India’s diversity is perhaps best represented by the sheer variety of languages that are spoken across the nation. Currently, there are more than 120 languages with at least 10,000 speakers each. For decades this has offered lucrative opportunities in the form of targeted content that helped to not just tap into new markets, but also expand in exhausted spaces. Until the early 2000s, this happened mainly through the print medium, along with audio and video streams. Now digital has come up as the latest platform to employ India’s indigenous languages to drive improved outreach to people across the world.
Digital opportunities in Indic languages can be assessed by the fact that by 2021, non-English internet users will account for nearly 75 percent of the nation’s total internet user base. India’s internet market had around 570 million users as of end-2018, and this is expected to grow to 630 million by end-2019. India has come up as one of the fastest-growing internet markets globally, owing to a rapid rise in smartphone usage as well as the availability of the cheapest mobile data prices in the world. The promises this has offered have led to Indian and foreign firms racing to best access the business scope in Indic languages.
Scale of opportunity
The scale of opportunities has been vast – from content for a variety of online platforms such as social media outlets, news and entertainment portals as well as government and consumer services, to content for devices and services powered by new-gen technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning (ML). Strategic digital communications in Indic languages have also recorded strong success. To further this, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), along with leading technology developers, has set up the FICCI-Indian Language Internet Alliance (FICCI-ILIA).
Apart from supporting business opportunities in the digitisation of Indic languages, FICCI-ILIA has united the stakeholders who have been operating in the Indic language space for nearly two decades. The ecosystem has allowed proactive exchanges of ideas and objectives, as well as knowledge and best practices.
Internet giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have already taken up Indic languages to empower their outreach. This has led to a proliferation of Indic language applications and websites with a mobile-first focus that are targeting first-time smartphone users as well as users in India’s tier-2 and 3 markets. Therefore, the development of technologies to support digital content in Indic languages is seeing intense activity. Investments in the space, which cover both hardware and software, have provided fast inroads into India’s untapped semi-urban and rural markets that promise strong income growth.
Challenges on the way
Inadequate hardware and software support for Indic languages online have restricted the growth of the sector. There are also difficulties with monetisation of content, lack of ample Indic language text corpus, innovation related to services such as accurate language translation, availability of funding and skill sets, apart from the challenges with technology standardisation. While content creation in Indic languages has been held back owing to the lack of technological support, challenges around integrating Indic languages into payment gateways have limited online commerce. Weak digital awareness has also restricted growth.
Meanwhile, concerns around data security and privacy have become more complicated in non-English internet. Additionally, correcting fake online information in Indic languages has gotten especially difficult. In the recent past, fake news in Indic languages has led to online harassment, even fatal mob attacks.
However, these challenges have encouraged R&D of remedial measures. Be it through technology innovation, improved content marketing, skill development, or technologies to guide mass dissemination of information, the challenges in the Indian internet space are being increasingly dealt with. This will drive technological empowerment of India’s youth-heavy 1.3 billion population – a vital aspect of the nation’s economic development. Going ahead, Indic language internet, a key enabler in bridging India’s digital divide, will offer increased opportunities to investors and innovators alike. This will be critical in cementing India’s global leadership.