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Free laptops for children in India

In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, authorities have begun giving out free laptops to older schoolchildren. Eventually, education officials hope to issue 6.8 million laptops to pupils in government-funded secondary schools and colleges across the state. To complete such a programme would eventually take five years and cost over two billion dollars.

The idea behind the scheme is that the laptops will give the children a head start in the modern world, where IT skills are so vital. Many families in Tamil Nadu are too poor to afford computers. State educators believe that by issuing the laptops free, they are supporting a new computer-literate generation and boosting the economic prospects of the region. However, some commentators are sceptical whether the money could not be better spent on areas such as health or social welfare. In addition, critics point out that regular power shortages make the frequent use of laptops impractical. They also accuse the state government of attempting to buy votes; in the past a scheme to hand out free television sets ensured re-election for the party leaders.

Though the scheme is the first of its kind on such a large-scale, the state of Tamil Nadu is not the only one to recognise the importance of computers for children’s education. Several Indian states (such as Manipur, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh) are looking into sourcing laptops for schoolchildren through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme. In Tamil Nadu, computer manufacturers will benefit from the scheme as they are awarded the contracts for the equipment through a tender process. In contrast, the OLPC is a not-for-profit association which supplies children with laptops as a way to help poor countries develop. OLPC’s stated mission is to “provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power connected laptop.....[so that] children are engaged in their own education and learn, share and create together”.

The XO laptops designed by the OLPC’s founders are specially adapted for children in developing countries. Because they have low-power requirements, they can be charged by alternative energy sources such as solar power. The computer screen is also readable in the sunshine, since many children in developing countries have lessons outdoors. Equipped with open-sourced software, the XOs are aimed at pupils younger than those targeted in Tamil Nadu, produced with children aged 6-12 years in mind. Indian primary school children have been given their own XO laptops in pilot tests run in Khairat near Navi Mumbai, Parikrma in Bangalore and Katha in New Delhi. The OLPC India foundation says it is encouraged by the results. But even when states decide to go ahead and deploy the laptops, as Kerala wants to do, they experience delays in consultation with India’s Education Ministry. Where they can find their own funding, some Indian states may therefore decide to go out on their own.

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