There will be 85 million Internet users in rural India, with 56 million active users by 2014, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) released on Tuesday.
To begin with, nearly 42 percent of Internet users in rural India prefer to go online in local languages, reports The Times of India. So to bridge this gap, there needs to be more design, development, and deployment--the 3 D's as I call it--of digital content, gaming, and mobile content, in regional languages. From a developer's perspective, design and development isn't the real issue: it's the deployment in regional languages. Porting content to different regional languages is both cumbersome and time consuming, although resources are readily available across India.
So what's the issue? Users simply need to be informed and education that they can go online in their regional languages. As easy and as simple as it sounds, it's not. The reason is the obvious: most online content is in English, and the majority of the rural users in India are not comfortable accessing content in English.
My personal solution to this would be two-fold. To begin with, obviously offer digital content, gaming, and mobile content in regional languages, not just English.
What I would do is have content appear automatically in the regional languages depending on geographic region in India. Again, it's not hard conceptually, and in fact, Indian mobile operators already do this. For example, if you have a New Delhi-based SIM card, voice prompts for alerting callers to the user being on the other line or the phone being switched off, are in Hindi, then English. If you go North to Punjab, it's in Punjabi, Hindi, and then English. If you go South to Maharashtra, it's in Marathi, Hindi, and then English. Clearly, Hindi and English messages are always present as they are two of India’s official languages, but depending on what geographic region you are roaming in, the regional language is the primary voice prompt.
Thus, Indian mobile operators have the technology to filter content based on roaming regions, so why not extend this further to their online portals? That's one aspect I don't understand as I've roamed across India with my New Delhi based Vodafone number and always accessed the same Vodafone online portal: same content, different region. It just doesn't make sense to me. Think about it: are the majority of people in rural India in either Punjab or Maharashtra, for example, going to be able to understand online portal content in just Hindi and English? Most likely not.
Next, users in rural India simply need to be informed and educated, again in their regional languages, with what is available online, with the goal of directing them to regional content. This is something I feel the mobile operators in India should do together as a collaborative effort and project, as clearly it would benefit all involved. What's the point of having rural Internet users if they're neither educated nor informed that content is available in regional languages, thus making them more comfortable to go online?
From what I sense, rural India wants to keep up the pace with their urban counterparts, but again primarily because of linguistic issues, this is holding them back. It will be interesting to see how rural Indians come together online from now until the federal elections in 2014, as it will be a new medium of information and news at their fingertips, which wasn't available before.