Free software communists

Richard Stallman and the Kerala model of development

Published August 30, 2006 11:48PM (EDT)

Richard Stallman must be sleeping well this week. Eight years ago, I accompanied the free software pioneer on a visit to the Bill Gates-funded computer science building on the Stanford campus. To get in we had to pass through an entrance that sported the Microsoft founder's name engraved on high. Stallman gave Bill the finger, and then tried to convince some passersby that they should likewise flip Bill off. They looked at him like he was crazy.

Crazy like a fox. This week, the New York Times reported that the Communist state government of Kerala, India, "is campaigning to eliminate Microsoft from use in public institutions." The government wants state-funded entities, such as public schools, to switch to free software, such as Linux-based operating systems. And guess what? Richard Stallman was very much involved.

Stallman has been pushing free software in India for years. In 2001 he chose Kerala as the headquarters for the Indian affiliate of the Free Software Foundation, the nonprofit he founded to promote software that users can freely copy and modify. Not long after the socialist Left Democratic Front won control of Kerala's state assembly in May 2006, he was back, lobbying the government with his trademark indefatigability. A few weeks ago, the government banned Coca-Cola and Pepsi, on the grounds that an environmental watchdog had found high levels of pesticides in the products. Now it's tackling Microsoft.

But just as it is no accident that Kerala's Communists are pushing free software, so too is it no coincidence that Stallman chose Kerala. Kerala first elected Communists to political power in 1956, and has long led the rest of India -- and indeed, most of the developing world -- when measured by such standards as literacy, healthcare, longevity and low infant mortality. For decades, the so-called Kerala model of development won plaudits around the world as a demonstration of how an extremely poor society could nonetheless achieve a high standard of living.

That model has its detractors, including those who argue that Kerala's high unemployment and chronic budget deficits are signs of a malfunctioning welfare state that won't be able to maintain its way of life under the pressures of globalization. The rest of India is supposedly gaining on it. It is a classic conundrum. Kerala's citizens are educated, but jobs are scarce. Kerala's men and women live long lives, but that puts ever more pressure on public health budgets.

Kerala's citizens are also highly politicized: Strikes are a common feature of life, and the masses will join a new campaign at the drop of a hat. But according to writer Bill McKibben, "the various campaigns and protests seem a sign of self-confidence and political vitality, a vast improvement over the apathy, powerlessness, ignorance, or tribalism that governs many Third World communities."

Keralans have been looking for different paths forward for decades, if not centuries. Is it any wonder that they are willing to experiment with free software? There are no guarantees that it will work, but it's got to be worth a try.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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