New Delhi: Aakash, the $45 tablet PC promoted by the ministry of human resource development (HRD), is mired in controversy three months after it was launched as a tool that would enable India to bridge the digital divide. The ministry is dissatisfied by the first field trials on the device made by Canada-based DataWind Ltd, and has decided to order fresh tests with an upgraded version of Aakash and a larger sample size, Mint reported on 14 January. Some news reports have suggested the project may be shelved or put on hold. Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive of DataWind, spoke about the project in an interview. Tuli, who uses a Toshiba laptop and a Samsung phone, says the Indian government doesn’t have the copyright to the product and the company is free to sell it in the market. Edited excerpts:
How true are reports that the project might be shelved?
What is the credence and the basis of that allegation? India works today in an RTI (the Right to Information) environment, so everybody should have access to it. It’s a non-issue to me.
The product has been facing a lot of flak for its allegedly poor performance. Please comment.
The government had given specifications for the product in the tender; according to it, and above those specifications, we created a product and delivered on it. We had government-recognized national labs, and international labs test the product and confirm its quality. We also recognized that the product will not meet everybody’s needs and may not be the optimal product; for that reason, we created a product road map. We gave them recommendations regarding better touchscreen and processor, etc., but I guess they will be taken into account in the next tender.
Suneet Singh Tuli (Satish Kaushik/Mint)
Three months after the launch, there are new specifications for Aakash. Will you be able to meet these?
IIT (Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur), Rajasthan, has come out with a tender where they have asked for a rugged laptop. These standards are the same which are for the HP (Hewlett-Packard Co.) rugged laptop, which is sold in India for upwards of Rs 1 lakh. This can withstand rain for four days, a jeep can pass over it and nothing will happen to it. So, you can’t put that laptop and a product which you are trying to make in Rs 2,000 in the same category. After 10 months of the tender, if you expect that those specifications will be met, it is not fair. That is our objection to it, we have explained to them and we are hoping that they will reconsider it. By these criteria, Aakash will fail. You don’t have to even bother testing it.
Your agreement with IIT-Jodhpur is for 100,000 devices. After that, you will not be dealing with it. Is it true?
Yes. The national mission for rural ICT is running another tender with some other agency, and we will deal with whoever does it. If we win, we will provide more devices. But I expect to win.
(The reference is to the National Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology, meant to benefit rural areas.)
At the time of the launch, it was said that after the first 10 million units, the price point will become $35. When DataWind did not have a visibility beyond 100,000 units, why did you make a commitment about 10 million?
The government targeted 10 million; right now we don’t have a price of $35. Currently, we are not even at $45, but at $49.98. The government’s target was 10 million.
How many have they procured so far?
It is 10,000 units so far. After this test criteria issue is sorted, we will figure it out.
What were the initial deadlines?
When the tender was released, 100,000 units had to be shipped in six months after the letter of credit got established. We go it on 1 June. But we also asked for some more extension because of the Telangana strikes (in Andhra Pradesh). So it was extended by middle of February. We said that we will supply 100,000 units, but allow us to upgrade the product to a bigger battery and a better processor.
But why did you want to upgrade the ministry order when you were not asked for it?
Because my reputation is at stake.
But you supplied 20,000 units in the local market with the same specifications. If a product has to reach the end of its life in two months, why release it in the market in the first place?
You have to ask this question to the users who bought it. It’s not that we didn't tell them that the next version will be released. We told them specifically that what is the difference between Aakash and the next version Ubislate 7+. There was a lot of criticism that the product has not come in the market. There were things being said that “it is a government scam”. So, in response to the criticism we released a small inventory in the market to show that the product is available.
Why have you stopped at 10,000 for the government order?
The reason is the test criteria. It does not make sense that we supply something and it does not meet their expectations. They will not accept more devices (unless the test criteria are met).
As of now, what is your deadline?
Aakash is a product of the human resource development (HRD) ministry. It claims to have put some six years of effort into it. How can you derive commercial benefits from it? Have you got permission to sell Aakash in the open market?
This is a product we have designed, developed and manufactured. What role the IIT played in it, ask them. The question needs to be asked that if it’s a copyright product, then why did it (government) give the order to DataWind.
Are you getting commercial mileage out of the government’s endorsement?
There should be not be a problem. We have exhibited the product. For us, the HRD ministry (order) is just a big order. We had discussions and the ministry had no objection to it. They are very aware that we will sell it in the market. If this is the issue, then ask them to put it in the next tender that those who will supply to them will not sell it in the market.
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