Thursday, October 25, 2007

Only limited knowledge can be accessed through the window the State has opened

THE ambitious Akshaya project, drawn up by the Government of Kerala to achieve total computer literacy in the State, is moving towards the final phase. It was launched as a pilot project in Malappuram in 2003 with the aim of making one member of each family computer literate. Encouraged by its success, it was later extended to eight of the State’s 14 districts. On its completion, at least one member of each family is expected to be able to handle the computer.

The project evoked much interest abroad. UNESCO offered financial assistance. Several foreigners came to study the working of the project, and everyone expressed appreciation. A new technology usually creates a divide between the haves and the have-nots. Everyone welcomed the scheme as an effort to bridge the digital divide and extend the benefits of information technology to all sections of the people.

The project envisages the establishment of 3,000 e-centres in the State. They are expected to yield two benefits: one, they will generate employment opportunities; two, they will help realize the concept of e-governance. However, first reports from Malappuram raise doubts about some of the calculations behind it. Nearly 40% of the centres opened in that district have downed the shutters after incurring losses. If such centres cannot be run profitably in Malappuram, what will happen in districts which lack extensive overseas contacts?

Computer prices have come down drastically since the project was drawn up. Consequently, more people now have the capacity to buy them. This leads to a lowering of demand on public facilities. The authorities must take note of such developments and make suitable corrective measures. Otherwise, the e-centres may meet with the same fate as the industrial estates which ended up as graveyards of small industries.

An attractive feature of the Akshaya project is that it envisages use of IT to hasten economic and social development. One of its proclaimed objectives is “the creation of a society which is ready for capitalizing on Knowledge for economic and social development”. It also seeks to promote e-education, e-agriculture and e-commerce. However, it is doubtful if the necessary infrastructure is in place.

The use of the Internet is continuing to grow worldwide. The number of Internet users in India is said to have grown from 1.4 million to 42 million during the past decade. China is ahead of India in this area. It already had 1.2 million Internet users when India had only 200,000. People use the Internet for different purposes. A recent global study showed that Indians are leading in access to sex-related websites. Considering the repressive approach to sex in Indian society, this is not surprising. Kerala’s situation is probably no different from that of the country as a whole.

In discussing use of the Internet, we must remember that it is essentially a tool. Many tools can be used for good or bad purposes. A favourable climate is necessary to ensure that this tool is used for good purposes. Today the Internet is a popular forum where opinions are expressed freely. The appearance of Malayalam blogs indicates that in Kerala too it is gaining recognition as such a medium.

Computer literacy alone will not make Kerala a knowledge society. A person with proficiency in the English language can access information that is available anywhere through the Internet. The Akshaya project has merely opened a window. There is not much scope for one who knows only Malayalam to access information using the computer. Even with printed literature, the possibility of acquiring knowledge through Malayalam is limited. This is because there are not many books in the language that impart knowledge.

Gathering the information available on different subjects and making all of it available in Malayalam through the Internet can be a trying exercise. There is actually no need for it. The Internet has mechanisms for instant translation of material available in English into various other languages, including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. If a similar mechanism can be created for instant translation from English to Malayalam on the computer, all knowledge available in the English language will immediately become accessible in Malayalam. However, no one appears to be working on the creation of such a mechanism.

Universities in the United States had made a big contribution to the development of the Internet. No university in Kerala has shown interest in promoting the use of Malayalam on the computer. The apathy of our institutions and scholars in this matter has already caused incalculable harm. A Unicode converter capable of rendering in Indian scripts any matter keyed in using the Roman script is available on the Net. When you use it for Malayalam, you find a couple of half-sounds missing. If our authorities had taken some interest at the time the Unicode was adapted for Indian languages, this would not have happened. Some individual efforts to remedy the situation are going on.

Those interested in the survival of Malayalam must help create systems for imparting knowledge through the language. An Internet translation mechanism has great relevance in this context. Until it becomes available, Malayalees can acquire very little knowledge through the window the Akshaya project has opened.
Based on Nerkkazhcha column appearing in Kerala Kaumudi of October 25, 2007

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