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Old 21st August 2006, 12:20 AM
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How can the Net’s reach be increased among the vernacular language speaking populatio

How can the Net’s reach be increased among the vernacular language speaking population of India?

India is often perceived as an enigma and offers a stark study for anyone who bothers to delve into any aspect, so it is no different when it comes to the use of the Internet in India. On the one hand, according to, we have the fourth highest number of Internet users in the world, trailing just the US, China and Japan. On the other hand, none of the Indian languages figure among the Top 10 on the Internet.
Just as the Internet celebrates its 11-years of existence in India, valid and serious questions are being raised about sustaining this growth momentum especially when one goes by reports that say that just about 5% of the Indian population is proficient in English. And the fact that to use computers in India, at least working knowledge of English is considered a pre-requisite.
The criss-cross logical connections over wires (and increasingly, without wires) connecting computers represent the physical Internet. But it is content and communication flowing within that makes it really useful.

When the Internet started, admittedly it was 100% American, 100% in English. The next wave came when it spread to Europe and content in continental languages like French, Spanish, Italian and German began flourishing. Around the same time, Japanese also came in, and shortly thereafter, content was available in Korean, Chinese and many other languages as well.

Clearly, the centre of gravity of the Internet has been shifting away from the US and is destined to relocate somewhere between China and India within the next two decades.

Despite being global in its design and reach, its efficacy lies in keeping the content and traffic as local as possible. Localised content has three distinct dimensions local context, local hosting and in local language(s). It is pertinent to mention that while more than three-fourths of the Internet traffic in China, Japan and Korea does not leave the respective country, in

India less than one-fourth of the traffic is domestic.

However, this high level of international traffic is not a matter of national pride. Rather, it represents the socio-economic profile of current Internet users and the challenges faced by those who do not yet have access to it. The ISP Association of India has set up the National Internet Exchange of India (Nixi) with the objective of enhancing domestic traffic exchange.

All the same, in terms of local languages, we have some unique challenges. First, there are 23 official languages and each state has its own language(s). The ‘digital divide’ is not just between the rich and the poor or urban versus rural, it may exist even within an SEC A (socio-economic category A) family with different family members having different levels of access to the home computers—ranging from indulgence through awareness, fear and even bordering on ignorance.

Add to it the fact that a large section of the adult population is illiterate. In such a scenario, not only do we need to focus on language literacy as well as digital literacy, but also strive to develop solutions through which they can derive at least some of the benefits of technologies. Speech recognition is still far from perfection, but speech synthesis is reasonably well-developed now. Touch-screens with intuitive icons, machine translation algorithms and Unicode compliant characters for Indian language alphabets would also help. Internationalised domain names (IDN) is another important area of work so that even the domain name can be in the local language.
Beyond this, we need to invest in capacity building so that citizens are not just passive users downloading information, but also active contributors and creators of the content, thus becoming ‘prosumer’ as envisioned by Alvin Toffler three decades ago. Within the next decade, we should see at least one Indian language amongst the Top 5 and at least five amongst the Top 25 as the Net takes roots here and is no longer regarded as an alien.

—The writer is secretary, Internet Service Providers Association of India

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