Issue #15 January 2006

Localization as a movement in India

by Rajesh Ranjan


A few days back, a famous writer from Kannada, India, U R Anantmurthy, mentioned in an interview that languages are the repositories of culture. The importance of enabling this culture of languages to not merely survive but flourish in this digital age cannot be understated. If a language is not becoming part of digital advancement then the language will become outdated and endangered and in some cases might even become a thing of the past. End of a language means end of a culture. Thanks to the free software ideology and contemporary open source development methods that have given a new lease on life to many different languages, no matter how small we are, we now have the potential to fix this fundamental issue. Free and open source software, unlike other bureaucratic processes, enable each individual, including you, to contribute toward enabling local language computing and thereby expediting the process of adoption of technologies enabled by computers in rural India. We all can cherish Mahatma Gandhi's quote "Whatever you do will be insignificant but it's very important that you do it." That is why the free software movement enabled by collaborative peers in the community is of paramount importance here. It is a fact that proprietary groups cannot afford to fulfill the needs of the masses, especially in an economy with limited purchasing power, but we in the community of open source computing can rise to the occasion.

In India, so many groups are working to have their languages enabled on computers. "Localizing free software for a free country" is the slogan of IndLinux, a major and popular group having enormous success with this work. IndLinux is a group of people who believe, not so surprisingly, that the benefits of information technology must be widely and freely available to the Indian masses. They are a group of people who combine skills in written scripts, free/open source technologies, and technology journalism to make this happen.

This organization has inspired so many new groups to come forward to work together. Punlinux is one of the most successful examples. Within two years, this group has localized an enormous amount of content in Punjabi, a vibrant language and culture of India. Everything from Fedora® to GNOME to KDE to OpenOffice and all! A great success story from an organization based in rural India! None of the Punlinux members has any urban base! Mix of love for language and open source has produced unbelievable results like this one example.

There are several other efforts being made to Indianize Linux®. One major effort, Ankur, is a collaborative initiative aimed at bringing Bangla to the FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) desktop. The core objective of Ankur is to make available a completely localized GNU/Linux OS and they have received notable success in this field.

Open source contribution of Utkarsh in giving the power of computers to the Gujarati speaking populace is also immense. It is one of the most professionally managed organizations. IndianOSS is another one committed to the cause of Gujarati computing.

Tamil has several active communities. http://sourceforge.net/projects/zha is one of the major efforts. TAMIL-LINux is another group involved in the development of Tamil on Linux/Unix. The BharateeyaOO project is an initiative to bring OpenOffice to India in Indian languages by the ICT Research and Training Centre (India). It is being done as part of the activities of the Development Gateway Foundation. Project Malayalam for the Malayalam Package offers a set of macros and fonts for typesetting Malayalam, which is the primary language of an estimated 33 million people in the South Indian state of Kerala. The Linux in Oriya project is the initiative for making Linux available in Oriya. The GNU/Linux Telugu Localization Effort aims at localizing most common applications on GNU/Linux to Telugu including GNOME, KDE, Mozilla, and OpenOffice. Swathantra Malayalam Computing at present is focusing on translating/localizing GNU/Linux GUI into Malayalam. Swathantra Malayalam fonts is a sub-project of Swathantra Malayalam Computing. Their aim is to make enough free (Swathantra) Malayalam fonts. Indic Trans also works in the field of Linux localization in Indian languages. The Indic-Computing Project is providing technical documentation for Indian language computing issues.

There are several more names: Kannada Localization Initiative works for Kannada language and Thamiz Linux is yet another effort from the Tamil language. Free software localization in Assamese works for Assamese, MarathiOpenSource works for Marathi language, Swecha is a GNU/Linux Telugu localization effort for Telugu language, and http://thamizha.com encompasses multiple projects such as localization of Firefox and OpenOffice among others. A project has even started for minority languages like Maithili, which is spoken in a particular part of a state of India and was incorporated in the schedule of the constitution of India in recent years. It is a fact that in some projects, the pace of work may not be as rapid, but the above examples show there is great awareness and response towards transparent and collaborative open source localization and its methodology.

If the subcontinent of India could be described in a single keyword, diversity would be it. There are about 500 languages in India in which 22 of them are considered official. It's easy enough to imagine the situation merely by knowing that in a small country like Nepal there are more than 50 languages. Sooner or later these smaller languages can hope to go hand in hand with information technology but only through the free software philosophy. The localization movement in the neighboring countries of India has also started. The language of the mountains of Gorkhali, a.k.a. Nepali, has only 1.6 million speakers. A group working with Madan Puraskar Pustakalay has shown a significant momentum in the field of localization in Nepali language last year. This group has completely localized the Gnome desktop. Dzongkha, sometimes called Bhutanese, is the national language of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The goal of Dzongkha Localization Project is to incorporate Dzongkha script into Linux to enable computing in Dzongkha to provide the benefit of information and communication technology to the Bhutanese masses. This project is implemented by the Royal Government of Bhutan and is being funded by International Development Research Center (IDRC), Canada, through its Pan Asia Networking (PAN).

The Sinhala Linux Project is another project to localize Linux in Sinhala. This was started by Lanka Linux User Group (LKLUG). The PAN Localization Project has a broader reach. It is a regional initiative to develop local language capacity in Asia. This organization is working for the following languages: Bangla, Dzongkha, Khmer, Lao, Nepali, Pashto, Sinhala, and Urdu. Generally, dominant languages suppress minority languages. But in the case of Punjabi in Pakistan it is different. In Pakistan, Punjabi is spoken by the majority but the government there does not seem to support this language. So Punlinux has planned to start the localization of Punjabi in Shamukhi script and already filed an enhancement request to create a separate locale for it. This can only be possible in the world of open source! Just like a democracy where every person is equal, in the eyes of open source, every language can be made equal in computing!

Localization of open source software is a transparent and community-driven process. That is why it is easier to customize the software according to local needs. Sometimes, due to cultural differences, people may not be comfortable with western user interfaces. But the difficulty does not stop there. Imagine the struggle of the typical rural Indian to understand metaphors like folders and recycle bins! You might as well as speak Greek, no offense to the friendly folks from Greece. It is particularly true in the case of a major language like Hindi and languages like Bengali and Punjabi that are spoken in two different countries that the whole language is basically split into different zones in two neighboring countries. Hindi is spoken and understood by more than half of the Indian population and has innumerable dialects. In the open source environment, it is easier to modify things according to specific needs irrespective of the profit-loss theory so very typical of the proprietary world. The open source model is not only helping to achieve the local need but also maintains respect for the local emotions. For example, Bengali is now divided into two separate locale (bn_BD and bn_IN) in Fedora and Mozilla after the demand from the community. Basically, localization in open source alone has the power to represent futuristic language computing.

The contribution of Red Hat making the localization effort successful and lively is enormous. By selecting five Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi and Gujarati), Red Hat has given great impetus to l10n and i18n works related to Indian needs. Working on a computer with local languages was never so easy. Red Hat launched Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora in those five Indian languages and localized them at not only the application level but at the operating system level also. Red Hat is going to launch similar efforts in eight more languages: Assamese (as), Kannada (kn), Malayalam (ml), Marathi (mr), Oriya (or), Sinhala (si), Telugu (te), and Urdu (ur). This is enough to demonstrate Red Hat's compassion and commitment to India and its local language computing industry.

The President of India, Abdul Kalam once said, "In India, open source code software will have to come and stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people." In a poor country like India where per capita income is much lower than the average, words of our president and visionary Mr. Kalam should be an important bottom line. These localized computers will be very useful in the field of rural computing. The people of real India only speak their native languages. For them, English represents the language and culture of British domination and exploitations. In analyzing why radio and television has a deep-rooted impact in India, especially in the rural areas, we can understand that the main reason is the availability of television programs produced in local languages. The localization movement in India has made 'alien' computer 'desi' one--hamara computer, tumhara computer. The Local Language IT market is in a development stage and it is rising with exponential growth. E-governance is one major field where localization of software is a must. The cost of hardware is going down very fast and in this context, the future of localized open source software is great.

Last year the government started a program to launch localized CDs in all 22 official languages. Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu language CDs have already launched. Many of the applications available on the CD were released under the GNU General Public License (GPL). This is a success story of the localization movement in India. The initiative has been funded by the Indian government. It has planned to distribute 3.5 million copies of the Hindi Language CDs after the popularity. IndiX is a project funded by TDIL working on Indian language support for Linux. CDAC, a government organization, has also done important work for supporting open source software localization.

There are many people and several organizations in India that support the open source ideology. A strikingly unique example of this is the establishment of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University) in 1997. An eminent Hindi poet and former Secretary in the Ministry of Culture of India, Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi was the first vice chancellor of the university and he made the decision to run the university completely on open source. During his tenure, two books (in Hindi) and a bilingual magazine (in Hindi and English) were published completely on open source technology. Having open source computer based technology which works in a native language, particularly in Hindi, was the main target of the university. (On the website it is still the same!!) It is unfortunate that the situation hasn't been so positive after the completion of his term!

The Delhi-based non-profit organization Sarai is fully committed to the use, propagation, and development of free software. Sarai has played a key role in the localization of some of the Indian languages. According to Sarai, free software emerged as a democratic alternative to proprietary control over code. Sarai has encouraged so many people to engage and enlarge this domain by giving fellowships and having several workshops.

The work of localization started long before and now it has taken the form of movement. Internet availability, lack of resources, and illiteracy are some hindrances in the path of local language computing. The major hurdle is the mentality of the English speaking elite who sneer at the local language computing efforts. The elite have not had any grass-root experience, but they are still controlling the major positions within administration and finance. But ultimately they have to stumble down against the force of the local language computing market. Two decades ago, the condition of the television industry was similar to the present computer industry in India. Positive changes are inevitable and also not very far off in the field of computers.

Poet Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi once wrote that the Indian tradition of selfless distribution of knowledge is very old and universal. We can say that the free software movement is the western version of the old Indian tradition. Mr. Vajpeyi's statement is very right and so, in the long term, Indian soil will prove itself very fertile for open source software. "Where knowledge is free" was the dream of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore for his nation and now the time is moving ahead toward his dreamland

About the author

Rajesh Ranjan is Language Maintainer, Hindi at Red Hat. He is working with several localization projects including Fedora, GNOME, Openoffice.org, and Mozilla. He is the Indic Language Co-ordinator for the Native Language Confederation of Openoffice.org. Before joining Red Hat, he worked with The Indian Express Group and Literate World, Inc.