DHAKA, Bangladesh, 18 May 2006
Indian language computing solutions in free/libre and open source software (FOSS) is "doing fine" but needs better documenting and packaging. It also needs to find sufficient numbers of users. There is a lot of potential for regional, cross-country cooperation in this field in South Asia, a region in urgent need of solutions to its computing challenges. This interview with Sarai.net, the Delhi-based new media initiative, also self-defined as a "space for research, practice and conversation about the contemporary media and urban constellations", will explore these questions.
Ravikant (37) is both passionate and vocal about the need for Indic languages (such as such as Hindi and Sanskrit) in computing. Says the Delhi-based social scientist: "I got involved with it because I am a basically a bi-lingual person, trying to write both in English and Hindi, and someone who read and taught in both language."
He taught History in colleges of the Delhi University for seven years, and has been for some time with Sarai.net, the new media programme working out of the Indian capital.
What does he feel India has so far achieved on the Indic-computing language front?
Says he, a bit cryptically: "We are doing very fine. One thing we have not been able to do in a serious way is documenting and packaging the solutions that have been worked on (to get the solutions out)."
If this was made available, then the solutions already put out to make computing work in Indian languages "would go far beyond the Linux For You (a technical journal of free software and open source hobbyists) and beyond the cocoons" we are currently restricted to, he believes.
Ravikant sees a problem though in the limited number of users who prefer to use free software solutions in Indian languages. Incidentally, this complaint comes from a country where many techies are comfortable using the English language, and thus unwittingly contributing to the problem.
"Why? I don’t know why. This is true even with the people who offer solutions through the market. People like Red Hat (one in many corporations promoting free/libre and open source software, or FOSS) find that the people are not there. There still seems to be a limited number of users for Indic-language computing solutions," he adds.
"Indian techies are more English-oriented, and come from a particular background. Computer users are themselves either not GNU/Linux users, or they don’t know enough about Linux, or they have not been told," he complains.
Ravikant argues that the hard work – in terms of finding free software solutions for many major Indian languages – has been done. "But we can’t take it to the hills. Unless we have very good manuals, mailing lists and other awareness-building tools which take it out to the non-converts," says he.
So how were the technical solutions accomplished?
"It’s a very nice mix of all kinds of things. The public (government) contribution has been minimal. They have done everything to discourage the localisers, to discourage the free software movement, and to spread anarchy as far as standards and fonts are concerned," he complains.
"The work has been done by – I can speak about the Hindi language – by volunteers plus some taking small grants from (the Delhi-based non governmental organisation) Sarai (and corporations like) Novel, or Red Hat. Red Hat has now dedicated teams for Punjabi. They are also deploying an Urdu person," he says.
Ravikant feels support from companies like Red Hat could be welcome: "They know there is a community. They source the community. They pick up the guys who have been doing things on a volunteer basis or with small grants. Which is fine. Except that we want their outcomes to go through a rigorous process of evaluation, which Red Hat has not been able to do so far."
Ravikant, who responds to localised software with the concern of an actual user, points to the FOSS world’s need for a good publishing software in, say, Indian languages.
"People out there (whom we’ve approached) don’t tell us who is managing Scribus (the free software-based desktop publishing tool). We still don’t have a very good dictionary across languages," he says.
But there are signs of hope from unexpected quarters.
"What gives us a fillip is some person sitting somewhere (far away), and working out some solution because the source code is available. That’s all based on their love for Mozilla Firefox (the FOSS internet browser). They go on to create and add their own plug-ins. That inspires us," he reiterates.
What Ravikant is alluding to here in this recent case is Mozilla/Firefox plug-in for diverse encoding systems to Unicode. It’s called the Padma Plug-in, and helps bridge the "legacy gap" created by Indian solutions using various incompatible fonts that caused chaos for any person surfing Indian language websites.
"Padma was created by a non-resident Indian (NRI) who’s from Hyderabad. He must be young, and is based somewhere in the US," explains Ravikant.
What’s currently available includes Indian-language based browsers, and the Open Office.
"Now, there’s one Sarai fellow, who virtually single-handedly translated (the FOSS desktop environment) KDE and a lot of Gnome," says Ravikant, introducing us to Ravishankar Shrivastav. He’s also a poet and a "one-man army" who translates.
Ravikant notes that there’s a very good culture of blogs emerging in Hindi. "You have all types of people (volunteering for this work) including people who value freedom," he says.
When asked if it would make sense to localise FOSS software that works on the Windows platform too, he answers that "It would be nice if we start most popular applications".
What should suitable localised software be like?
"It should look accessible, and should not convolute the problem further. If you give out a word which looks tougher then what’s available in English, then the users are likely to be put off. They would say let’s try and learn
English (instead of trying to cope with, say, incomprehensible Hindi)."
How does he evaluate the successes of various Indian languages?
Ravikant sees the South Indian language of Tamil as having done "very well", both probably due to the involvement of expatriate Tamil communities, and also because work on it was started early.
Hindi localisation in FOSS has been taken over by Red Hat but they’re concentrating on Gnome. The Punjabi language has taken off very quickly, and also draws support from firms.
Marathi and Gujarati, two languages from western India, have covered a lot of work, Bangla, spoken both in the Indian state of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh, has done some "great work", he says.
Urdu, as far as India goes, is still starting. But he sees the chance of linking up with neighbouring Pakistan, for long countries mutually seeing each other as unfriendly rivals, but now left with very similar challenges to tackle on the local language computing front.
"There is chance of linking up with Pakistan for fonts. We have to develop basic stuff with Pakistan. (India’s government-funded) C-DAC’s fonts are dated, and not in Unicode," he explains.
These Indian languages do need solutions fast. Many of the bigger tongues here are spoken by many tens (or even hundreds) of millions of speakers. Hindi has an estimated 337 million speakers, Tamil has 53 million, Punjabi has 23 million, Marathi 63 million, Gujarati 41 million,
Bengali has 70 million (with more than that number in neighbouring Bangladesh), and Urdu has 43 million speakers in India alone, with it being a prominent language in Pakistan too.
Ravikant strongly believes that the speakers of the language should get a chance to influence the shape of their language when it goes into computing.
Take the case of how modern Hindi was built. During the independence struggle, people borrowed commas and symbols from English and other languages, he points out. This happened through a debate, which was conducted publicly through mainstream journals. "Standards were not decided from the top by (an official language called the) Rajbhasha Vibag, as done in post independence times. And we know how disastrous the latter policy was," he adds.
Ravikant sees an explosion of content happening in Indian languages. "The markets have taken over. It’s both good and bad for; the market won’t help smaller, unwritten languages that have very little visual, journalistic or textual presence there."
Sarai.net, the new-media institute Ravikant is part of, "instinctively became a part" of the localisation of computing project, he says, realising its importance.
"Sarai has a commitment to free software itself, while debating to what aspect we can extend and apply the free software philosophy to various areas of life. For instance, in the production of knowledge production, in seeing what media people are using, in understanding what lessons people can learn."
Sarai has published books and run lists in both in English and Hindi. Its Deewan mailing-list (Hindi for ‘Collection’) has some 60 members, and runs off Mailman, the mailing-list software.
It’s easy to set up a mailing list run on an Indian language, he says. "You need one set of Unicode fonts, and one typing mechanism to be able to write. You can use the phonetic, Inscript or any traditional typing mechanism (keyboard). It’s so easy. We have wasted years and years debating this. Use all the five different Indic keyboards if you please," he adds.
How big is the community and its translators? "It’s not big. I can count five people who would contribute on and off to the Hindi translation. We’re also lucky to have one guy sitting in London, Vivek Rai, who’s also a techie," he concludes.
NOTE FROM APCNews: After the issue of localisation – and South Asian cooperation over this – came up repeatedly at the APC regional consultation on ICT Policy in South Asia (April 2006 in Dhaka, Bangladesh) threw up new options.
APC’s South Asian member BytesForAll launched a new mailing list, specifically focused on Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS, or FOSS).
It said: "Rather than replicating the many existing FLOSS networks, this one intends to have a specific agenda (i) build regional South Asian links among FLOSS campaigners, users and supporters (ii) sharing resources and building networks among those working on localisation of FLOSS, particularly on languages which have implications for more than one language in the region, or whose initiatives we can learn from (with a special emphasis on Urdu, Bengali, Nepali, the Devanagari script, smaller languages currently unsupported by FLOSS and/or proprietorial software, etc)."
Photo by FN for APCNews. April 2006. Ravikant.