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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The mystery of missing Indian languages

Why don't we see more Indian language content on the internet?

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

Why don’t we see more Indian language content on the internet?

For instance, there are over 200 odd million people who can read and write in Hindi. But Hindi doesn’t figure in any listing of the top ten languages used on the internet globally. Japanese, a cussedly difficult language to read or write, makes it to the top five. This, from a country with less than one-tenth the population of India.

It is not as if Indian languages fare better at home. Any listing of top ten websites out of India brings up only English portals. “On an average, Indian language websites get about 12-15 per cent of the traffic that English sites get,” says Prashanth Rao, general manager, Times Internet. Advertiser interest in them is even more abysmal. He would know. Rao earlier worked with one of the largest language portals in India, Webdunia.com.

The reasons seem elusive. It can’t be because there isn’t a market for language content in India. The fastest growth in audience and revenue numbers is coming from language newspaper groups such as Jagran Prakashan, DB Corporation or Malayala Manorama, among others. In television the most exciting companies, as any investor will tell you, are the ones with a “language play” in their portfolio. There is Sun, Eenadu, Zee and more recently Star India. There are others such as Viacom and Sony, which are now aggressively pursuing Indian language markets.

This is not surprising. In the Indian media and entertainment business, scale and profitability can only be achieved by catering to its heterogeneity.

Take TV news for instance. In 2000, the only challenger to state-owned DD News was Star News, an upmarket English news channel (then). That is when Aaj Tak came along and made news more relevant and real. It set the Hindi news market and finally the language news market on fire. Ditto for entertainment television after the success of Zee Marathi and Sun TV.

So why haven’t we seen an Aaj Tak on the net? Or a Sun TV or a Dainik Jagran? Three reasons emerge.

One is penetration. At last count, there were over 83 million internet users in India going by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India numbers. India is the world’s fourth-largest internet market in the world, according to Internet World Stats. Yet both Rao, and Rediff.com founder Ajit Balakrishnan reckon that penetration is a huge issue. “The internet is working its way very slowly through the 75 million ‘English-knowing’ group; once it crosses that level it will move to Indian languages,” says Balakrishnan. Rao adds that till the whole broadband/penetration story really hits small-town India, a la mobile phones, language content cannot take off.

They have a point. Cable penetration took off fastest in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. That is when the language television industries in each of these states took off. Globally, take a look at Japan and Korea, where everyone is on broadband across devices. So, usage is very high and therefore their languages figure in the top ten.

Two, “The effort so far has been to ‘translate’ content into local languages rather than actually ‘create’ content that is relevant to a particular language group,” says Sanjay Trehan, head, MSN India. For example, says an IAMAI-IMRB report on vernacular content, Hindi websites tend to be too literal and true to the classical Hindi instead of the spoken Hindi. This makes it inaccessible even to Hindi speaking people.

Three, “There is no one language domination unlike Mandarin in China,” says R, Sundar, CEO, Times Business Solutions. Most of the hardware is still configured to English. The sheer variety of languages makes configuring hardware and software around one language somewhat uneconomical. Besides English remains, says Sundar, an aspirational language.

The bottom-line; inspite of a ready market, the eco-system to serve it is not yet ready. A successful Indian language search engine could have kick-started it. While there is the odd Raftaar (a Hindi search engine), “India has so far not come up with its own version of Baidu (a very popular Chinese search engine),” says Trehan.

If much of this sounds chicken and eggish, it is. Penetration will drive content or vice versa. But one of them has to take off first. The question is what will?

vanitakohli@hotmail.com

First Published: Tue, March 15 2011. 00:42 IST
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