Across India, multiple associations, groups and companies are working on everything from Indian search engines to domain names in Indian languages and better fonts.
Last week, the RSS affiliate Research for Resurgence Foundation (RFRF) launched its own local language email domain. This is part of a nationwide move towards a more Indian internet and a clear attempt to create a distinct web identity separate from the US-, and English-dominated World Wide Web. Across India, multiple associations, groups and companies are working on everything from Indian search engines to domain names in Indian languages and better fonts. However, we are still short of a more coordinated, more national-level, move towards the same.
China is a great role-model everyone is looking at. The country has an internet of its own, powered by local languages and homegrown tech giants. The power of global internet companies like Google and Facebook suddenly disappears as it approaches the Great Wall. While it must be a great feeling to be part of such a sovereign web entity, the biggest success of the Chinese internet has to be how it has been able to spawn thousands of companies that have innovated to provide solutions for its users, and then for the world at large. This could answer why we don’t really have a global internet company yet, like a Baidu or Alibaba.
However, it won’t be that easy for India to do the same. One, we should have thought of this three decades ago, and not in 2018. Initial strides towards the internet were very much with a local viewpoint; however, somewhere we ended up being part of the larger global stream when it came to standards and software.
Two, we already have close to 500 million internet users who are accessing the web the way it is, so getting them to use the internet from URLs to search in their own language might not be easy.
Three, English is the most accepted language across the country, maybe even more than Hindi. So, an Indian internet will have to find a new path that looks beyond Hindi as the solution and does not end up being as fragmented as our languages actually are. That will need a concerted effort, and not a piecemeal strategy.
There is a larger issue we are all missing. Yes, regional languages are the next big area for growth of the internet in India. In fact, almost every new user of the internet now is most likely someone who does not read in English. That is why access to the internet is needed in languages other than English, and that is where voice could end up being the great facilitator.
But there is another trend we are missing. Our languages themselves are not growing, and those who can read these languages are ageing. There is a clear trend of people reading more regional content in English, because they are outside their state or are just not comfortable reading their mother tongue. This is a more disturbing issue. As the Indian economy grows and become more cosmopolitan, the rate of this erosion of Indian languages might gather pace. So, the opportunity of offering the internet in regional languages might be one that could peak, plateau and decline soon.
And this is not an issue we can tackle on the internet. It is time we thought from a policy stage and built a strategy to ensure that our languages are not lost in the long run. And, yes, digital is a big part of this. So while we work on a more Indian version of the internet, giving children early exposure to this will be crucial. Also, it might not help keeping it voluntary, because the pull of the World Wide Web will be greater. But we could incentivise our version of the web in the initial stages. After all, the future of Digital India might be linked to the future of India more than we imagined.