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India’s education sector and the influence of eBooks: will India get this one right?

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

I remember a story I heard when I was very young. The exact venue is fuzzy but the event was a Rotary or Jaycees’ dinner. There was a speaker invited who was a General Manager (Sales) of a well-known car company. The key message that I remember was as follows:

When a child is born a parent normally does 2 things and he (GM Sales) would like to propose 2 more. The two things that parents do are:

  1. Register is birth with the municipality so that the ration card can have the child’s name added on.

  2. Register with the local milk booth to get additional quota of milk for the baby.

The two he added were:

  1. Book a telephone connection for the child – it will arrive by the time the child is a teenager and ready to talk on the phone.

  2. Book a car since it will be ready for delivery by the time the child is ready to drive.

This speech never left me but I feel privileged to see the issues alluded to, fade away. It is true that from his perspective, he was right. If India’s population continued to grow at the pace it was growing, coupled with the infrastructure that existed then, a phone would have a waiting period of 12 years, a car a waiting period of 18 years!!

But time proved him wrong. Today a car is off the shelf, almost always and a phone connection is a few minutes away; a mobile phone to boot. India got it right with the telecom and car sector by bringing in legislation and opening the economy. The other factor that never left me was the arrogance with which the statement was made. There was absolutely no room for any sort of change. It is this attitude that spelt doom for this company. In the 70s it was one of only two major car manufacturers in India. It is no longer a mainstream car producer in India; it is barely visible on the fringes…

We have the same opportunity to get it right in our education sector. But are we headed in the right direction?

Education in India got a boost with the Right to Education becoming law. This is a good first step. But its implications are staggering. In a summit on the future of higher education in India the then HRD Minister Kapil Sibal said, “If the throughput of primary education actually wants to get a university education or degree, we would need an additional 45,000 institutions…”

In a country of 25,000+ colleges and 500+ universities, we continue to struggle with quality, accessibility and even more alarming, teaching infrastructure. Brick and mortar educational institutions are decrepit and that is me being kind. Classrooms are stuck in the 19th century and nothing is being done to maintain any other areas either (in the institution – specifically libraries). Electricity is a problem in rural areas but there, generator sets pitch in. Besides the physical building, support systems are woefully inadequate. The concept of campus bookstores is limited to elite institutions where surprisingly, students have other options. In rural India there are no campus bookstores and there is generally a single bookseller, meagrely stocked and barely able to make ends meet.

And yet I have seen the thirst for knowledge and the yearning to succeed. I have oft-repeated to my western colleagues – education in Asia is the single most important vehicle to break the bonds of poverty. And this is true for more than 75% of the population. For this lot, education continues to be imparted in the traditional way – teacher, physical school, printed material.

But does it have to be this way?

Printed products are difficult to transport, store and distribute into the areas where India needs them most. The Government recognises this. I recall Dr. Sam Pitroda speaking at a SAGE book event. He described the initiative he was leading. The project envisioned connecting every district in India through a fibre optic network. This would help rural India receive education aids, electronically. I have long harped on the infrastructure woes in India. Leave the metros and move to the cities and the woes of deficient electricity supply are evident. There is however, another, hidden and dangerous crater on this digital superhighway that needs immediate attention.

I choose to call this India’s Education Supernova

This supernova is a result of unclear laws related to content that has to flow through this digital superhighway. The Government, in typical government style wants the right leg to run without letting the left one know. Digital content is a form of delivery, it is NOT a method of creation of new content. This needs some explanation. 

Digital tools can be used to create content. But the created content can be converted from digital to print thus concluding the use of a digital tool. Up to the point at which the tool publishes content, it is still in use and once the publishing decision is made, it should by right, cease its influence. Well, theoretically yes, but not according to the government… “Digital content is “licensed” content

I can’t understand why the word license is used. An eBook is nothing but a book that is delivered electronically. Publishers are bending backwards to create “the look and feel” of a print product. Digital Ink, flipping pages, portable devices etc are efforts to replicate the convenience of print. So who in his right mind decided that an eBook is not “sold” to a customer, it is “licensed”. I can see why a temporary loan of an eBook can be called a “license”. But in its truest sense, it isn’t a license. The eBook being given to a person for limited period of time is EXACTLY what a library did, or rather continues to do. You don’t hear anyone stating that a physical book, on loan from a library, is LICENSED to the reader. The word license is for software and this is true. Software by its very definition is a “ware” that doesn’t have a “hard” body or shell. It can’t be touched or felt and it resides inside “hardware” – for the slow learners like me, hardware refers to wares that have a physical form. So far so good…

Software has another characteristic − it interacts with hardware to make things happen. I don’t really need to expand this, do I?

Let’s look at a vanilla eBook (I am not talking about an interactive eBook usually found on ePub 3.0 versions). Ask any publisher or software vendor, they have both gone to GREAT lengths to create the print look in digital format. Kindle, Kobo, Sony Reader etc tout their similarity to the print product. You can bookmark the digital file, exactly like you can a print file. You can highlight a word, the way you could in a book. The annotation feature isn’t as easy as picking up a pen and scribbling a note in the margin but it is possible (digitally). You can search for a word or a phrase like you could while reading any printed book (one needed a dictionary or thesaurus handy).

So how in heaven’s name did an eBook purchase or loan become a license?

And why, you might ask, am I peeved about the word license. I am peeved because when you call an eBook transaction a “license agreement”, the court states that a licensed product when paid for, doesn’t constitute a sale; it merely means the payer is paying royalty in lieu of the right to temporarily use the software (product). And when you talk about handling royalty, you make the Income Tax department salivate like a hungry wolf! To talk about the complexity of Income Tax law around royalty payments is making Pandora’s box look like a make-up kit…

I have tried really hard to look at the digital version of a book and honestly evaluate whether the product is closer to a Windows 7 or 8 OS (operating system) or to a print book. I choose Windows as an example though I use a Mac. 

Here are my findings

Microsoft Windows


Runs a computer

Doesn’t run anything, struggles to get into a brain

Plays music

Tries hard to play music in the brain

Runs a dedicated video player

Struggles to find a dedicated reader

Comes with millions of colours

Tries its best to look like a print product designed 300+ years ago

Has the ability to create a new product (like a document, or video, or music)

Can’t even replicate itself

Is constantly updated. Most updates are free.

Can only be updated if the author releases a new version. Publisher doesn’t give this out for free

Has bugs that need fixing

Is the bug that came out of an author’s head, can’t be fixed, it’s already fixed

I could go on but you get my drift. 

But the problems don’t stop here. There remains a third contender in this saga. This is the Service Tax department. Somehow they have the notion that providing digital content to a library is a form of service. Let’s indulge them for a moment and seek other examples of services a publisher provides.

  1. He has a van that delivers books to a library

  2. He calls up to find out if the books arrived

  3. He sends a representative to check if the librarian would like to order more

  4. He writes to them inquiring if the books remain in reasonably good condition

None of these services fall under the Service Tax net. How does providing content on an electrical cable become the ONLY way in which the publisher provides TAXABLE service?

If you are confused reading this blog, spare a kind thought for ME! I am equally if not more confused. But our respective confusions don’t amount to diddlysquat! It’s Dr Sam Pitroda’s digital highway that is at the brink of breaking down. And at risk is India’s future; not just the future of education in India.

INFLIBNET the government’s own wing created to acquire digital content has been slapped with an Income Tax notice. The notice states that INFLIBNET paid royalty for digital content “software” and should have deducted tax at source (TDS). The notice claims TDS is due for transactions that took place a decade ago! The government now wants money from its own (left/right?) pocket; has it really run out of ideas to shore up its revenue?

The cost India will pay is by far the most for any developing country. For us the education sector continues to be the single window that has made India a powerhouse this century. I refer to the software industry and not the meteoric rise of Indian cuisine and or the Great Indian Traveller. It was the quality of our education no matter how questionable it continues to be that helped fuel the software revolution in India. It has also made India the single largest English literate country on the planet. 

(Some sources say India has 180 million compared to the US at 280 million English speakers. Other figures state 350 million Indians are English literate compared to the 280 million Americans. Feel free to choose the version that works for you)

This advantage will be whittled away in less than half a century. It is this future that worries me. For a few pennies today, the Government of India is giving away India’s future. Sounds far-fetched but it’s the way I see it. Even if a fraction of India’s future was at stake, I know I shouldn’t be surprised (at the Government’s apathy), but somewhere I hope someone will wake up to this reality…

So the problem is known, the consequences known, is there a solution? The optimist in me believes there is a solution for every problem we can think of. The problem is do we have the courage to seek the solution? To understand the solution, it is important I spell out what is preventing a simplistic and practical solution from being embraced.

There are two distinct types of transactions with an eBook.

  1. The ‘purchase’ of a digital copy for one’s own use. This can reside in a dedicated reading device or on a computer, with no restrictions, PERMANENTLY.

  2. The ‘temporary’ use of a digital copy. This is for a time-bound period and for this ‘use’ the user pays a fraction of the purchase price.

  3. The digital copy could reside on a central server that a person can access at will within the defined period.

  4. The digital copy could download on a reading device or dedicated app on a computing device (mobile or desktop) for a limited period of time.

In the first type of transaction, the elements are clear – one entity pays, the other delivers the product and the transaction is complete. I reiterate – the word ‘delivers’ refers to electronic transfer of the material. There is case-law (European primarily) that states that the ‘purchase’ of such electronic entities DOES NOT follow the mandate of exhaustion of rights as described for physical products. Simply put – when you buy a physical product, you have the right to resell it after use, you can loan it and destroy it if you choose to. In the digital world, this is confusing. Europe believes, you don’t purchase any rights because this is not a physical product. And India wants to readily agree to this confusion. 

If I have an eBook can I ‘lend’ it to my friend? Can a library that has purchased the eBook ‘lend’ it to its users?

These are interesting questions because there is an underpinning issue that one has to contend with. European law addresses physical objects being handled (traded or manufactured). In a physical object, there is the possibility of physical degradation of a product. It will lose its ‘sheen’ or become dysfunctional over time. In the digital world, this is practically impossible. So a single copy of an eBook could last forever. And while that is good news for the user, publishers and content creators are worried! An eBook won’t deteriorate and if you lose it, you could have rights that allow you to download another copy. Sounds good so far. But when one lends this, the fear is the ‘Napsterization’ of content. I heard this term at the recently concluded IFLA conference.

Definition of Napsterization: the fear that electronic content will be shared without sufficient revenue for the original creator or producer of the content. This is what killed the music industry according to sources. I love music, but honestly, the music industry committed suicide. NO ONE KILLED IT!!!

Publishers want to control every transaction because they believe the only way to maximise revenue is to get some for every transaction. There is some logic to this but is it really the only way to earn revenue? Let’s leave my publisher’s hat on the rack for the moment. There can be a simple method of incremental income flowing back to the content creator (author), and the processor (the publisher). Technology facilitates this and it can be made to improve this, should we choose to.

We need to first remove the fear that content in digital form will live forever. It is true it will survive in digital form for a longer period of time than in a printed book form. But the pace at which humans are creating content, who in his right mind is going to want digital files forever? There is an example in real life that illustrates this behaviour.

Today, storage space is virtually free. You could theoretically, have unlimited storage available to you; some physically with you and some in the Cloud. If for argument’s sake, you did need to pay a price for purchasing hardware for storage, the cost is ridiculously low. But do you see yourself storing every single document, file, and or digital asset that you have ever created? Don’t you find the storage of these cluttering your life and making it harder to find the exact digital asset that you really want? Don’t you periodically ‘free up’ space by deleting older files?

And that is what will happen to a significant class of digital books over a period of time. New ones will take the place of the older ones. It’s a fact!

For India the Government has to look at the bigger picture and publishers need to do their part. Legislation should ensure there is clarity brought to every stakeholder. The author must know his work can reach a larger audience. The publisher must know he isn’t to reinvent the wheel should he choose to move from print products to digital ones. Most of all, the end consumer MUST get the benefit of lower handling costs, amortisation of production costs over larger (identified) usage, and Dr. Sam’s highway must have content flowing through it.

We need to equip our libraries with sufficient infrastructure to ensure students can access digital content. The sharing of content within a contained environment can easily be monitored. And by contained environment I do mean physically allowing a user to ‘borrow’ an eBook on his reading device. The term ‘borrow an eBook’ is not new or my creation; Amazon uses this phrase rather liberally and might I add, correctly.  It doesn’t call this feature ‘licensing’.

An eBook is a book delivered in digital format, it cannot be clubbed together with software. It must be given its due place in the digital world and ensure that the prime focus remains on educating India. There is a lot more at stake than the pennies on offer for the coffer.

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