Monday, March 12, 2012
Slum kids in Bengaluru are learning important lessons in freedom and equality by using free software

For a city full of shopping malls, big glass offices and stylish cars, Bengaluru easily represents India's best place for the upwardly mobile. No wonder the divide between haves and have nots also plays out more intensely here with the additional emphasis on digital literacy. But, information technology is also a great leveller which is why when debates on file formats, office suites and bandwidths spill out of a 10x12 community room at the city's Sudharshan Layout slum settlement, you can see hope logging in.

For three days in a week, volunteers from the city's IT industry guide slum kids through the maze of softwares, dashboards and domain names using donated laptops, digital cameras and an Internet dongle. That they only use free software is another deliberate attempt at a more equal world.

Installing hope, upgrading lives

The centre, supported by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), has so far taught 40 students basic GNU/Linux skills, Open/Libre office besides image and graphics softwares. "We use free software to bring home the idea of equality and freedom. Besides teaching computer skills, we also touch upon the issues of caste and gender discrimination. Also, we emphasise that free software does not mean subsidy for the poor. It's about freedom from copyright. The focus is on freedom and equality offered by the community software as compared to corporate ware," says Balaji Kutty, an IT professional and board member of SFLC who also teaches at the centre.

We use free software to bring home the idea of equality and freedom. Also, we emphasise that free software does not mean subsidy for the poor. It's about freedom from copyright.

V Mani was in Class IX when he joined the centre. Overcoming his physical disability, he went on to learn graphic art using Open Source tool GIMP and helped raise money for the centre by selling his work at the National Conference on Free Software in 2008. He got a full fee waiver from his school and is now enrolled in a diploma course in computer application. 

Jeeva, another student from the centre, was a Class IX drop out. He used to run away from home fearing exams. Being at the centre motivated him to study and he soon completed matriculation through an alternative school. “The fact that learning computer is not an out and out academic activity helps us connect with these children and soon they start improving in school on their own. During exams, some of the volunteers also help them with their syllabus books,” says Kutty. Jeeva is now enrolled in a computer hardware course besides volunteering at the centre to teach younger kids.

G Saraswathi, a 21-year-old B Com student, gets a high whenever she thinks about the visit of Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation three years ago. “Not only I gave a presentation about the centre to him but he also released my booklet about our experiences, 'The future is ours”,” she says. Today, Saraswathi speaks English with elan and has also learnt spreadsheet management which got her a job in a microfinance company.

Freedom to explore, freedom to learn

Venturing out of its domain of advocacy through computer teaching, the centre also pampers cultural interests of the community through dance and singing competitions. “Besides the feeling of empowerment which they get by learning computers, these children also need to improve upon their communication skills, fight stage fear and gain confidence. Visiting national conferences, giving presentations to international delegates and performing in front of an audience help in their personality development,” says Kutty.

The project has now become self-sustaining as older children are teaching the younger ones, not requiring much of external support. This also ensures that the centre is not regarded as a charity. And what about more popular copyrighted software which these children may need to learn once they start working? “When they get a hang of free softwares, it does not take them long to learn the copyrighted counterparts. However, we can't have propriety software at the centre. Won't this be a hypocrisy if I take an Apple gadget or teach Windows to the kids when talking about equality,” Kutty asks. The question gains more relevance when it dawns upon you that the slum settlement sits right behind IBM's puffy glass office. For all we know, backyards offer promising grounds for new beginnings.