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Indian students in some states to get free laptops, rekindling the PC market

Ironically,  political parties in states do for electoral gain, what the Central government   should have done as its duty

By  Anand ParthasarathyLucknow & Bangalore, January 26 2013: Large orders by India’s state governments to meet election promises to provide free laptops to students,  have come to the rescue of a sluggish PC market and are creating new leaders in the business.Earlier this week, the government in the most populous state – Uttar Pradesh --  cleared an order for 1.5 million  laptops each costing just under Rs 20,000 ( US$ 400) .

The laptops would be given  free, to every student in the state who passes  the Class XII examination.  The order is worth Rs 28.58 billion. Fuelled by Intel Pentium  2 GHz Dual Core or equivalent AMD Processor the  14 inch  HD LED laptops have been specified to come with with   2 GB of  memory, a 500 GB hard disk, web cam,  DVD drive, graphics card, with dual Windows 7 and Ubuntu OS.  The  laptops will have  tools in  three languages:English, Hindi and Urdu.   The 331 services centres, alone  mandated by the  order on HP will generate jobs for  2000 engineers, estimates the Times of India.The UP government has also put out a tender for the supply of  2.6 million tablets to be provided free to Class X leavers.

In late 2011, the state government of Tamil Nadu,   delivered on its own pre-election promise and  awarded contracts for the supply of  just under a million laptops. The largest chunk of this procurement—   around 380,000 was from Lenovo, with Acer, HCL,Wipro  and RP Infosystems  also supplying slightly smaller quantities. Even quantities like these can completely change the dynamics of  the Indian PC  market where hardly 10-12 million PCs ( laptop and desktop) are sold in any year.  Said Gartner in August 2012: Execution of a substantial part of the Tamilnadu government order – part of an election promise to supply laptops to students -- very aggressive price points and increased channel activities helped Lenovo’s PC shipments grow 86 percent and retain its No. 1 postion in the second quarter of 2012. ( IndiaTechOnline story)

The IT@School Project of Government of Kerala also  launched a programme 2 years ago,  to provide laptops and netbooks to 50,000 teachers in the State, at almost a third of market rates, thanks to a bulk deal. The Project negotiated for the procurement of 10,000 laptops and 18,000 netbooks through a national tendering process undertaken by its service provider KELTRON. It  finally chose HCL, Wipro and RPInfo – all indigenous brands. (IndiaTechOnline story)

 The substantially larger order bagged by HP  this year may see it  regain the top spot in the Indian laptop league, a spot it ceded to Acer and Lenovo in recent years. In fact government orders routinely represent just under one-fourth of all PC sales in India and are now  seemingly in a position to make  or break  the industry – hopefully the latter.

The irony is, most of these student friendly PC initiatives have been launched by state governments with the  hardnosed objective of winning elections. There was a  time when the promise of heavily subsidised food grain alone was seen as a sure fire vote getter. Now political parties, attuned to  the upwardly mobile ambitions of middle class voters and the fiercely competitive academic maidan or  playground, see laptops and tablets as more attractive electoral freebies.

The central government  has so far remained blissfully   unmindful of this garam hava or hot  wind, of public  aspiration  -- and  far  from launching  digital divide- bridging  initiatives of its own, has in fact  gone into cynical reverse gear,  overturning many  a  fiscal  concession  (like the  zero import duty on software ) and has made the  tax element of a laptop, notebook, or tablet a significant  barrier to affordability.

 The Finance Minister   these days, does not make even the obligatory hollow  reference to fuelling  empowerment through IT in the   annual budget speech.  He will be back in  that role in just a month. It remains to be seen if the  initiative  ( admittedly self-serving, but nevertheless innovative)  shown by  state governments – mostly  ruled by parties in opposition – in e-nabling the grassroots education system, will shame  him and  his government into doing likewise. But it is unlikely, since there are no political dividends or brownie points to be won.  
The promise of empowering every Indian citizen with access to information through the Internet -- and by implication, through affordable  personal connectivity technology --   underpinned Indian policy till the turn of the century. Now it is just one more in a long line of  forgotten promises,  quietly dumped under the excuse of general fiscal  tightness.
So we have  this  bizarre spectacle: In India today,   the young get free notebooks and tablets  because they are seen as  vote getters,  at election time, nothing more.