The Broad Mind | Digital Odisha

By Aditya Dash

Accesibility of knowledge is the great equaliser in society.

You can read this because you know how to read English. Imagine the internet content available for people who cannot read English? What if you can only read Oriya? The scope for accessing the vast ocean of knowledge on the internet is severely limited. This is a very fundamental barier and a very prominent but overlooked wall that make up the “digital divide”. We have the government and private sector focusing on the infrastructure hurdles such as fibre optic cables and internet connectivity through 4G networks. We have manufactures of laptops, cellphones, and tablets that will ensure that such devices will be made available at a very low cost to consumers. Is the Odisha market worth their trouble? Is it something that market forces can deliver?

Going by the 2011 census the literacy rate of Odisha is 73.45 percent (82.4 percent male, 64.36 percent female). Out of the literate population the percentage of people who can read and write English will be even lower. BJD being the prominent regional party should take the lead in making Oriya content available on the internet. The BJP can also take a lead and boost its prospects in the state. Let us acknolwedge the fact that the digital divide is not simply about lack of fibre optic cables in every Panchayat, language is a very real and very prominent wall in denying the fruits of the internet to the majority of the Oriya population.

The Department of Tourism & Culture should collaborate with Department of Information Technology and launch new schemes. One of the areas they could focus on is in translating relevant information in Oriya. The scope is immense so some focus is needed. The Food and Agricultural Organisation has a huge list of manuals for farming, horticulture, animal husbandary and fisheries all available in English. Translating these into Oriya would be an efficient way of disseminating valuble information. Another area where the state government can take a proactive role is by collaborating with popular software companies such as Microsoft, Google and Mozilla and launch an Oriya versions of their software.

While we wait and hope for the government machinery to act upon such suggestions there is plenty of scope for the private citizen to join this campaign. One can have an awareness session amongst prominent media organisations of Odisha for adopting a uniform (unicode) Oriya script for their websites. The unicode Oriya script is something like the unviersal Oriya script, however it will be useful only if people start using it. This is especially the case with the print industy which continues to use non-Unicode Oriya fonts for typing. Hopefully a prominent media organisation can lead by example.

The information revloution has made the world flat. Now we have a chance to contribute to society by simply creating content on Oriya Wikipedia or even English Wikipedia for that matter. Oriya Wikipedia could use a lot of volunteers, it currently has around 50 active contributors. Wikipedia for those who do not know is the online open source encyclopedia. Contrary to popular perception it is not somewhere where anyone can simply post and edit information. Citation rules are strictly enforced and voluntary editors ensure that the content is very accurate. Oriya Wikipedia hasn’t got the mainstream attention that such an important project deserves. Maybe young politicians and bureacrats can motivate society and raise awarness about this noble initiative. Educational institutions such as schools and universities can also contribute towards this project, the act of creating a valid Wikipedia entry has tremendous educational values. It enhances writing, research, and citation skills.

Other open source projects are also possible. There are simple ones such as identifying and writing about prominent tourist spots on popular apps like Google Maps, Wikimapia and TripAdvisor. Other more ambitious open source projects would include translating the huge collection of manuscripts available with the Odisha State museum. The museum will be (again don’t really know how long they will take) making the manuscripts available online, with help of the National Informatics Center. During my visit to the manuscript preservation lab I learnt that existing readers of Oriya language can easily learn and decipher the ancient palm leaf manuscripts (you do not need formal training for it). So join in and spread knowledge, appreciate the power of knowledge. Accesibility of knowledge is the great equaliser in society. Let us spread it.

Aditya Dash is a seafood exporter based on Orissa. He is also an alumnus of the Takshashila Institution.