Contractual dispute brings down Aakash

Written by Jyotsna Bhatnagar | Kirtika Suneja | Ahmedabad/New Delhi | Updated: Jan 14 2012, 07:25am hrs
Aakash, the governments ambitious $50 tablet project for students, has hit a roadblock with the supplier of the gadget, London-based Datawind, running into a dispute with IIT Rajasthan, the nodal agency for implementing the project. Datawind says it has sold out the old version of the tablet and new orders will be taken only for upgraded machines.

The Aakash project, unveiled by human resource development minister Kapil Sibal in October, has been a non-starter owing to the dismal performance of the pilot tablets distributed among students, according to an analyst.

Speaking to FE, a top official of the HRD ministry closely associated with the project admitted a new dispute has emerged between Datawind and IIT Rajasthan, but refused to elaborate. Another official clarified to FE that there were no problems with the machines already distributed. IIT Rajasthan wants the delivery by March 31 but Datawind says that it will now give an upgraded version of the instrument. We will see if these issues are reconcilable or not, he said.

When contacted, Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli said: We put a sold-out sign on the basic Aakash tablet a month back and indicated to the market that version is at the end of its life, and the next generation will be with upgraded features He, however, said this was not a new stand taken by the company as this product enhancement was announced during the October launch. There is no indication that the project will be shelved, he said.

Sources say that Datawind and ministry officials will meet on Monday to discuss the matter.

When the idea of producing an affordable tablet for students was first mooted by the HRD minister in July 2010, the government had indicated that 100,000 tablets would be available in the market within two months, Subsequent to that, when the formal announcement was made in October last year along with 500 prototypes being distributed on a pilot basis, Sibal had said that the device would be available in the market within two months. That date too was postponed to March 31 and as things stand now, it is unclear when Aakash tablets will be available in the market.

According to a source, Datawind had committed it would supply 30,000 tablets as per the old specifications and 70,000 as per the new specifications formalised after the trial run. Datawind has now communicated to us its inability to deliver these as per the March 31 deadline, the ministry official revealed. However, he hastened to add that the glitches now being faced were routine contractual issues which can occur in any tie-up.

Interestingly, though Aakash has been beset with problems ever since it was conceived, the HRD ministry has been keeping in abeyance the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has been available to it for the past four years under the pretext of creating an even cheaper computer than OLPC's $100 triple operating system laptop. Aakash was developed as part of the ministry's aim to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in an e-learning programme. Originally projected as a $35 laptop, the device will be sold to the government at $50 and will be distributed at a government-subsidised price of $35. A commercial version of Aakash is currently marketed as UbiSlate 7+ at a price of $60.

Satish Jha, CEO, OLPC India, said: I advised Mr Sibal very clearly not to go for anything which is not proven or stable. Any new product is bound to have unknown challenges and it would take a couple of years to stabilise them.

Commenting on the viability of Aakash, Jha said: While OLPC India fully supports the HRD ministry's aspiration of a cheaper computer for students, OLPC should be seen as a complete offering including hardware, software, all applications and networking for education. Combining all these costs, OLPC laptops turn out to be cheaper than any other computer even if it was priced at zero dollars. Moreover, the OLPC laptops have been around for four years and are in the hands of 3 million children in more than 45 countries and have made a transformational difference in the lives of children using them.

The question is not of device but education, he added. Today, given the status of technologies, it is not possible to create a meaningful computer below the cost of OLPC laptops.

Pertinently, though the Centre has been stonewalling OLPC's forays, the governments of Kerala, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had already ordered OLPC laptops totalling more than 400,000 for introduction in their primary and middle schools while Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have evinced interest in procuring the PCs subject to the Centre's contribution.