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Unicode: Empowering Localisation in e-Governance

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I am proud that Maharashtra and our beloved language Marathi, which goes back to centuries and which enshrines a rich cultural, religious and historical heritage has found its rightful place on the digital platform

Prithviraj Chavan, Hon’ble Chief Minister, Government of Maharashtra

ndian languages on the digital medium form an inherent part of our lives today. Be it producing content, digital publishing, video, e-books, web-pages, mobiles, tablets,  viewing subtitles and banners on TV and very soon having your own URL in an Indian language of your choice: these are taken for granted and it seems that Indian languages have always existed on the digital medium.

Imagine the herculean task of providing support for 22 official languages of India as well as our heritage scripts such as Grantha, Modi, Vedic on the computer platform and one can see that this multi-lingual support on the digital medium has been a technical adventure. I am honoured to have been associated with this saga and to have played an important part  in this revolution which has brought Indian languages to the doorsteps of the people of our country and ensured that each one of us can work in his/her own mother-tongue.

The Beginning

It all started with a small chip.  In the 1980’s the Government of India opened up doors to personal computers. However the world of computing was limited to English thus denying 95% of Indians who think and work in their mother-tongues. This was made possible thanks to the successful GIST (Graphics & Intelligence based Script Technology) technology, which was funded by DoE (Dept. of Electronics, Govt. of India – now Dept. of Electronic and Information Technology). The first commercial ASIC chip in India was developed:  the GIST Chip 9000 – for processing Indian languages with their complex features. Housed in CDAC Pune, the GIST lab supported ably by a team of dedicated hardware and software experts ensured that Indian languages burst upon the computer medium in all domains. I am proud to have contributed in a large capacity to the success of Indian languages. I remember coming to the University campus where the GIST lab was located and working nights with the hardware and software developers to make this revolution a great success.

The GIST chip started off the great multi-lingual revolution of India bringing Indian languages to the door-steps of Indians. The Chip evolved over the years with changes to increase programmability, improve logic implementation allowed for Indian scripts processing. It led logically to the invention of the GIST Card which was inserted within the then computers or Terminals for Unix and along with the requisite software allowed the user to store, input and view data.


“In the social revolution that has brought Marathi into each and every household, I am honoured to have made a humble contribution”— Prithviraj Chavan


Standards: ISCII

However along with the solution there was a need to create standards, since it is on the bedrock of standards that all computing resides. The fundamental standard evolved between 1988 and 1991 was ISCII. ISCII along with the INSCRIPT keyboard is a BIS standard and is a coding scheme for representing various writing systems of India. It reposes on the fundamental concept that all Indian scripts with the exception of scripts such as Urdu which are based on Perso-Arabic, are derived from the ancient Brahmi script.  Be it languages of the Indo-Aryan family: e.g. Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Assamese, Bangla, Punjabi or be it those of the Dravidian family: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and even those of the Munda and Tibeto-Burman family such as Santhali or Boro, the scripts follow a similar pattern: a Unity in Diversity. ISCII encoded characters with the same phonetic value as one single code-point. This fundamental structure of Indian scripts allowed for development of ISCII which binds all languages and their writing systems in one single encoding. The advantages are obvious: easy Transliteration from one script to another (within certain limitations), mutual intelligibility and above all one uniform storage system.  Since Indian languages are syllabic in nature and repose on the fundamental Akshar, ISCII also proposed a Backus-Naur formalism which allowed for a trouble-free implantation of the ISCII syllable on the computer platform and permitted for the first time in the history of writing in the world for the user to detect whether (s)he had made an error in inputting the syllable, the error being pointed out by means of a round character familiarly termed as “golu”. I had participated in discussions along with researchers and scholars of the team led by the dynamic Mohan Tambe, to finalise ISCII and also a keyboard common to all Brahmi-based languages.

The development of ISCII led to one more important revolution: the INSCRIPT (Indian languages Script) keyboard. The same principle underlying ISCII: all scripts on one single platform; was the principle underlying the INSCRIPT keyboard. All scripts and by corollary all languages using the script were accommodated on one single keyboard. The Inscript keyboard is a technical marvel of linguistic engineering. The advantage of the Inscript keyboard is obvious: once learnt, it can be deployed for entering another language and since Indians normally work in one or more languages, this allows a user to type in say Marathi and Kannada or Hindi and Gujarati without the need to learn a new keyboard

The pillars of all computing include Ergonomic Input Mechanism And Unambiguous Storage with one to one correspondence have been the heart of all Indian language computing on which all future high end devices and applications have been built.


The massive encyclopedia, the Marathi Vishwakosh, is available today on all devices at the click of a button. The Marathi language lover can access it on his tablets, notebooks, smart-phones or PCs


Standards: UNICODE

The world talks Unicode. Unicode came on the scene in the late 90’s and immediately adopted ISCII as the de-facto standard for Indian language computing. The only difference was that unlike ISCII which tried to place all Brahmi-based scripts on to one single platform, Unicode identified different scripts and provided a “code-page” for each of these scripts. Over 25 scripts are supported for Indian languages ranging from Devanagari to Tamil to Vedic Sanskrit. Unicode allows for both 8 bit (UTF-8) and 16 Bit storage. Today it has become the de-facto standard for multi-lingual computing and all data whether it be content or even video-text is stored and displayed in Unicode. The text you are reading has been entered using an INSCRIPT keyboard which is Unicode compliant, high quality fonts for display are also Unicode compliant and the storage in your word-processor is also in terms of Unicode.


The Maharashtra Government with its mission to bring our mayboli onto the digital platform has made Unicode mandatory on all its websites and all content is stored in Unicode


Why Standards

Standards are a must for all computing. They ensure that data can be safely stored in one single manner, freely exchanged and above all viewed by all. The Maharashtra Government with its mission to bring our mayboli onto the digital platform has made Unicode mandatory on all its websites and all content is stored in Unicode. This is vital for e-governance where data has to flow freely between the user and the administration. Standards play a big role in the area of education: be it e-learning or providing to the public free e-books which can be rendered perfectly on a variety of platforms: iPAD to Android. The massive encyclopedia, the Marathi Vishwakosh, is available today on all devices at the click of a button. The Marathi language lover can access it on his tablets, notebooks, smart-phones or PCs . Standards are the wheel that makes the world go round. Thanks to the script-grammar which defines the exact manner in which the Marathi language is written: be it simple shapes or complex conjuncts, one uniform way of writing Marathi will slowly be adopted all over Maharashtra

Conclusion

I am proud that Maharashtra and our beloved language Marathi, which goes back to centuries and which enshrines a rich cultural, religious and historical heritage has found its rightful place on the digital platform. In this important social revolution which has brought Marathi into each and every household, I am honoured to have made a humble contribution and lit the first lamp which has brought knowledge and information to our state.

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