Instead of reaching the sky, Aakash ends up six feet below

The Wire
July 15, 2015

Once at the centre of the Indian government’s half-baked schemes to make classrooms tech-savvy, the Aakash project wound down quietly in March 2015, an RTI has revealed. The project envisaged lakhs of school and engineering students armed with a tablet each, sold at Rs.1,130 courtesy the government, from which they partake of their lessons, access digitised textbooks and visualise complicated diagrams. Lofty as these goals were, the project was backed by little public infrastructure and much less coordination, resulting in almost no traction despite being punctuated regularly with PR ops.

The project was conceived in 2011 by the UPA-2 government to parallel the One Laptop Per Child program, forgetting conveniently that the latter worked only in small Uruguay and for unique reasons. Anyway, a British-Canadian company named DataWind was contracted to manufacture the tablets, which the government would then purchase for Rs.2,263 and subsidise so as to retail them at Rs.1,130.

However, the second version, whose development was led by IIT-Bombay and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, released in November 2012 bordered on the gimmicky. It had 512 MB RAM, a 7” screen, a 1 GHz processor and, worst of all, a battery that lasted all of three hours even as a full day at school typically spanned seven. Even so, the government announced that 50 lakh such tablets would be manufactured and that 1 lakh teachers would be trained to use it. In March 2013, then Union HRD Minister Pallam Raju called it the government’s “dream project”.

But what really crippled the program was not the operational delays or logistical failures but the Central government’s lackadaisical assumption that placing a tablet in a student’s hands would solve everything. For example, it was advertised that Aakash would be a load off children’s backs, eliminating the need to lug around boatloads of books. However, the NCERT didn’t bother to explain which textbooks would be digitised first – or at all – and when they’d be available. Similarly, the low-income households whose younger occupants the tablets targeted didn’t have access to regular electricity let alone an Internet connection. What the tablets would ultimately do was become, for those who couldn’t afford to maintain and use them, a burden.

The Aakash train on the other hand was on rails of its own. By November 2011, DataWind had shipped 6,440 devices but only 650 were found good enough to sell. Nonetheless, in January 2013, IIT-Bombay announced it was starting work on Aakash 3, and by July the same year had skipped to working on the fourth iteration. Then, in September 2013, the CAG alleged that IIT-Rajasthan, which had handled the Aakash project in 2011, had been awarded the project arbitrarily, received Rs.47.42 crore without any prior feasibility checks, and overran its budget by Rs.1.05 crore. However, this did nothing to slow things down.

The biggest beneficiary was DataWind, the air in its bellows blown by the Central government’s fantasy of arming itself with the same cargo that Western institutions sported. Between December 2013 and July 2014, the company was able to announce three new models in the Rs.4,000-7,000 price range, introduce one for the UK priced at ₤30, raised Rs.168 crore in an IPO, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and got on the MIT Tech Review’s 50 smartest tech companies of 2014 list for breaking “the price barrier”.

The RTI application that revealed Aakash had been wound down also received the reply that the project had achieved all its objectives: of procuring one lakh devices, testing them and establishing 300 centres in engineering colleges – speaking nothing of the more ostentatious goal of linking 58.6 lakh students across 25,000 colleges and 400 universities through an ‘e-learning’ program. The reply also stated that specifications for a future device had been submitted to the MHRD. Whether the project will be revived by the ruling BJP government later is unknown.

And on that forgettable note of uncertainty, one of the more misguided digital-India schemes comes to a close.