2C Digizens, Indians across the digital divide

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BY INVITATION | The Sunday Times of India | October 11, 2015
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Sopan Joshi

NASSCOM estimates the revenue from India’s IT and BPO sector this year at around $146 billion. That is more than Rs 9,52,100 crore. India’s IT sector is dramatically changing the digital experience the world over. And yet India’s IT revolution is perhaps the greatest example of how lopsided this growth is. Because for a big majority of Indians, the digital world is inaccessible.

Search for reasons, and you will find a big one in language. India’s IT sector does not serve the cause of computing in Indian languages. There is just not enough money in that. So the private sector cannot be blamed for not pursuing a non-profitable path. It has to answer to its owners and investors, not the English-ignorant citizen. The government is the trus tee of the common good. So this failure must be laid at the government’s door.

To get a feel of this chasm, spend a little time with a person who does not know English; try to understand how heshe struggles to figure out the phone menu. How simple things like keyboardkeypad and file transfer become insurmountable tasks, because there are just no standards for Indian language computing. Users have no option but to get fonts from somewhere, keymaps from somewhere else, and hope that it some how works. The exercise is so tedious that most people don’t even try . These are people forgotten -or, worse, ignored -by Digital India. We can call them second-class Digital Citizens. Or, in the world of neologisms, 2C-Digizens. Oh, heck, let’s make it 2CDC (no offence to the rockers of Oz!).

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The network you are trying to reach is busy. Please stay on the line or call again later

This problem is not unique to India. All societies, all governments face such matters when a technology changes the rules of interaction. The US government faced the problem of standardising code for English characters in the 1960s. There were up to 40 standards for data storage and exchange at that time. The American Standards Association (ASA, now called the American National Standards Institute) went to task. The result was the American Standard Code for Information Exchange, better known in your keyboard settings by its acronym: ASCII. In 1968, a presidential mandate laid the ground for all computers bought by the US government supporting ASCII. In the course of time, this proved such a sensible arrangement that when other languages entered the Internet world, it proved the platform of bigger, more inclusive codes, including the Unicode, which lays the ground for truly international, multi-lingual computing.

In India, something similar needed to be done with computing in Indian languages. Yet, forget about 2CDC, well-known publishing houses in Hindi use all kinds of varying codes in their publishing work. It is a nightmare to send material in Hindi to different people, because there is a variety of proprietary codes in use. So, while sending a manuscript or any text in Hindi, you will find that people attach the fonts they have used. Even then, such attempts often end in analog frustration with the digital dream.

It is not that there has been no attempt at resolving this. C-DAC (the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) has given an elegant solution in the form of the INSCRIPT keyboard layout. Not only does its layout meet ergonomic standards (finger movement!), it also provides a similar layout for computing in several major Indian languages. It also offers a unified keyboard layout for Android devices.

Yet it is no surprise to find computer users in gov ernment offices blundering along in confused apathy with a variety of fonts in proprietary code, right in the middle of the Hindi Pakhwara (it is held in September to promote Hindi, though it ends up annoying a lot of people, including Hindi users). “The infrastructure for Indian language computing needs to be rebuilt from scratch,“ says Venkatesh Hariharan, an IT consultant in Mumbai, who has worked on Indian language computing for several years.

There is an example There is an example within the government. In March 2015, the Union government released its Policy on Adoption of Open Source Software. This is the culmination of several years of efforts to reduce wasteful expenditure on software development. More critically, it help secure government data and make it accessible over time and space. Its adoption is very slow, but at least the government has worked out its direction. Indian language computing needs a bigger effort along similar lines.

Most of the serious problems we have in our country -divisions of caste, religion, region, class, language -are inherited. We struggle badly to resolve them. The Indian language computing problem, however, is not of similar nature. It does not require our Prime Minister to seek help from corporate titans in California. Merely an overdue recognition of the problem, as also the efforts of those who have shown us how to resolve them.

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Categories: Technology

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1 reply

  1. Thanks a lot for great article, I found it very interesting and useful for me.

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