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September 3, 1998


Vittal sets tone for multilingual IT talks

Michael Gonsalves in Pune

Email this story to a friend. The seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference on information technology got off to an enthusiastic start on Wednesday morning at Pune.

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EMMIT '98, has been organised by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, under the aegis of the Indian ministry of external affairs.

Delegates, attending the conference, are from SAARC countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and the Maldives besides India, which is hosting the event.

In his keynote address at the inaugural session, N Vittal, chairman, Public Enterprises Selection Board, who is designated to take charge soon as the chief vigilance commissioner of India, called for intensive development and use of multilingual and multimedia tools for improving the life of the common man.

Citing the problems of poverty, illiteracy and infrastructure deficiencies that the SAARC nations suffer from, he advocated the use of IT for quicker development.

The lifestyle of the peoples of these nations can catch up with those in the developed world if there is dedication towards "the use of the versatile meta resource" of IT, he said.

SAARC nations share a common and rich cultural heritage, also a multiplicity of languages and scripts. To preserve all this, said Vittal, it is necessary to reach out to the common people through easily comprehensible multimedia technology, in the citizens' mother language. This would lead to higher productivity of the human resource.

Quoting Professor Mehbubul Haq, Vittal said it is now time of an 'education emergency' in the South Asian region and called for vigorously pursuing the goal of total literacy within the next few years by using information technology.

"We need not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task," he assured. He spoke of India's experience in overcoming the problems of food and milk insufficiency through the 'green revolution' and 'operation milk-flood'. The quantum leap in TV coverage in a very short span of time in India is another instance that demonstrates how the impossible can be achieved, he said.

"What is needed is the will to apply ourselves in enlightened self interest to create avenues for employment and eradicate illiteracy," he felt.

He said that the objective of a multilingual and multimedia technology project should be to create a citizen-government interface. This should yield the quickest results in terms of making life easier for the common people.

Here, he gave the example of the Andhra Pradesh government where, "with the vision of Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, a lot many government departments have been computerised and a statewide fibreoptic network is being laid.

Vittal suggested the extensive use of demonstrations of the successful applications of IT to get various state governments and the people more involved. Computer literacy must be made an integral and compulsory part of the education system, he added.

The government, in India has already made computers eligible for 100 per cent depreciation in two years and this should make it easier for greater computerisation, Vittal hoped.

Vittal also suggested tax setoffs for companies investing in computers for schools to speed up the use of IT. The National Taskforce on IT has focussed on removing several bottlenecks in this regard, he pointed out.

Any national project for computerisation, to reach out widely, calls for a high degree of localisation, or development of content in the local languages, and this could be used as a means to increase employment.

Various employment generation funds of the government could be used toward this, Vittal suggested.

It would be appropriate, said Vittal, to follow the nuclear model for the purpose of total use of IT in society. That is to first generate a critical mass in terms of connectivity, accessibility, affordability and reliability through higher telecom and computer density among the population.

Only multilingual and multimedia technology can make the actual reach happen and the benefits to the people occur, asserted Vittal.

Emphasising that Western solutions would not be optimal, Prithviraj Chavan, MP, called for indigenous development of content for multimedia applications if IT is to benefit the vast non-English speaking population of India and the SAARC nations.

Chavan said it is regrettable that there is practically no awareness among the people, including among the engineers and the IT professionals, about the latest developments in the field of multilingual and multimedia processing and applications.

He said the government, being the major funding agency and the largest buyer of IT products, has insisted on at least bilingual software packaging and would look for much greater practicability of the research efforts in terms of machine translation and speech recognition.

The focus for funding should be the needs of the people, not those of the researchers, Chavan added.

The Congress MP opined that the Department of Electronics and the ministries of information and broadcasting and telecommunications could be usefully wound up to make way for a ministry of information technology.

The DoE is working at sub-critical levels, without a marketing focus, and is spreading itself too thin, he said.

Chavan said the bandwidth spectrum allocation could be taken care of by an appropriate agency, once the DoT is corporatised.

He said the National Informatics Centre too has not lived up to the expectation as the data has not been upgraded for several years.

Chavan said although much investment has been made to move to multimedia to language access, the facility is not being used much.

While commending C-DAC for the good work done in the area of multilingual and multimedia IT, Chavan said there was a perceptible lack of marketing orientation in assessing the needs of the users.

Citing a case, he said not many people have heard of GIST (Graphics and Intelligence Script Technology) developed by C-DAC and the ISCII (Indian Standard Code for Information Interchange).

In Singapore, for example, where Tamil is one of the national languages, these could be introduced, Chavan said. "Similarly we must offer solutions that could be used by our neighbouring SAARC countries", he added.

Chavan said there has not been much work by the private sector companies in India in this area, largely because the field is not a glamorous one in terms of commerce.

He suggested that every MP could have his own home page so as to be more accessible to his/her constituents.

Chavan said the ministry of external affairs could gift other SAARC nations with the systems developed here in the proper spirit of exchange of technology.

He identified a major hurdle for the multilingual and multimedia IT to take off, at least in India as the proliferation of engineers and technical people lacked marketing focus for reaching out to the people.

He pointed out that recommendation number 108 of the IT Taskforce of the government of India is for the use of Indian languages for the penetration of IT use in the country.

Chavan warned that without faster developments in multilingual and multimedia IT, the reach would remain restricted to the 3 per cent population that is English literate.

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