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Why Is The Indian Vernacular Digital Space Critical And A Thriving Platform?

What could be the rationale for the speed at which the web is increasingly adopting the vernacular languages? Read to find out.

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Ground Zero

In the winter of 2011, Indians were dispirited to hear the news of the BBC World Service pulling the plug on Hindi short-wave services. It was the most heartbreaking news for its audience ranging from Soldiers to Maoists, farmers to factory workers. The BBC with 70 years of broadcasting in India, has become a heritage network and a household news broadcaster. Thousands of protesters began encircling Bush House, the then headquarters of the BBC World Service; they were demanding the BBC overturn its decision. The BBC's decision rocked the House of Commons and the British Parliament and eventually won a reprieve from shutting down.

Few things seemed out of the ordinary in early October 2017, when the BBC, the titan in the world of Broadcasting, got the show on the road in Punjabi, Telugu, Marathi and Gujarati digital news service. These days, various media outlets envisaged a brighter opportunity in localising the offering and set forth to enjoy the regional digital footprint. Publications have been central to the emergence of the digital era. The print and online publications are progressively venturing into native languages.

It would be astonishing to peek at the speed the web is increasingly adopting the vernacular languages. What could be the rationale? Punjabi is the 10th most spoken in the world, as the majority of people in Pakistan converse in Punjabi. Telugu and Marathi remain World's 15th and 16th most spoken. The digital space can reach 250 million Bengali population in India and Bangladesh. As per People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Bengali is the second most spoken language in India followed by Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu and Gujrati. Tamil is World's 18th most spoken language, other than being one of the official languages of Singapore and Sri Lanka.

In 1991, following the death of Ramnath Goenka, the patriarch of The Indian Express Group, the litigious squabble over inheritance resulted in the most profound split. It was duck soup for his heirs to divide and distribute the business into a separate southern edition and northern edition since the newspaper was a tangible product. Traditionally, markets and rights were divided and allocated on a territorial basis. However, the strategy apparently irrelevant today to the boundaryless digital world, furthermore, publications these days are both tangible and intangible product. On the other hand, the digital footprint is increasingly becoming the product-service hybrid.

Journey to Regionals

In 2015, The Times of India, the bellwether of Indian Newspapers, checked into vernacular online space and operating under 'Samayam'. Indian Express digital is all set to launch in Bengali, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada, besides the existing Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam news portals. AOL, Firstpost, Hindustan Times, The Pioneer and The Statesman launched in Hindi and other vernacular, and the grand success is drawing a large number of readers. India Today has been riding on the success story Living Media scripted, many moons ago. The Quint, on the eve of India's 71st Independence Day, has tested the waters by carrying a campaign "Bol in your Maathrubhasha" or "Talk to us in your mother tongue". This perhaps, a pilot for a possible extension to the portal in regional languages.

According to a study by United Nations Population Division, Asia held sway in World Internet users with 49%. India secured the second spot in Asia with 23% share out of the 1.94 billion Internet users in Asia. No accolades for guessing Asia's and World's topper, Zhongguo took the dragon's share with 40% and 23% respectively. India ranked only behind China. In the 4 billion Global Internet population, English commands the lions share in digital communication across the globe with 30% followed by Chinese 19% and Spanish 8%. There are a plethora of websites, pages, portals and blogs in each regional language, yet the share of each Indian vernacular languages is not more than 0.01%

According to the International Journal of Advanced Research in Computer Engineering and Technology, 47% of people prefer reading online medium. Consequently, there is a Brobdingnagian of potential for online media players. The category preference in digital news across regional internet users in 2016 provides a framework for interpretation. Local news and politics garnered 70%. Thus, the titans of news are planning to make inroads into the lucrative regional news genre.

Historically, language has held a significant space in India. Sixty-five percent of the country converse in vernacular. Furthermore, the Indian diaspora and exodus from rural India retained their linguistic, civic, cultural, spiritual and emotional bond with their origin. Though people consume English publications, they are obsessed with media in native language they grew up in and uphold the presence of their mother tongue.

Social Media and most of the web initially adopted English as a lingua franca. Howbeit, they swiftly had to innovate, ape and adapt to gain traction. These days, mother tongue is given much emphasis by not just newspapers and social media but every player in the digital domain. When it comes to offerings and services, the non-English speaking population need others help in booking tickets, paying bills, and online shopping or trading. Latterly, IRCTC has made railway ticket booking possible in Hindi. Recently, Oxford University Press has introduced online dictionaries in Tamil and Gujarati. Many e-commerce, retail, fintech and other industries are adding vernacular variants to their existing portals. Zerodha, an online stock trading company launched its multi-lingual trading platform Kite in 2015. Yourstory, a dedicated portal for startups and entrepreneurs, funded by Kalaari and Ratan Tata, has made its content available in 13 languages. Most of the State Governments have the user interface in local languages for better governance and utility services to suit the convenience of users. Thus, the moves on the vernacular digital chessboard are taking place at a fast pace; English was nonetheless elbowed out.

The Enablers

Since years, vernacular digital space was untapped, due to low literacy rates, lack of technology, low income, mobile and Internet penetration in India. Thus, pockets of digitally disenfranchised persisted. Notwithstanding the fact that English is one of the official languages of the country, a mere 15% (estimate) of Indians can read and 12% can converse in English. The rest of Indian population is a sea of opportunity to grasp. Google estimated that the digital media would grow at 26%, vernacular users poised to grow by 18% CAGR. In contrast, English users growth rate expected to be 3%, which means English portals have neither lost its relevance nor dependency. The digital players may add additional languages but do not clamp down on the English version. English, temporarily maxed out its growth, as English user's increase is proportionate to the growth rate of Indians who converse in English.

Evolving technology and digital phenomenon, changing lifestyle, growing income levels, population and literacy rates are the key factors driving the growth. The literacy rates in rural India is impressively increasing from 46% as per 1991 census, to 58% in 2001 and 69% as per 2011 census. There are 420 million internet users in 2017. Urban India commands 60% and projected penetration growth at 9%, perhaps reached a level of saturation. In contrast, rural India registered 17% with a promising growth rate of 26% penetration; these numbers are a testament to the potential scope for tapping the market. IAMAI-IMRB survey indicates that there are 750 million unrealised internet users in rural India.

Increasing number of National Advertisers are crossing the Rubicon by foraying into local digital space to reach sizeable audiences. The regional footprint, no doubt is a tremendous opportunity for both advertisers and businesses. However, the regional portals were tied to the local advertisers' apron strings, due to uncertainty associated with the national advertisers. During turbulence, national advertisers often pull out the plug on vernacular ads first, in a bid to cut costs. However, they seem to have made some course correction and began to spread their budget allocation and investment risk. On the other hand, Indian print media is growing at 12%. The Indian Print media enjoys one-fifths of the total advertising revenue pie, while digital media with less than 8% is in a larval stage of the bright-coloured butterfly or growth phase.

India, with 22 official languages, 1600+ dialects, it won't be an exaggeration to say that toggery, delicacies, sociolect, the Internet and media consumption habits change every few hundred miles across the country.

American writer and father of American literature Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain said: “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great-grandmother of tradition.”

We’ll be witnessing more of such Vogue with every platform footslogging and battle it out to capture the local language space. Language is the central fact of Indians, catch the wave now or be left behind. The clock is ticking on the vernacular race.

A field of honour

The triangular competition among digital media, print media and electronic media will be exciting to watch out for! On the other hand the social media trio Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are trying to be the go-to place for news.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Sunil Dhavala

The author is a Media Entrepreneur. He had held senior management roles at National Geographic Channel, Fox Broadcasting, Radio Television Luxembourg,Star, WPP and other media companies. Sunil is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Foreign Trade and also contributes to several newspapers.

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