July 2007

Importance of Localisation in India

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Localisation is an important requirement in a globalised world and especially in pluralistic society like India. As the demand for services through IT grows in India, localisation will be the crucial requirement.  There has been a general lack of awareness in India about the localisation. However, loalisation should be central to the National e-Governance Plan architecture, and G2G, G2C, G2E, B2B, B2C services. Unicode standards will pave the way for interoperability, collaboration and development of software tools in Indian languages.

Lack of Localisation for India

India is a vast country, and plurality is its hallmark.  The country takes pride in its linguistic, ethnic, social, cultural and geographical diversities.  In this backdrop, localisation should have been the salient feature of IT sector in India.  However, an industry is influenced by the market it caters to.  For a very long time, the major market for the Indian IT industry was clients based in developed countries.  Even the boom, the BPO (Business Processing Outsourcing) sector in recent year has produced localisation of a different kind in the globalised world: The employees of the call centers located in India learn how to adapt to the ambience of foreign countries; they learn about nuances of American accents, French slang and Australian names!

Lack of Awareness about Localisation

There is also lack of awareness regarding localisation for the Indian ambience already available under various operating systems and application software.  Localisation for popular software are available in the form of language interface packs (LIPs).  These packs are more than mere text substitution: they take care of the localisation issues.  Language interface packs for Microsoft Windows and Office have been available quite some time now, and these are available for all major Indian languages.  User interface in Indian languages are available for Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) such as Linux, OpenOffice etc.  However, there is not much awareness about these tools.  Support is also available for calendar based on Saka Era (Hindu calendar), but there appears hardly any popular demand for Saka Era calendar even by the Indian government organiation for whom Saka Era is the official calendar.  Indeed, support should be available for other popular local calendars, such as Vikram Samvat, Bengali Samvat, and Nepali Samvat etc.

Localisation and Empowerment

Simply put, localisation aims at achieving equal opportunity to access in this information age irrespective of native language, culture and region.  It aims to bridge the digital divide.  e-Governance is citizen-centric, rather than officer-centric.  The services are necessarily to be interactive and transparent, rather than being merely presenting information.  e-Governance means taking government to the doorstep of the people.  This implies that localication will have to play a crucial role in e-Governance.

The central government and the state governments have embarked on an ambitious National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) and several Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) have been identified under the NeGP.  e-Governance is not so much about technology, as it is about efficient delivery of services.  Good governance means citizens being able to avail services from the government speedily, on 24×7 basis, at a convenient location and in a cost-effective manner.  Technology is used to improve the quality of service, and the delivery of service.

With many states adopting ICT as key instrument in improving the public service delivery especially in rural areas, rural India is all set for IT revolution like never before.  Government organisations are creating huge IT infrastructure in terms of setting up of networks, financing rural cyber cafés and information centers.  Government investment in e-Governance is truly phenomenal.  Several projects are under public-private partnership (PPP) mode.  Indeed, considering the demand for services in rural areas, the spread of telecommunication network across the country, and the computing power of today’s inexpensive devices, the target of only 100,000 common service centers may appear too conservative.

Experience of Cyber Kiosks

Governments have set up several cyber kiosks to deliver government services to the people.  There have been several initiatives across the country.  Gyandoot, Community Information Centers (CICs), e-Seva, CARD, LokMitra, BangaloreOne, e-Chaupal etc are just a few examples.  Experience shows that while the hardware was ready, the development of content for these projects lagged behind.  The e-Readiness of various government services offered to the people too lagged behind.  Consequently, instead of being self-sufficient, some such initiatives became dependent on government support leading to inefficiencies.  Even if all services provided by the government were e-Ready, still the revenue from government services would not be enough to make a large number of centers a viable proposition.  This is especially because governments have been withdrawing from several sectors, and allowing private sector to provide these services.  The private services will have to be the major source of revenue for the cyber kiosks.  Thus, private sector will have to develop localised contents to cater to the local needs.

Scope of Localisation

The recent dubbing of the popular film Spiderman-III in Bhojpuri language, a language that is not even recognised by the Constitution of India, points to the immense potential of localisation in India.  There is a vast and largely untapped potential in localisation.  Indeed, localisation is not an India-specific requirement.  Cyber space today is increasingly global and internationalised, reflecting the diverse linguistic, ethnic, social and cultural predilections of the world community.

Unlike in the past when the IT industry was primarily geared to cater to the demands in the developed economies, as the Indian economy develops and the service sector becomes more-and-more prominent, there is a growing market in India too. Thanks to the expansion of telecom networks with huge bandwidth throughout the country and the ever-declining cost of computers and networking equipments, IT has penetrated into even rural and tribal areas.  Even geographically remote locations are enjoying excellent connectivity, and the remoteness, as far as IT is concerned, is not a handicap.

Being a vast and complex country, the scope of localisation is immense in India.  Usually a locale identifier for localisation consists of a language identifier and a country identifier.  Thus, only one variant of Hindi is accepted i.e. Hindi-India.  However, Hindi as spoken and written in different Indian states, is different.  Hindi terminologies used in government offices in Bihar are quite different from those used in Rajasthan.  It is not only true for Hindi but for most Indian languages.  Urdu of Hyderabad is quite different from Urdu of Meerut, so Urdu (India) is an insufficient locale identifier.  Bengali of Rajshahi is quite different from Bengali of Chittagong, so Bengali (Bangladesh) is an insufficient locale identifier to capture the localisation requirements. Malayalam is written in two styles: traditional and reformed, which should be properly identified; localisation should take care of this too.
India is not a small country. In terms of number of speakers as mother tongue, Hindi is the second most popular language in the world. Even languages like Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, etc. are quite high in the popularity chart. Never-theless, these languages are quite deficient in terms of loca-lisation in these languages. A lot of work still needs to be done in machine-translation, voice recognition, optical character recognition, handwriting recognition etc for these languages. G2C, G2G and G2E services offer a lot of scope for localisation; even B2C, B2B services require localisation in the globalised economy. As e-Governance is transforming itself to m-Governance, there is need for localisation there too.

Localisation and Government

India is a member of Unicode Consortium and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). (The Unicode Consortium is a non-profit organisation originally founded to develop, extend and promote use of the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in modern software products and standards). India became a member of these consortia with the objective of proper representation of Indian languages in the Web Technology Standards and related standards.  India has put forth several recommendations before Unicode Consortium for better encoding of Indian languages. All modern and ancient Indian scripts have been or are being included in the Unicode standards. Proposals have been put forth for including special notations and characters used in Vedic hymns, which have not been encoded so far.  Also, there is need for further refinement in the formation of letters and ligature or conjuncts in Indian languages.  Centre for Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and many other organisations are contributing to the localisations efforts, including machine-translation from one language to another.

The Constitution of India recognises twenty-two languages – apart from English which has the status of associate official language.  The constitutional recognition of these languages is meaningless unless these languages get their due share in the cyber space in this information age. The front-end of all government websites and service delivery mechanisms should be simultaneously available in all the twenty-three languages, apart from English.  Localisation should be basic to the NeGP architecture. Government must take a lead in the localisation efforts.

Moreover, the state governments and other constitutional bodies also have their own official languages.  For example, the Chakma District Council promotes the tribal Chakma language.  Thus, there is a need for even more refined localisation.

Localisation and Marketing

If the foregoing arguments appear to insinuate that localisation is all about government, then it would be entirely incorrect.  Internationalisation and localisation are primarily driven by the private sector in the globalised economy, and can be viewed as part of the marketing processes of segmentation and targeting.  The demand for localisation is so huge that there are many companies catering to only localisation of software, product design, packaging, promotion etc.

If you open the official website of some MNCs, it is likely that what you will see in the browser will be the localised content as per locale identified by the website.  So, do not be surprised if the official website of Microsoft opens in Hindi in your browser without your asking for the content to be in Hindi.  As the penetration of PCs and other electronic devices increases and connectivity becomes widespread through broadband and WiMAX, there will be increasing demand for local content.  A little more than a decade ago when the cable TV was being opened to the private sector, financial  viability of regional cable TV channels was questioned.  Today, there is a plethora of regional cable TV channels catering to whole lot of local and special interests. Indeed, it would be incorrect to view localisation as addressing only the needs of the rural market. Information Technology has facilitated and accelerated the pace of globalisation. It has bridged the gap between the people, and made distance irrelevant.  Interestingly, the same information technology is also facilitating localisation.

IT tools are increasingly being used in e-Learning.  e-Learning offers immense scope for localisation. Many ATMs offer options in Indian languages depending on the geographical locations. The landline and mobile telephony services also offer assistance in local languages.

Illiteracy and Localisation

An important aspect of localisation in India is consideration for the illiterate and the semiliterate population.  The illiterate and semiliterate people form a huge chunk of the population in India to be ignored from any meaning public activity.  We just cannot afford to keep this vulnerable section of the population on the other side of the digital divide.  In order to reach the illiterate and semiliterate population, it is essential that the software have audio content, and use symbols and jingles to communicate the message.  Of course, this underlines the importance of voice recognition and text-to-speech tools for Indian languages.

Localisation and FLOSS

Unless there is a paradigm shift in the business model and proprietary software vendors bring about a sea change in their marketing strategy, free/libre open source software (FLOSS) is likely to play an important role in the mass-based localiation.  Proprietary software costs huge money, and use of open source software may reduce cost to affordable levels.  Moreover, detection of pirated software will be easy in a wired world and it will be vulnerable to malicious attacks.  Pirated software may be too risky inasmuch as computers and other devices will be used not just to type text or browse static web pages, but also to make financial and contractual transactions and generate outputs of evidentiary value. Moreover, volunteers can develop open source software even though it is financially unviable.  For instance Linux supports the Tibetan script (used in Tibet/Bhutan/parts of India) not available in proprietary softwares. In fine, localisation is the future in a globalised world, and it cannot be any different for India.

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