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Indian languages under threat in the digital age

ht view Updated: Jun 17, 2014 23:10 IST
Indian languages

One of the most neglected areas of India’s IT industry has been Indic Computing or computing in Indian languages. It is a strange anomaly: While India’s software industry has enabled IT for the world, it has done little to empower Indians to use IT. In contrast to the healthy state of the country’s software exports, the state of Indian languages online is a picture of malnourishment. Hindi is the fourth-largest spoken language in the world (360 million speakers) but on Wikipedia it has a mere 101,297 articles and ranks below even Nynorsk, one of the two official languages in Norway, a tiny country with a population that barely crosses five million.

The average Indian language IT user has to traverse such a vast range of hurdles that it is a miracle that there is any content in Indian languages at all. The most basic starting point for computing in Indian languages, the keyboard, was not easily available until the advent of smartphones. In many parts of the world, if you buy a computing device, it comes bundled with a keyboard for the national language. Not so in India. If this situation is allowed to fester, Indian languages could die a slow death in the digital age.

The significant bulk of users want their devices to work and these users are not going to fiddle with installing fonts, keyboards and other paraphernalia. To entice them, Indic users have to be given parity with the English world, and devices should work in Indian languages with the same ease and efficiency that they do in English.

Thankfully, the BJP’s manifesto has recognised the importance of Indic Computing. The manifesto says that the BJP will ‘promote e-Bhasha — National Mission for the promotion of IT in Indian languages’. This goal is challenging but not impossible because the government and private sector have created many of the building blocks. However, these efforts need to be synchronised in such a way that users find Indic Computing as easy as computing in English. If we have to usher in the next 300 million users into the IT revolution, we will have to bring parity and make Indic computing as easy as English computing. This requires a major ecosystem push that includes hardware vendors, software developers, Internet technology companies and the government. Such a push will also have a significant social impact by democratising access to knowledge in Indian languages.

Venkatesh Hariharan is a technology and policy analyst
The views expressed by the author are personal