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Linguistic inclusion on the internet

By AlokeThakore

Not a single one of the Eighth Schedule Indian languages is used by more than .01% of the total websites in the world. Indian languages are severely under-represented in the internet world. Facebook, which provides options in 11 of India’s 22 Eighth Schedule languages, and Google, with its search engine options in 9 languages, seem to be doing more for linguistic inclusion on the internet than either the government or Indian companies.

 

Pune is considered the seat of Marathi culture, and the culture is closely, if not entirely, commensurate with those for whom the language, Marathi, is their mothertongue. Pune is also the second-largest city in Maharashtra, a state that came into being after a struggle for linguistic sub-nationalism ensured the division of the erstwhile Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Considering the deep linguistic nationalism that has marked the administrative division of India and also undergirds its present-day politics, one would expect that at the very least the administrative internet representation of Pune would reflect this reality and address the people in their lingua franca.

The Pune Municipal Corporation website (www.punecorporation.org), it appears, takes the moniker of Oxford of the East far more seriously than it does any claims of being a city that is in many ways synonymous with Maratha and Marathi pride. What makes the case of Pune especially interesting is that the city is home to the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), an institution that has been at the forefront of multilingual and heritage computing in India, and which has been working closely with the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) to support Indian language domain names. In fact, in October 2014 NIXI launched the first Devanagari domain names. With a little bit of effort and initiative, it can be argued, the Pune Municipal Corporation could have ensured that its website was accessible to those who are more comfortable in Marathi, which is an Eighth Schedule language, than English.

India with a population of more than 1.2 billion has 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Six of these 22 – Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu – are spoken by more than 50 million people across the globe. In 2001 for which the data is available (See Table 1), the number of speakers in these 22 languages exceeded 990 million. The recent data, as and when it becomes available, will only show an increase.

Table 1. Persons who returned the 22 Eighth Schedule languages as their mother tongue


Language

Persons who returned the language (and the mother tongues grouped under each) as their mother tongue

Language

Persons who returned the language (and the mother tongues grouped under each) as their mother tongue

Language

Persons who returned the language (and the mother tongues grouped under each) as their mother tongue

Assamese

13,168,484

Konkani

2,489,015

Sanskrit

14,135

Bengali

83,369,769

Maithili

12,179,122

Santhali

6,469,600

Bodo

1,350,478

Malayalam

33,066,392

Sindhi

2,535,485

Dogri

2,282,589

Manipuri

1,466,705

Tamil

60,793,814

Gujarati

46,091,617

Marathi

71,936,894

Telugu

74,002,856

Hindi

422,048,642

Nepali

2,871,749

Urdu

51,536,111

Kannada

37,924,011

Oriya

33,017,446

 

 

Kashmiri

5,527,698

Punjabi

29,102,477

 

 

Of these not a single language is used by more than .01% of the total websites in the world.Indian languages are severely under-represented in the internet world, and this for a country that has put a lot of political heft on linguistic identity should be a matter of concern for reasons both intrinsic and instrumental.

Language for any medium is not about utility, it is about expression. Language always matters and it matters even more in the internet universe because “the internet is not a technological fact; it is a social fact…and its chief stock-in-trade is language.”(1)In calling the internet a social fact, the linguist David Crystal echoes Tim Berners-Lee’s statement that “the web is more a social creation than a technical one”. Berners-Lee draws attention to the future of the internet, the possibilities and also adds a note of caution:

    ‘People are using the Web to build things they have not built or written or drawn or communicated anywhere else. As the Web becomes the primary space for much activity, we have to be careful that it allows for a just and fair society. The Web must allow equal access to those in different economic and political situations; those who have physical or cognitive disabilities; those of different cultures; and those who use different language with different characters that read in different directions across a page.’(2)

The point that we have to recognize is that with the internet becoming a default archive, a source of information and knowledge, and a means of transaction, the language in which information is available is crucial for ensuring linguistic diversity. There are estimates that over 50% to 90% of all languages will be extinct by the end of this century. For a country like India with tremendous linguistic diversity both in language and script, it is important that the opportunities of recording, retrieval and dissemination that the internet offers be used to ensure that such linguistic diversity is preserved. Preservation of language has to move beyond utilitarian calculations of how much  preserving a language adds to the GDP or what percentage addition to GDP would come from a switch to English by all the speakers of Marathi – a trope now common in public discourse where every policy decision is seen as part of the GDP function. In this light, the absence of Indian languages needs the urgent attention of the government. In fact, the first report in 2007 by the Indian government to UNESCO, which was a response to the 2003 Recommendation Concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace,(3) explicitly stated nine areas where the government was already working to promote multilingualism. But if the website of Pune Municipal Corporation or of India’s largest bank, State Bank of India, is any indication, the backend improvement and technology breakthroughs have not translated into provision of Indian language content for citizens.

If we move from an intrinsic argument for having Indian languages on the internet to a more instrumental argument, then the failures are even more troubling. A simple survey of the departmental links on the maharashtra.gov.in website presents a rather sorry picture of how information is presented in Marathi on the Maharashtra government websites. Looking at 37 (4) departmental websites, it becomes clear that the vast majority of them rely on pdfs of internal communications and notices when it comes to putting up information in Marathi. Since this survey of the websites was not conducted for quality and type of information and services for citizens, the only focus was to see whether there was some information that was available in Marathi. There are five websites that did not have any Marathi links or Marathi version of the website. One is under construction, and the language conveying that the site is under construction is in English, though as the Rural Development & Panchayat Department website, one may have expected that this notice would have been made available in Marathi. Some of the e-services websites are hybrid sites where some information is in Marathi, but the dropdown menus are in English. The Public Works Department website leads to a .com website where all the information is in English. The Maharashtra roadways e-ticketing site (https://public.msrtcors.com/ticket_booking/index.php) is in English. What is distinctly clear is that there is a new format that is being used for a number of these departmental sites, which provide a link in Marathi. The link takes the reader to a page where there is a heading, name of department, year, link, language, and type – all these are written in Marathi except the actual link, which is a pdf document. Needless to add in some cases the pdfs have to be downloaded and in others they open within the browser. In either case the size of the pdf files can often become too heavy for download in places where the internet connectivity is poor.

This survey, which is necessarily not a detailed content analysis of the websites, does provide some basic insights. One, there is no sustained commitment that is visible for providing content in the language of the state. Two, there is no uniformity in the way different departments have presented the material. Three, little attention has been paid to user interface, and to ensure that those most likely to want the material in Marathi can get easy access. Four, there is an excessive reliance on pdf documents generated as part of inter-office correspondence and documentation. Five, the sites that provide e-services rely on English, which can be a serious challenge. What this survey suggests is that when it comes to providing multilingual content for citizens, the Maharashtra government, which is otherwise known to be ahead than others in e-governance initiatives, has a lot of ground to cover. Not surprisingly in my own work as a consultant with PUKAR in three villages of Palghar district my colleagues have found language to be a great impediment in getting the village youth to access information and use e-services.

The reason for surveying the Maharashtra government websites was to see how the government apparatus working within a system that requires Marathi language use and with a department devoted to the language performs when it comes to communicating with the citizens in their language. A quasi-state entity with a consumer focus provides another instance of how linguistic inclusion is not even considered part of consumer satisfaction. The State Bank of India, which is a public sector unit, provides a Hindi link on its website. Considering that as a government agency, they have to be work within the RajbhashaAct 1963, this is not surprising. But what is intriguing is that SBI, which has the largest banking network in the country and counts customers in the smallest of Indian villages, makes no attempt on its website to have content for these customers. In fact, if one considers the recent financial inclusion campaign that led to the opening of crores of bank accounts, and the subsequent challenge of communicating how these bank accounts should be operated, then it becomes clear that linguistic inclusion has to be an integral part of the websites for this initiative to be successful. Contrast this with Facebook, which provides options in 11 of India’s 22 Eighth Schedule languages. It seems that Google with its search engine options in 9 languages and Facebook are doing more for internet inclusion than either the government or Indian companies.

While a lot of conversation about digital inclusion is about cost, speed and affordability, adoption of the internet, which is different from access, is about language. In India because of the high number of English-language speakers who dominate the discussion on issues of digital inclusion, this crucial fact is not adequately addressed. A single number will put the issue of language in relief. The 2001 Census reported that only 226,449 people returned English as their mother tongue out of the population of 1.02 billion. The vast majority of the people in India are uncomfortable in the language, and if we have to work towards digital inclusion, it is essential that at least the government websites, the e-service portals and the companies having a consumer focus, especially banks, make their websites multilingual. This brief survey also indicates that a more detailed content analysis needs to be done of websites to provide usable insights into making them accessible to the citizens and consumers in their language.

(AlokeThakore is an independent journalist, researcher, newsroom coach and teacher. He serves as the Hon. Director of the JM Foundation for Excellence in Journalism and has been associated, over the last three years, with a number of research projects on telecom and internet access. He is also the founder-director of Font & Pixel Media Pvt Ltd, a media and education enterprise)

Endnotes
(1)David Crystal. Internet & Language.Cambridge University Press, 2006.
(2) Time Berners-Lee. Weaving the Web: The Original and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. 1999.
(3) The four broad recommendations for multilingualism were:

  1. The public and private sectors and civil society at local, national, regional and international levels should work to provide the necessary resources and take the necessary measures to alleviate language barriers and promote human interaction on the internet by encouraging the creation and processing of, and access to, educational, cultural and scientific content in digital form, so as to ensure that all cultures can express themselves and have access to cyberspace in all languages, including indigenous ones.
  2. Member states and international organizations should encourage and support capacity-building for the production of local and indigenous content on the internet.
  3. Member states should formulate appropriate national policies on the crucial issue of language survival in cyberspace, designed to promote the teaching of languages, including mother tongues, in cyberspace. International support and assistance to developing countries should be strengthened and extended to facilitate the development of freely accessible materials on language education in electronic form and to the enhancement of human capital skills in this area.
  4. Member states, international organizations and information and communication technology industries should encourage collaborative participatory research and development on, and local adaptation of, operating systems, search engines and web browsers with extensive multilingual capabilities, online dictionaries and terminologies. They should support international cooperative efforts with regard to automated translation services accessible to all, as well as intelligent linguistic systems such as those performing multilingual information retrieval, summarizing/abstracting and speech understanding, while fully respecting the right of translation of authors.
  5. UNESCO, in cooperation with other international organizations, should establish a collaborative online observatory on existing policies, regulations, technical recommendations, and best practices relating to multilingualism and multilingual resources and applications, including innovations in language computerization.

(4) The first department link mentioned under each department was surveyed. This survey cannot be treated as a detailed content analysis. However, each of the 37 websites were explored to get a sense of the way in which Marathi is used on the websites. The 37 websites surveyed were:

माहिती तंत्रज्ञान: https://it.maharashtra.gov.in/1035/Home
सामान्य प्रशासन विभाग: https://gad.maharashtra.gov.in/
गृहविभाग: http://home.maharashtra.gov
महसूल विभाग: https://rfd.maharashtra.gov.in/
वन विभाग: http://www.mahaforest.nic.in/index.php
कृषीविभाग: http://www.mahaagri.gov.in/
पशुसंवर्धन विभाग: https://ahd.maharashtra.gov.in/index.php?lang=mr
शालेय शिक्षण विभाग: http://school.maharashtra.gov.in/Site/Home/Index.aspx
नगर विकास विभाग: https://urban.maharashtra.gov.in/
सार्वजनिक बांधकाम विभाग: https://pwd.maharashtra.gov.in/
वित्त विभाग: https://finance.maharashtra.gov.in/
उद्योग विभाग: https://industry.maharashtra.gov.in/
अन्न व औषधी प्रशासन: https://fda.maharashtra.gov.in/home.aspx
जलसंपदा विभाग: https://wrd.maharashtra.gov.in
विधी व न्याय विभाग: https://lj.maharashtra.gov.in/
ग्रामविकास व पंचायत राज विभाग: http://rdd.maharashtra.gov.in/
अन्न, नागरी पुरवठा व ग्राहक संरक्षण विभाग: http://mahafood.gov.in/website/marathi/home.aspx
नियोजन विभाग: https://plan.maharashtra.gov.in/
ई-शिष्यवृत्ती विभाग: https://mahaeschol.maharashtra.gov.in
जलसंधारण विभाग: https://waterconserve.maharashtra.gov.in/
गृहनिर्माण विभाग: https://housing.maharashtra.gov.in/
पाणी पुरवठा व स्वच्छता विभाग: https://water.maharashtra.gov.in/
सार्वजनिक आरोग्य विभाग: https://phd.maharashtra.gov.in/
आदिवासी विकास विभाग: https://tribal.maharashtra.gov.in/
पर्यावरण विभाग: https://envd.maharashtra.gov.in/
सहकार, पणन आणि वस्त्रोद्योग विभाग: https://mahasahakar.maharashtra.gov.in
वस्त्रोद्योग विभाग: https://mahatextile.maharashtra.gov.in
उच्च व तंत्रशिक्षण विभाग: http://techedu.maharashtra.gov.in/
महाराष्ट्र राज्य विद्युत मंडळ: http://www.msebindia.com/
मराठी भाषा विभाग: https://marathibhasha.maharashtra.gov.in
पर्यटन आणि सांस्कृतिक विभाग: https://cultural.maharashtra.gov.in/#
अल्पसंख्यांक विकास विभाग: https://mdd.maharashtra.gov.in/Site/Home/Index.aspx
रोजगार व स्वंयंरोजगार संचालनालय: https://www.maharojgar.gov.in
महाराष्ट्र राज्य परिवहन महामंडळ: http://www.msrtc.gov.in/msrtc_live/index.html
महिला व बालविकास विभाग: https://womenchild.maharashtra.gov.in/
संसदीय कार्य विभाग: https://pa.maharashtra.gov.in/
कामगार विभाग: http://mahakamgar.gov.in

Netpehchaan.in, May 2015

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