If passports and maps weren't enough, there is a new India-China controversy over the provenance of the Aakash 2 tablet, which was showcased at the United Nations today, as an example of technological innovation in India.
Said to be the world's cheapest touch-screen tablet, at a cost of $30 or Rs. 1600, the Aakash 2 costs a fraction of Apple's iPad.
However, media reports over the last few days have pointed out that some tablets been purchased off the shelf from firms in China. Speaking to The New York Times, an executive from Kalong Technology, which operates from Hong Kong, said that his company had manufactured at least 500 A13 tablets for DataWind, the company that won the tender to produce the low cost tablet for the Government of India. The executive, a Mr. Lu, is quoted saying "All parts are manufactured in China. We assemble the tablets and load Android operating system on them." Given the media's fascination with the India-China rivalry, the story was quickly picked up by the Indian press, and there was considerable news coverage and editorial commentary over the last few days.
Unfortunately, the timing of this press coverage coincided with the Indian Mission to the UN using a function to celebrate India's assumption of the Security Council Presidency to showcase Akash 2 at the UN, as an example of how India was using technology to meet the organization's Millenium Development Goals.
The usually charming and unflappable Indian Ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, was irate at what he saw as sensationalism on the part of the Indian press. "Nowhere does it say that this is an Aakash 2 tablet that is "made in India" exclusively or even partially. It is a very poor attempt at orchestrating a controversy because Aakash 2 was going to be showcased in New York at the UN," said a visibly annoyed Hardeep Singh Puri.
I met with the soft-spoken CEO of DataWind Suneet Singh Tuli, who appeared somewhat fatigued, having spent the past few days trying to defend his company's actions to the Indian media. DataWind has clarified that some parts of the first batch of tablets were manufactured in China for the sake of expediency but says it aims to eventually fully manufacture the tablet in India. And in any case, its contract with the government of India does not oblige it to manufacture the product in the country.
I think the media has got this one wrong. Who cares where the tablet is manufactured? The important thing is whether India can bring the digital age to all its citizens, in the most cost-effective manner possible. If that means manufacturing the product in China or Timbuktu, so be it.
In any case, the manufacturing of a tablet is a fairly low-end, commoditized task. The value addition, in Aakash, lies in the no-frills design, and in apps that should make it easy for anyone to use. Apple makes its tablets in China as well, but no one ever refers to the iPad as a Chinese product.
This is not to say that there are no good reasons to criticize Aakash. The project has been plagued by delays, and several technology experts claim the product is not user friendly and will not make a serious impact on mobile internet penetration. These are serious concerns and should be debated on their merits. But raising the China bogey here, in the way that the CIA bogey was raised in India through the 1970s and 1980s, does nothing to improve our understanding of Aakash or the quality of the debate that surrounds it.