhpur was originally charged with supervising the DataWind contract. However the Jodhpur tech guardians squabbled with Datawind over testing procedures and specifications, with bitter recriminations following between the vendor and the testing institution. The HRD ministry under Kapil Sibal intervened to switch technical supervision to IIT Bombay and to referee the contract.

Pallam Raju, however, is shifting thinking away from obsessing with hardware manufacture. The new HRD minister prefers to focus on the education content eco-system and 'last-mile' connectivity for students and teachers to access via tablets. There are a range of tablets at the US$35 price point now as hardware components get cheaper, giving consumers better screen quality, battery life and reliability.

The HRD minister feels students should be able to decide freely which tablet to buy while the ministry focuses on connectivity and availability of content as its mission.

"Aakash will enable you to access content," Raju said. "But there are others which have come up...Students will pick whatever serves their purpose better and is affordable. Developing the product as content is an ongoing exercise. Production of the hardware is where the project failed."

Netizens scathing in cyber-chatter

Meanwhile the cyber-chatter on the Aakash has been vicious, ranging from dismay at using the IITs as "testing labs for junk products" to describing Kapil Sibal as a serial scam-master for the Congress Party. He was the minister in charge of the Telecoms ministry when the 2G scandal surfaced. He dismissed the massive losses to the government as 'nominal' although India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) assessed a 'presumptive loss' to the treasury of US$33 billion.

At his prior science and technology portfolio, Kapil had a grand vision to build a database of 500,000 Indians resident in the US. A CAG report implicated him in favoring a particular company for the tender to build the database. Payments were made but the project was abandoned "with only 16 percent of the work completed."

Kapil is now lodged at the communications and information technology ministry where his refusal to remove Article 66A of the Information Technology Act used to arrest two schoolgirls for complaining on Facebook about the shutdown of Mumbai on the death of Bal Thackeray*, led to activists hacking his personal website in November 2012 to post this message: "Born with a below-60 IQ he thought he could mess with the Internet and let his party suppress freedom of speech."

*Bal Thackeray was a xenophobic champion of ethnocentric exclusivity for Maharashtra state against what he saw as an invasion of immigrants from Bihar, Rajasthan and South India. He founded the Shiv Sena as a political party and organized goons to terrorize 'foreigners' who applied for jobs at Maharashtra institutions. He wielded such influence of terror that actors, politicians and businessmen paid homage at his funeral which brought Mumbai to a standstill. He is on public record as an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

(Cyril Pereira is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel)