A policy document released by the federal government over the weekend makes it mandatory for all new e-governance projects and upgrades of existing legacy systems by federal agencies and participating states to first consider free and open source software (OSS) alternatives.
Federal and state agencies must make it mandatory for suppliers to give OSS a preference over proprietary or closed source software while responding to requests for proposals. "Suppliers shall provide justification for exclusion of OSS in their response," according to the policy statement posted to the website of the Ministry for Communication & Information Technology.
The Indian government has outlined its Digital India program that aims to make government services accessible online to citizens in their localities. The need to expand these services quickly at a low cost has likely prompted the decision in favor of open source in the country.
The government has also cited "strategic control" over its e-governance applications and systems from a long-term perspective as one of the reasons it was backing open source.
"It is a well drafted policy though policy researchers will always have possible improvements," said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a research organization in Bangalore. Instead of coming up with a new definition for free and open source software, the policy should have used the definitions available at the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative websites and adopted licenses approved by these organizations, he added.
The policy should also require that the software be made available on a public code repository except in cases where there are some security concerns, Abraham said.
The federal government had previously declined to take a stand in favor of open source, leaving the choice to its agencies, but the National Policy on Information Technology, 2012 had mentioned the promotion of "open source and open technologies" as one of its objectives.
Some states have backed open source software on ideological grounds or to cut costs. Kerala, for example, had decided to promote free and open-source software in education as way back as 2006.
The government in its new policy has, however, provided for exemptions in certain specialized domains for which OSS may not be available, or if there isn't expertise in the particular area in open source. The requirement for OSS may also be waived if the deployment is strategic and urgent.
Google, which has shown interest in collaborating with the government in its e-governance projects, said it did not have a comment on the policy. Microsoft, which targets the government market, including with its cloud services, did not immediately comment. In a bid to woo Indian government customers, the company offered in September to host cloud services including Azure and Office 365 in the country.