​Amazon's Hindi website shows how badly e-commerce needs India's non-English-speaking shoppers

Having squeezed the last drops from the country's English speakers, e-commerce outfits in India now realise that it is Indian language users who will provide the bulk of the boom that is yet to come.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

How many Indians speak English? That has become the burning question for e-commerce in India, and the answer to it may be not more than a 100 million people, with probably only half of that number armed with a modest degree of expertise.

Add to this fact that, out of 390 million Indians who use the internet, only 40 percent perform online transactions, according to a study undertaken by Google, Bain & Company, and Omidyar Networks. You have two things: A real crisis in monetizing the gigantic valuations commanded by companies like Flipkart, and, of course, the impetus behind Amazon's decision to launch a Hindi website for its Indian users.

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I wrote a post earlier this year that gave a sense of how crucial vernacular -- or local -- Indian languages have become not just to startups like Sharechat but also to foreign giants like Google, eager to tap into the 1.3 billion population that will fuel its future bottom line, especially considering it has been banned from operating in China.

Amazon has realised that to see real, meaningful numbers in India, and for its e-commerce market to realise the expectations of its growth from $33 billion to $150 billion by 2022, according to a PwC and KPMG estimate, it has to rope in the 1.2 billion that do not speak English.

The following stats undoubtedly drove this realisation home: English language users will grow to just 199 million by 2021, while Indian language users will double to 536 million. The same study surveyed 7,000 urban and rural smartphone users across eight languages and found that 99 percent of local language-speaking smartphone users accessed the internet using their smartphones versus a national average of 78 percent. Therefore, launching Indian languages for anyone operating in India is not an experiment anymore, it is an imperative for success in the country.

Amazon's Hindi language users will be able to pull down a menu and choose it rather than English on the main website. The option is now available on Android and the mobile website, soon incorporating Apple devices and desktops. Other Indian languages such as Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, which are large linguistic populations in the east and the south will also apparently be added soon, but it makes sense that Hindi was chosen above others, since nearly 425 million speak it as a first language and around 120 million others do so as their second one.

It is ironic that English, which allowed India's elite to become the CEOs of Pepsi, Google, Mastercard, and McKinsey amongst other global companies, and allowed its engineers and doctors to become wealthy and affluent abroad with an ease that no other immigrant group has been able to in quite the same way, is now being supplanted by Hindi in e-commerce. Hindi, after all, was propped up by the British in the late 1800s as one amongst an arsenal of tools used to undermine the then-ruling Mughal Empire, which used Urdu as an official language, and foment division between Hindus and Muslims.

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In fact, Urdu and Hindi overlap by some 80 percent, and the origins of both are fascinating, complicated, and controversial. Urdu is said to have emerged from the army camps of the early Turco-Persian Mughals. Hindi was based on the Khari Boli dialect, and the Devanagiri script, that developed its literary tradition from the 16th century onwards. At some point both languages converged enough to establish significant overlap but became competitors for official language status as independence approached. By then, the British had created enough of a rift between them, backing them intermittently based on the Raj's games of realpolitik, and the bloody end-game of partition resulted in Urdu becoming the official language of Pakistan, and Hindi was enshrined in the India's new constitution chiseled out in 1950.

Today, India's 23 states still robustly use their own distinct languages. Someone from the state of Karnataka, where some 64 million people largely speak Kannada, can hop across the border to the state of Andhra Pradesh, where the population of 50 million largely speak Telugu and not understand a word of what anyone is saying.

However, Hindi, taught as a second language in most schools across the country due to its official language status, has a popular ambassador in the form of the Hindi film industry, also called Bollywood, and indeed many of its most popular film stars have come from the south. Even though the Southern part of India deeply resent impositions of Hindi on it by the federal government in various ways, it is perhaps the only language other than English that has a pan-Indian cache.

And yet, none of the big names in e-commerce have so far pursued the option of catering to Hindi speaking users. According to Reuters, neither Flipkart nor the distant number three Snapdeal has a local language version of their websites but are undoubtedly looking into it seriously now that Amazon has launched. Even PayTM Mall, run by digital payments provider PayTM, has most of its listings in English, even though it has now allowed customers to make their purchases in 10 Indian languages.

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Amazon's decision is as much part of a numbers-driven necessity as it is a potent symbol driven by a changing India. No longer is English such a status symbol, a hangover from the deep insecurities and imitative aspirations that the British Raj stamped onto its subjects as they attempted to emulate their masters. Today, Hindi is in vogue, as are other regional dialects such as Bhojpuri from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, especially in the film industry.

This is not to say that English is still not intensely aspirational when it comes to getting jobs or going abroad for a university education. It still is. Yet, slowly but steadily, new generations of young urban Indians are reclaiming their linguistic heritage alongside their English as a way of bolstering their identities. But for the remaining gigantic majority, Hindi has nothing to do with the politics of identity or national pride. It simply is their only mode of communication, something that e-commerce is quickly waking up to.

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