Kick-starting the linguistic revolution

Kick-starting the linguistic revolution

Submitted by Editor on Fri, 2016-11-04 13:24 India is globally recognised hotspot of languages. In this fast-changing world, it is essential to ensure the preservation and protection of Indian languages which represent our cultural heritage. Developing technology tools for Indian languages should be accorded equal importance as any other raging issue, be it climate change, deforestation, urbanisation and so on. This mammoth task can be accomplished only with the continuous participation of governments, citizen and civic organisations.  As the range of Indian languages is too wide, any IT solution will have to be customised to each language. Considering the ever-changing global and local scenarios, these solutions have to be found and deployed in a time-bound manner. Precious time has already been spent without any tangible and long-lasting solutions.   The IT tools for Indian languages may have the following components:  1. Basic PC tools like keyboard drivers, aesthetic fonts, font converters, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tools on all the types of devices.  2. Basic interface content in Indian languages, which is quite simple and innovative, so that all the devices will have language interface of choice.     3. Presence of massive online knowledge content management tools in all the languages which are useful for students, public, professionals, farmers, labourers, and other section of the society so that they access this through various devices, whether handheld or desktop.  4. Presence of a significant quantum of linguistic database for language research and mechanisation of tasks like translation, transliteration, search engine optimisation etc.,  5. Publication of major language works, fiction and non-fiction, in all topics and genres, so that the studies on languages are enabled with big data.  IT tool development is a social movement  There is a misconception that the development of IT tools for Indian languages is either a duty of government or a commercial necessity of the private sector. While the responsibility of the governments (both central and state), and corporates can never be ruled out, the society at large is equally duty-bound to participate in these efforts. This citizen participation or crowdsourcing is very much essential for developing long lasting open architecture solutions for Indian languages. Thus the role of people, NGOs, academic institutions and other organisations is quite important. Let us see how various governments, corporates, NGOs, and citizens could contribute to the development of IT tools for Indian languages.  Government: Way back, the Centre established a dedicated organisation called Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL), for the sole purpose of developing language tools, under the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). This organisation, along with other institutions like C-DAC, IITs, IISc and other technology institutions is doing a commendable service. But I must also say that there is a lot more to do. These institutions, under the TDIL, must open up to the IT community. A synergy between these institutions and the community will result in robust and more functional tools. Be it OCR, or font development, the TDIL should open its research repository to the research community outside its campus. This will definitely yield quick and desired results. There are numerous instances worldwide to show that IT crowd has developed much more sophisticated tools than some of the best minds inside organisations.  As part of restructuring the process of IT tool development, the Centre has already accelerated the process under Digital India, by establishing a dedicated office for Open Source Community. This is a revolutionary step by the central government.  This office should be given more powers to coordinate the development of IT tools by the central government and other state governments to avoid "locked in" technologies.     The Centre should immediately release all its IT tools in public domain so that the obsolete tools are updated and put back into usage.   Most of the state governments are not showing much interest in developing IT tools. The TDIL should become the nodal office for any IT tools development by any state government so that the replication is avoided, funds are not wasted in inventing the same wheel. The central and state IT resources should be pooled to bring more efficient tools within short span.       The Centre should bring all of its departmental, public centric portals in multiple languages. The effort by the PM's office in launching language versions of Prime Minister's website is a refreshing development. It may look very complex process, but this will reveal the diversity of India. C-DAC's Go-Translate tool can be an indicator of things to come. All state governments can opt for publishing their content in their official state language/s. There should be a clear coordination between the central and state government portals in order to reflect similar content in a standardised, uniform style. Crosslinking and hyperlinking should happen seamlessly, and Application Program Interfaces (APIs) should be made available. There are some specific tasks that can be undertaken by various ministries:  1. The MHRD can create platforms to share the Indian language IT tool development that is taking place in universities and academic institutions. This is a very important step, as many universities have been doing significant research in language IT tools. The MHRD should directly monitor the IT tool development and oversee the resource management, thus saving time, money and speeding up the research.  2. The various ministries in central and state governments should pool their IT requirements and share the same with the TDIL so that all these are taken into account.  3. The Commerce Ministry may issue a directive or change its rulebook, paving the way for printing language content in all the packaged goods. Similarly, all departments can follow the same idea with respect to their domains and deliverables.    4. Overall, there should be a single, unified online platform (similar and synchronous with GitHub) where all the governmental efforts in developing IT tools are professionally displayed with a room for crowd participation.   Corporates: The IT tool development by private companies and corporates is largely due to the advent of local, upcountry commerce. Since China has a closed, authoritarian administration, India is the only and largest single market for global corporates. This is the reason behind corporate behemoths like Facebook and Google looking to provide maximum attention to localisation. In fact, the localisation campaign by companies like FB, Google, Samsung and others are quite significant, though a bit fragmented. There is much to do by these companies.  Corporates should be in touch with governments and share the information on their efforts to develop IT tools. This will enable the government to prioritise the tasks as per the market needs and also keep a tab on the commercialisation of localisation. While it is absolutely within their rights of corporates to develop IT tools towards their commercial ends, the government has its task cut out to take care of the societal responsibilities. Any IT tool development and technology deployment in Indian languages should never result in "walled gardens".  Equal and open access to all the language tools to all the citizen of India is a basic requirement.  Citizen participation: The active and real-time participation of people in IT tool development is essential in India. While there are few NGOs working purely in IT domain, their participation in Indian language development is still in nascent stages. The people should insist on getting information in their languages, apart from Hindi, the official language. At the same time, the public should also share the challenge of localisation and help the governments.  This may be voluntary or on not-for-profit basis.  I suggest the following actions to be undertaken in order to speed-up IT tool development: 1. A National Task Force comprising of central and state government  representatives, corporate technology experts, NGOs and individuals from across the country, language-wise experts and activists. This committee may meet online on a weekly basis and push the ongoing projects and complete them without further delay. Though this looks very imaginative, this committee can sit for long hours, language-wise/technology-wise. This mission mode operation can be sustained until the movement gathers momentum.  2. A brisk campaign for collecting the information on the ongoing projects should be undertaken by the National Task Force. This is because of the reason that similar projects are undertaken simultaneously. This list should be published in real-time so that the related project teams can come together and work in unison.  3. The Centre should immediately bring a suitable legislation making embedding of uniform language IT tools and language options mandatory in all the IT gadgets, handheld devices like smartphones and tablets. This would immediately enable citizen to use the language of their choice. 4. The Centre should convene a meeting of movie makers, TV/radio channel managements, advertisement companies to find a way to minimise the unwarranted usage of English and replacing English words and phrases with language terms. This may not be done through legislation, but a sustained effort may definitely yield results.  5. The MHRD can immediately chalk out a massive translation programme to translate many of the subject textbooks from high school level to graduate/post-graduate level so that the mother tongue education policy is supported by content too.  Long-term measures  1. The Centre in coordination with state governments should come out with a policy for education through mother tongue. All the legal hurdles should be discussed threadbare and resolved so that the litigation is minimised.  2. Linguistic research should be linked to IT tool development process. Right now, this linkage is very weak. The IT tool development should be the collective responsibility of linguistic experts and IT enthusiasts.   3. A mega database of the corpus in all the languages should be developed including those which are already in various phases. These databases should be shared with the IT community that all IT tool related research is supported.  These are only indicative action points. The development of Indian languages needs a careful planning and clinical time-bound execution. Only an inclusive, participatory approach will fetch desired results. It needs strong administrative willingness to go along with the community and a positive response from other stakeholders.  Author: Beluru Sudarshana is a IT journalist - activist and media consultant. He can be reached through beluru@beluru.com. His writings can be read through his blog: http://www.beluru.com