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Issue Seven

Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

Is India on the brink of a Digital Abyss?

Will information technology end up creating the equivalent of India's deeply divisive caste system in the 21st century?

By Venkatesh Hariharan <[email protected]>


It has taken me around three months in the US to realise that brahminism is not dead, it has merely assumed a new avatar in the digital age.

In the heyday of India's pernicious caste system, the Gayatri mantra was considered as the path to nirvana. The catch was that only the brahmins knew the mantra they would not impart it to any other caste. Salvation was thus a monopoly of those who were lucky enough to be born into the right caste.

Out here in Boston, the manner in which talk of computers and the Internet segues into every conversation, it is easy to believe that the whole world is close to attaining some form of digital nirvana.

But when I go onto a popular search engine like Altavista and do a reality check, the facts are shocking. On Altavista, you can search the Internet even in Estonian, a language spoken by 1.4 million people while Hindi which is spoken by around 400 million people is not even listed there. And don't even dare to ask about the other 17 official Indian languages or any one of the innumerable dialects spoken by around 700 million Indians. (Here, I am assuming that around one fourth of Indians use Hindi as a second language.)

The Altavista example is a perfect illustration of the vast schism between the urbanised, westernised, English speaking middle class of India and the rural, Indian language speaking parts where the vast majority of our countrymen live. Because most of information technology, and software in particular, was developed in the English speaking world, all of us who know English and use computers have become, unwittingly, the brahmins of the digital world.

At this point, it would be worthwhile to stop for a moment of self-introspection.

How did it happen that the national language of an aspiring "software superpower" finds no place at all on one of Internet's most popular search engines while a country, whose population is smaller than that of Mumbai's is listed prominently? (Search engines are one of the most crucial tools for Internet users because they help users search for specific information. Without search engines, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the vast amounts of information on the Internet.)

The answer is a sad tale of how science and technology in India often delivers very little benefits for the common man. The fact is that all the necessary conditions for an infotech revolution that truly touched the masses have existed in India for decades. Academic and research establishments have been working on Indian language scripts for the computer for several years. We were one of the first countries to climb onto the Internet bandwagon when the Education and Research Network was started in 1986. Yet, for reasons that I would like to understand better, they were unable to champion the use on a much larger scale.

But, why is this an issue worth making a hulabaloo about?

Because it is an issue that affects the other 95 percent of India that does not speak English.

This means that theoretically, out of India's population of 966.7 million, around 918 million Indians cannot use a PC because popular operating systems are not available in any of the official Indian languages. Add all the other issues like low purchasing power, poor PC penetration and telephone density, the minuscule number of Internet users and and its easy to see why these 918 million Indians are going to be the outcasts of the digital age.

Not that India is alone in the world. For the 5.5 billion people who live on planet Earth, there is an installed base of around 360 million PCs, which gives us a rate of 65 PCs for every thousand people. However, these figures are heavily skewed towards the developed countries of the world. In the US, this figure is as high as 450 per thousand while in India, it is an abysmally low 1.1 per thousand. The number of computers in most African countries is even lesser than India's. And even if computers became cheap enough, there are innumerable obstacles to be overcome before they are all connected to the Internet. More than two-thirds of the world has never made a phone call. Microsoft's Windows operating system is available only in around 30 of the 6,000 languages that exist in the world.

So, what PCs and the Internet do is democratise that thin, elite layer of the world that is fluent in English... a global digerati that is westernised and at home anywhere in the English-speaking world. They are the brahmins of the new world order.

That would have been acceptable in a world where the information technology was the preserve of the tiny band of nerds but not any longer. The Internet has rapidly evolved into a media that encompasses commerce, information and entertainment. In Japan, for example, information related activities are a large component of the overall economy and local sources estimate their contribution to be 41 percent of economic output! The world's IT industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world and the annual trade in computer products and services is a whopping $600 billion. (So, just imagine the magnitude of the market if even one percent of the other 99 percent of the digital age could be brought into the infotech revolution.) It is estimated that revenue generated by the interactive information industry could well reach $3.5 trillion worldwide by the year 2001.

Exclusion from this world will therefore create a new class of untouchables; those who live in what can be called "information poverty."

So will information technology end up creating the equivalent of India's deeply divisive caste system in the 21st century? unless drastic measures are taken, the ominous answer is "Yes."

If our so called "swadeshi" BJP government wants to do something serious about making India an IT superpower, it should immediately smash heads together and hammer out a widely accepted standard for computing in Indian languages. It must also aggressively lobby with Microsoft to ensure that Microsoft delivers Windows 2000 in all/some of the 18 official languages in India. After all, how can a country that does not even have an operating syste m in its national language become a software superpower? Or rescue its population from "information poverty."

Venkatesh Hariharan is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachussets Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at [email protected]



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Issue Seven