Indian computing seeks allies, solutions from wide range
by Frederick Noronha
BANGALORE: From distant expats to tiny groups of computing
enthusiasts, elite research centres and language-speakers whom India doesn't
have much contact with... all these are being looked to as allies in finding
local language computing solutions for this country of one-billion plus.
Long delayed in coming, Indian-language computing is today reaching out for
help from varied sources, as a national-level Indic Computing meet held here
Global expat communities -- with a deep interest in the subject and also the
skills and funds -- could play an important role in this endeavour. The
Tamil diaspora has been particularly strong in networking across
national-boundaries to find IT solutions.
Globally, the English domination of computing has increased the problems of
getting Indian scripts to work on this powerful tool. Besides, some South
Indian languages groups, including Kannada, feel suggestions going to
international decision-makers from officials in Delhi have been inadequate
or largely attuned to the needs of North Indian tongues.
But there's a lot of optimism on possibilities of wider networking.
"I just met Laotian and Kampuchean experts who were keen to follow India's
work on local language computing solutions," said Prof Pat Hall of the UK
Open University, a close watcher on moves that could throw open computing to
hundreds of millions in this region.
Prof Hall points out that Burmese and some other South East Asian languages
use the Brahmi script to write, which is closely related to Indic scripts.
Burmese is spoken by an estimated 32 million mainly around Myanmar.
Even if India's situation is seen as rather complex -- with there being some
1652 mother-tongues, from half-a-dozen different language groups, including
33 spoken by over a hundred thousand people -- things are not that bleak.
Solutions in a few major languages would immediately open up computing to
hundreds of millions, for instance.
"This is not rocket science. Solutions are possible. Indian-language word
processors and spreadsheets are badly needed," says Venky Hariharan, a
long-time campaigner on this front, now at the Mumbai-based Media Lab Asia.
"But this is not just an engineering problem. There are cultural issues,
lingustic ones, and questions of deployment involved," reminds Tapan Parikh,
an expat now based in India, and keen to see some solution come on this
One strategy of the Indic-Computing group will be to network with others
working in the field -- ranging from the Free Software and Open Source
networks like KDE to software giant Microsoft.
Other smaller groups are also being seen as key players in the field --
including the IIT-Madras group that has been working and incubating
innovative Indian-language solutions, the NCST (National Centre for Software
Technology) in Mumbai, and the IIIT (International Institute of Information
Technology) in Hyderabad, which has done impressive work on machine-language
translation and related areas.
Local GNU/Linux Users Groups, scattered volunteers spread across India to
study and promote the use of Free and Open Source Software, are also being
looked on as potential allies.
India already has a wide network of LUG groups, as they're called, with
bigger ones operating out of the metros and IT-oriented cities like
Bangalore. This city, designated sometimes as the 'Silicon Valley of India',
is already planning a major national meet called LinuxBangalore2002 in early
December. Last year, over 2000 participants took part in this meet.
Organisations trying to widen India's computing base and take IT solutions
to the rural areas, are also searching for solutions. One example is
Bangalore's Simputer network, which plans to take a sharable, low-cost
people's computing device to the millions.
IIT-Madras has also incubated firms -- such as n-Logue -- offering solutions
for low-cost Internet and telephone access, which would also vastly gain
from local language solutions.
Other languages have gone far ahead. On the Internet, languages with far
more complicated script problems have already made progress. For instance,
it's already possible to list websites and do a search in non-Romanic Asian
languages like Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
But some Indian tongues are making headway. Tamil expat speakers in Toronto
recently highlighted the success of Mandrake, a brand packaging GNU/Linux
software, in coming out with a Tamil-enabled version.
Commented Toronto-based expat V Venkataramanan: "A total Tamil computer is
now available. With the release of Mandrake Linux 9.0, an average user
should be able to operate a computer and use Internet -- all in Tamil."
This means that for the first time, the prerequisite of English knowledge
for using computers has been eliminated, at least for those who know Tamil.
People throughout the world have been using computers and Internet in their
own languages. Some how, Indian users are compelled to use them in English.
Indian engineers and scientists are a dominant force in the IT world, but
have also faced criticism for being grossly negligent of the needs of the
commonman from their own region. "This has pushed India to the top of the
list of countries suffering from the Digital Divide," argue campaigners like
Several Tamil programmers however have been given credit for making
computing more accessible in that language.
Tamil GNU/Linux programmers currently come from as disparate regions as
Canada, USA, Singapore, Japan, India and Malaysia, largely interacting
through the web and Internet discussion groups. There's also an
International Federation of Information Technology in Tamil (INFITT).
In Malayalam, the Free Software Foundation-India is undertaking some
initiatives. Kannada has been spearheaded by groups like the Kannada Ganaka
Parishad and scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Hindi and Marathi have also been getting considerable attention. Bengali IT
solution campaigners plan to share solutions with developers like Tani Ahmed
in Bangladesh, while the same could apply with Urdu possibilities from
"Most of our clients have a big need for Indic-language solutions," says
Sunil Abraham, who's Mahiti.org
works in equipping not-for-profit grassroot
organisations with IT solutions in Bangalore.
"We're anyway heading towards a boom in Indian Language computing. For all
these plans of G2C (government-to-citizen) initiatives to succeed, we simply
need it. Outside Delhi and Mumbai, people would still prefer to work in
Indian languages on their computers," says Microsoft Corporation (India)
localization program manager Raveesh Gupta. (ENDS)
Frederick Noronha * Freelance Journalist * Goa * India 832.409490 / 409783
* GNU-LINUX http://linuxinindia.pitas.com
Email fred(a)bytesforall.org * Mobile +9822 122436 (Goa) * Saligao Goa India
Writing with a difference... on what makes *the* difference