New Delhi: For all its much-debated status, the candy-green XO laptop—the size of a small, slim textbook—looks innocuous as it dangles from one of Satish Jha’s fingers. Jha, 51, president and chief executive officer of the Indian chapter of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), has just launched the Give One Get One campaign, in which a buyer pays the cost of two laptops (around $400, or Rs20,000), gets to keep one, and donates the other to its intended recipient: a poor school student. In various ways, OLPC, a US-based non-profit organization, has distributed nearly a million XO laptops across the world, although its involvement in India has hitherto been limited to pilot projects in five schools.

In an interview, Jha says he firmly believes in the XO—believes that, for all its reputation of being a stripped-down machine, it is actually more technologically advanced thanSony Corp.’s $3,000 Vaio sitting on his desk. Edited excerpts:

Way ahead: Satish Jha, president and CEO of the Indian chapter of One Laptop Per Child, says the XO laptop is technologically more advanced than his Sony Corp.’s $3,000 Vaio laptop. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

Well, because it has a smaller capacity, and because it’s best used in a certain environment, by kids in schools. I’m also used to my Vaio, and there’s a transition process involved. But some of my friends, professors at Berkeley (the University of California at Berkeley), have the XO as their primary laptop, and they love it.

If it has a smaller capacity, how then do you say that it’s more technologically advanced than other laptops?

It has no moving parts. Its hard disk doesn’t crash, and it has three USB ports. It has dual boot, so that I can fire up either Windows XP or an open-source operating system. It is shockproof and waterproof, and it uses just 1W of power. It has mesh networking, so it can detect another XO within a certain range and create a network right away.

What was the biggest challenge in launching the Give One Get One campaign in India compared with, say, the US or Europe?

Right now, people in India will have to order it from Amazon UK, which takes more time and involves a £50 (about Rs2,500) shipping charge. The challenge is to create a distribution outlet within the country. We need a local retailer or an organization to order, say, 100,000 or 500,000 laptops and stock them here, so that it’s easier to ship within the country.

And have you found such retailers or organizations?

We’ve talked to people, and they’re willing to move in that direction. But philosophically we’re not ready. They have to respond to our value system. If they want to make money, that doesn’t work with us. We’ve had three offers so far.

Are you apprehensive about launching this kind of scheme during such a dire economic situation?

Well, yes, it’s dampened it a bit. Yes, times are tough, and yes, there’s an impact. But if full enthusiasm results in, say, 1,000 laptops ordered, it’s not like we’ll now be getting zero. We’ll get, maybe, a few hundred, for example. I don’t think the impact will be too severe.

There’s been some criticism for trying to insert laptops into schools that lack even basic infrastructure, lack teachers, benches and textbooks…

This has been a theoretical question, I think, not a practical one. What does a child learn in primary school today? Nothing. And I’m not talking about a Doon School child, but a normal, rural school. And what do you need to learn in primary school that you can use in life anyway? Reading, writing, arithmetic, maybe some painting and music—and there are programs for all of these on the laptop. Even if a school has no teacher, this is exciting and educational… You can’t wait for piped water to come to these children before you give them computers. For all you know, it may be another hundred years before they all get piped water.

Two years ago, the ministry of human resource development said that expenditure “on a debatable scheme" such as One Laptop Per Child would be impossible to justify. What’s changed since then?

Maybe India has grown up in two years, since that statement. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme has spent $2 billion—for that amount, every child in India could have one laptop. The difference is in the numbers; India is thinking in thousands of crores now, instead of hundreds of crores. A government’s view is also not cast in concrete necessarily.

So you’ve met with a better response on this trip?

Yes, we were told by the ministry to approach the state governments, and the education secretary said he would be open to trying laptops in, say, one class, not all five. State governments are excited. We’ve already been asked by one state to start pilot programmes of 10,000 laptops each in two of its districts.