India‘s push to digitally empower millions of its poor students with lowcost , government-subsidized , internet-enabled tablets won UN endorsement on Wednesday despite raging controversy and misgivings on the provenance and pricing of the device.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon personally approved the Indian effort at the UN Headquarters where dozens of envoys from across the world gathered for a peek at the Aakash II device that its makers (British-Canadian-Indian company Datawind) and chief patron (Government of India) say will revolutionize education and commerce.
“I know that in Hindi, ‘Aakash’ means sky,” Ban Kimoon said in brief remarks. “I want to encourage partners around the world to work with theUnited Nations to help young people reach for the sky and meet their dreams.”
India’s ambassador to the UN, Hardip Singh Puri, took the opportunity of India’s rotational chairing of the UN Presidency to project New Delhi‘s digital push, with Datawind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli also in attendance. Both men strenuously contested reports in the Indian media that the Aakash II is primarily a Madein-China device with marginal value addition in India.
”It was a very poor attempt at orchestrating a controversy when you realize that this Aakash II was going to be showcased in New York at the UN,” Puri claimed, maintaining that the Government of India had floated a global tender that did not stipulate the device had to be manufactured in India.
China’s Ambassador to the UN Li Baodong also attended the event and heard Ban Kimoon rave about India being a “superpower on the information superhighway.” “India is a critical player on security issues … but you are also a leader in development and technology ,” Ban said. “There is a reason places like Hyderabad are called Cyberabad.”
In several interviews on the margins of the event, Datawind CEO Tuli contested reports that his company was merely channeling a Chinamanufactured device into India , saying value-addition and indigenization is a gradual process and only initial expediency had led to the import of devices that were largely kitted in China even though the final assembly and programming was done in India.
Tuli made the case that modern manufacturing process involved sourcing components from across the world. In the case of Aakash II, the touch screen, which accounts for a significant cost of the device , would eventually be manufactured in new facilities in India. “In my mind there is no controversy, all that there is is sensationalism,” Tuli said.
That hasn’t stopped critics from panning what they say in misrepresentation about the origin of the device and even the costing. Although the tablet itself received good marks for its functionality at low cost, gearhead reviewers say Chinese companies are cranking out tablets at similar price points. The only value addition comes from India-specific programming on the devices to meet the demands of the Indian market and only the promised 50% government subsidy will drag it down to the $20 price point that has attracted world-wide attention.
- Aakash maker dismisses made-in-China controversy (thehindu.com)
- $25 tablets, $2 mobile data plans, and zero margins – how the internet is about to gain 3 billion new users (qz.com)
- Tale of Aakash tablet (Part 2) (blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com)
- Aakash 2: The $20 Tablet Computer That Could Shake Up the Computer World (atlantablackstar.com)
- India to showcase Aakash tablet at U.N. (thehindu.com)