Report from the free software movement in Kerala

Three days ago, I spend a much too short time at a Free Software, Free Society conference in Kerala, which was quite an enthusiastic gathering. Equally present was Stefan Merten of Project Oekonux, who has published a report in Keimform, which I’m partially reproducing below. (see also added comments by co-organizer V. Sasi Kumar)

What struck me on the first day was the speech by Eben Moglen, lawyer of the Free Software Foundation, who basically said that “we have won”. As we have power, we now have responsibility was his main message. This may appear quite surprising, but seen from the perspective of Kerala, where the government fully supports free software and received Richard Stallman with extraordinary honours, it looked like a quite realistic assessment. The Kerala government, which mandated usage of free software by its school system, may well be the first free software state in the world. Eben Moglen went further, by positing a global axis consisting of South America, and Scandinavia. I can at least confirm that my visit in Ecuador last month, also a gathering of free software advocates of the whole continent, indeed showed it to be a thriving social movement, supported at least by the regional governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia, with healthy grassroots activities everywhere else. Richard Stallman was less upbeat than Moglen, stressing we have a long way to go, much work to do.

Another highlight for me was the meeting of an enthusiastic bunch of free software cooperative members from the other Kerala city of Kochi. I have added them to my list of similar initiatives, such as WikiOcean in Pune, and hope that somehow, they may find an international voice to stimulate the creation of similar initiatives worldwide.

What also struck me was a particular moment in the speech of Neville Roy Singham of ThoughtWorks, a leading company in agile software development using extreme programming techniques. He reminded the audience of the inaugural plenary that Henry Paulson, the same man who proposed the gigantic bailout of banks, pounded his fists on a table on a meeting with the Indian government, saying that they could not free the poor Indian farmers, 10,000 of whom commit suicide every year, of their crippling debts, as this would destroy the market economy principles. If this is true, and it really turns your stomach, it does shine a different light on the integrity of the neoliberal leadership.

Here is Stefan Merten’s report, without the bullet point summary of the Eben Moglen speech:

I’m just on the way back home from this great conference which took place in Thiruvananthapuram in the state of Kerala / India. I must say I’m really deeply impressed. I would wish that Free Software including things like Oekonux says would have that backing in Germany / Europe / industrialized countries!

Right now while we are struggling hard to find funding for our 4th conference I came to a place where the best hotel in town has been made not only the place for the conference but also gave a great temporary home for some of the speakers. That’s all possible because the state of Kerala employs an impressingly firm and decided Free Software strategy. Therefore obviously the government is ready to pay for such a conference including lunch and tea breaks and dinners…

And not only this. The Chief Minister of the State of Kerala were present during the inaugural session and addressed the audience and emphasized the necessity of Free Software and other Free knowledge resources. During the final session the chief of the opposition were present.

And if I then think of the press coverage this conference got in some standard news papers. It is really amazing! But not only the conference got news coverage. In the Sunday paper — i.e. before the conference and not related to it — there were also an article about a Free Dictionary for North-East Indian languages. They really mean it!

The conference itself was really two conferences in one. There were a technology track and a policy/culture track — though culture were not really there. I don’t know for sure but I think the conference participants also split between these two tracks. I for one attended none of the technology presentations. There were also 450+ registered participants — so it was really a rather big event.

During personal conversations I learned that in Kerala many are interested in not only the technology but also in the possible philosophical / societal meeting.

But what really amazed me most that the things Oekonux started to talk about nearly 10 years ago at least in Kerala slowly become an accepted idea. The potential of peer production is seen by many — though I still think what we do here is quite elaborated in this regard. In fact the talk I gave (which is heavily revised compared to the version I sent here) was welcomed by a couple of people afterwards.

I really would conclude that much of the potential of the whole peer production movement meanwhile moved to places like Kerala. This opinion I share for instance with Juan-Carlos (Hipatia) who also names South America here. I even thought that Thiruvananthapuram could be a place for the 5th Oekonux Conference. May be in the form of some partnership…

What also surprised me that the conference was attended by a relatively high share of women. I took a few samples and would guess about 25%. And in sharp contrast to the majority of women I see on German Free Software conferences these women were not the female part of a couple. However, the gender distribution of the speakers was as usual.

Of course there were a couple of interesting speakers including Eben Moglen, Richard Stallman, Jimmy Wales, Neville Roy Singham (ThoughtWorks). Michel Bauwens and Adam Arvidsson gave talks, too.

For me the best of all talks were the keynote of Eben Moglen. I’ll give some key aspects of it below.

First I’d like to share two things:

* Custom software is not proprietary software: Richard Stallman said that custom software — i.e. software written for a fixed customer with no plans to publish it, often created in-house — is not proprietary software. The reason is that it is not published. I found this separation quite interesting. It also reminds me of the discussions we had about the (exchange) value of software.

* What about Oekonux when there is still 50% agriculture? I mean that is not really a new question but in India it was impossible to ignore: What does Oekonux theory has to say for a country where more than 50% are still doing agriculture and even a still quite high level of subsistence economy. Good question indeed. What I understood from the talks given is that at the moment Free Software helps people to create a more transparent market — for instance by knowing the price of a certain agricultural product in the neighbor city. Well, I’d agree that in a situation like Kerala Free Software is probably better suited to do the job but then this is only a modernization step on the way to integrate in capitalism better.”

V. Sasi Kumar, one of the co-organizers of the conference, adds the following details about policy in Kerala:

The state government has announced an ICT policy that specifically promotes free software and free knowledge. It is decided that all the contents of an encyclopedia that is being published by a government-run institute will be contributed to Wikipedia. One area that has not been touched is Open Access. We are putting efforts to mandate Open Access for all publications arising from publicly funded research. PCs used by government offices are being migrated to Free Software. This is bound to take some time to complete. But all schools are already teaching Free Software exclusively up to the tenth class.”

Sasi adds that there are more longstanding historical and sociological reasons for this acceptance:

You see, Kerala has a rather long history of leftist thinking. It was one of the first regions in the world to democratically elect a communist government. But rather radical social activists lived here
even earlier, many of them from forward communities, working for uplifting lower caste people. And Kerala has always been willing to study and evaluate new ideas. Almost every world literary classic in
most world languages have been translated into the local language, Malayalam. And the quality of life here is very close to that of the developed world rather than that of India. I have wondered at the
difference between this state and even the neighbouring states, wondering what has led to such differences. For instances, this tiny state has bagged more national (and probably global) film awards than most other states, including much bigger ones. This is true in the case of literature too. I think this background has helped the state to welcome Free Software and related concepts with open arms

5 Comments Report from the free software movement in Kerala

  1. AvatarMak Ri Jo

    Hi Dude,
    Didnt you see the Windows part and the controversy that followed the conference.
    Have a look at
    This made a lot of noise on the fsf india mail list and ILUG Trivandrum. Some of the organizers like V. Sasi Kumar tried to play down it as silly and insignificant.

    The poster of the above blog was attacked heavily on internet.
    This followed article on pseudo activist from the same author.

    I think any report on this event will be complete only if you cover the incidents that followed.

  2. AvatarV. Sasi Kumar

    Hay Mak Ri,

    Thanks for bringing this matter to the International community. Yes, there was a controversy about the use of Windows in the conference. But what Mak Ri “forgot” to mention was that it was a speaker from Sun Microsystems who was giving a talk in the technical session who used a laptop with Windows. The organisers apparently did not tell the speakers in advance that they should use only Free Software. Perhaps, they did not think that any speaker would do that. The second allegation was that the PC in the stall of State Bank of India (SBI) at the exhibition organised in connection with the conference was running Windows. SBI was one of the sponsors of the conference. Some people pointed out these two issues and used the opportunity to dengrate the conference and its organisers. I am sure Michel Bauwens never saw Windows running on any machine there. The organisers admitted that they made a mistake in not telling the speakers not to use any proprietary software, and stated that they will do so next time. It is surprising that people like Mak Ri still carry this around in their minds and use it to denigrate the conference.

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Sasi:

    Thanks for your reaction. As I said, I consider this conference to be a great success and the incident described above is at best ‘minor’ in my mind.

    I actually think that a full ‘free software only’ demand would be counterproductive, and would make the free software community appear as extreme if not cultic. The important thing is to encourage people, not to make harsh demands on people who are clearly sympathetic and ‘on their way’ to using and discovering free software. If such a demand were enforced to radically, you would end up pushing people away, rather than attracting more support.


  4. AvatarMak Ri Jo

    Dear Sasi,
    you are telling a blatant lie. It is not sun micro system who used windows. A guy who took a class on java fx. He was one of the chief organizers of the conference.

  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Mak:

    Please note that we avoid personal attacks on this blog and try to use moderate language in our interactions. So, “I don’t think you are correct” is better than “you are telling a blatant lie”, even if you are convinced that this is the case. Otherwise, we go into insults flying back and forth, not into dialogue.

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