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India is home to over 20 major local languages, yet our digital content ecosystem is dominated by English. It’s time a comprehensive policy is evolved to reverse this trend

ashis-sanyal

Ashis Sanyal | October 1, 2014




A few years back there were half a million websites in India. Only 20,000, however, were in Indian languages. Today there are over nine million websites, but the number of websites in local languages has lagged behind. Sending and receiving emails in multiple Indian languages was introduced many years back. Since then, however, except for a moderate growth in the use of local languages in social media, mainly due to the efforts of language and font technology developers, there hasn’t been any substantial movement towards widespread adoption of Indian languages.

The tools and technology for local language content generation have been in existence for some time. Microsoft, for instance, has been offering its Windows operating system and MS Office Suite products in Indian language versions for the last few years. The keyboards/input devices with multi-lingual options are also now freely available in the market. The CDAC-led mission mode project entitled Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL) has provided technology for creation of digital content in all 22 official languages. Lakhs of CDs of that technology were distributed free by the department of electronics and IT (DeitY) to promote creation and translation of content in Indian languages. Bilingual mobile phone keypads and some mobile applications working on Indian languages are also there. So why have Indian languages lagged behind in adoption?

The prima donna: English
The language diversity in India in itself is a big challenge. Different states have varied culture, language and other social variants, which pose an issue in localisation of content across the country. Any useful content being successfully used in one state cannot be easily replicated without addressing the challenge of language conversion. At the same time, it also indicates the possible expanse of the content development market in the country once the right policy push is created by the government. The fact that the state governments have endorsed respective regional languages as official only supports this observation.

Definitely in an encouraging policy regime content developers would develop software applications, websites and other products in local languages. It is also important that new users, whose numbers would constantly grow for the next 50 years, should also learn to use computers in local languages. Such a scenario is possible only when state governments, with the help of an umbrella policy from the central government, push a state policy with associated guidelines and benchmarks to run all computer-related government jobs in local languages.

It is a fact that internet was built on English language content and the early movers adopted it fast. The popularity of internet has grown exponentially because of development and consumption of content in English over the years. By the time the ability to create content in Indian languages became available, content existing in English had taken a mighty lead in its adoption as the universal mother tongue of internet.

Consumption of Indian languages in other media, such as print, television and radio, is well established. To introduce localisation for the new media it is important that the government gives the first important push by issuing a policy of creation and consumption of digital content and applications in local languages, specifically in the government domain, if necessary with suitable time-bound incentivisation for content developers.

Content is king
The government has covered significant ground since the last decade in terms of ICT infrastructure under the aegis of the national e-governance plan (NeGP). The private sector is continuously upgrading and expanding telecom infrastructure adopting emerging technologies. What is now needed is a wide range and variety of applications and digital content, which would ride and use the multitude of ICT infrastructure. To facilitate this, the government has to provide a comprehensive, well defined and supportive policy environment, which would excite content and application developers not only to meet the immediate needs of citizens and the government but would also pave the way for future innovations.

Both the public and private sectors do not have any inclination to invest upfront nurturing innovation in this area. There are no sustainable business models for existing players, as they are often subject to soft arm-twisting by apathetical telecom service providers. Even the latest telecom policy announced in 2012 did not prescribe any content creation mechanism.

But is there sufficient quantum of business in this area for the government to consider facilitating it through a policy initiative? The volume of work in content and application development is evident from the fact that out of around nine million websites of India, hardly 2% are in one of the 20 vernacular languages. In another account it is reported that 70% of 26 million MSMEs in the country did not create any digital content or website as on date.

For most of the 2,41,000 plus panchayats and parliament and assembly constituencies there is no website or content (Sam Pitroda reportedly urged to have them four years earlier). More than 85,000 primary health centres (PHCs) did not produce any health-related digital content so far as they have no website. Around 1.8 million anganwadi workers’ experience and knowledge could generate digital content for several thousand Anganwadi websites, which remain non-existent.

Further, out of the three AAAs pertinent to mobile revolution, access and affordability have mostly been achieved. The third A, applications aspect, is still to reach a critical mass although in past three years mobile applications are surfacing in higher numbers, albeit the issue of countrywide range of language fonts in mobile text is still alive. A policy push is definitely required so that mobile applications eco-system is established with greater speed and also innovative mobile applications with a real push-pool platform may thrive and sustain.

The content policy should clearly create excitement for developers so that they can invest, after ascertaining the economics of returns for the same. There is no doubt that a large section of users will find it comfortable with localised content (think about mobile users in rural India), advertisers would get the buying plans and traffic would start increasing for service providers. The desired policy assumes great importance from the issue of monetisation for local language content proposed to be created by developers for online access purpose.

As the English content dominates the cyberspace and localised content is mostly unavailable, the future aspirant generations are giving up (remember, English is already considered as an aspirational language in the Indian psyche) learning an Indian language. It is the moral duty of any government to reverse this trend of losing opportunity for Indian languages in the cyber era. The umbrella departments in the central government like DeitY, finance and DARPG should put their minds together to evolve an appropriate digital content eco-system creation policy. As a start, why don’t we start with the recently launched and well publicised site MyGov.gov.in in all scheduled languages?

Sanyal is former senior director of the department of electronics & IT (DeitY).

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