Nilotpal Baruah
Wikipedia’s Tinu Cherian, right, and Subhashish Panigrahi
society: knowledge
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Wikipedia is betting on its Indian language versions to drive growth
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The Fountainhead

  • Wikipedia, a free online encyclopaedia that anybody can contribute to, has 3.6 million articles in its English version
  • Over 60% of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from the US, Germany, Japan, the UK, Canada, France
  • Big opportunities now in China, South Korea and India, where less than 10% of online population use Wikipedia now
  • Most popular Indian language Wikipedias: Hindi (97,013 articles), Marathi (33,711), Tamil (32,439), Bangla (22,234) and Malayalam (18,193)

***

Chances are you haven’t heard of Angika, or even realised you had heard it being spoken. Indeed, the odds are greater you came across it online, especially on Wikipedia. As the world’s most popular encyclopaedia seeks to grow outside the West, it is lesser known languages like Angika—spoken mainly in Bihar and Jharkhand—that the site promoters are betting on. Currently in incubation, along with 19 other Indian language micro sites, the Angika version should go live soon, joining the 20 operational Indic Wikipedias like Hindi, Marathi and Tamil.

India’s rising importance in the expansion plans of Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia) is evident from the fact that its first office outside the US is set to open—in Delhi. In a related development, Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Bishakha Datta has been appointed to Wikimedia’s board of directors. It has also launched its first-ever ‘Campus Ambassadors’ programme in Pune, modelled after universities in America where teachers and students come together to contribute to Wikipedia. And it’s not all research and details. Indians were also the sixth largest donors to Wikimedia—they gave $1,93,000 dollars last financial year.

It was inevitable, really. Wikimedia had little choice but to come to India as growth in the West, or the ‘Global North’, tapers off. What began in 2001 as an idea to take as much information as possible to as many people in a multitude of languages—all this for free—which gained spectacular success, catapulting Wikipedia to the fifth most visited website, has now hit a roadblock. As it finalised growth plans in February, just after celebrating its 10th anniversary, it was clear that Wikimedia had to focus on the ‘Global South’ to keep growing. China was thought of as an alternative but was dropped because of state censorship. India was a more obvious choice with its “strong culture of free speech” and its numerous languages. “There is a huge growth potential here...just look at the number of languages,” says Datta. What also worked in India’s favour is the rapidly growing number of Indians going online; there are currently over 11 million broadband subscribers in the country. “More and more people will now begin accessing the internet from their phones, not even their laptops,” she says. “And India has over 750 million cellphone consumers.”

A lot of this growth is going to come from India’s young. This is why they are targeting students in Pune, known for its many educational institutes. “Wikipedia editors throughout the world tend to be younger people who are immersed in the world of information and learning. So we see college campuses as the natural place for us to be,” says Hisham Mundol, a consultant hired recently to oversee Wikimedia’s activities in India. “Moreover, Pune’s student community comes from all over the country, making it an ideal place for diversity and participation.” Diversification of Wikipedia into different Indian languages is actually not just replicating existing information on the English version but bringing in new information. For instance, the Telugu entry on Alluri Sita Rama Raju, a freedom fighter from Andhra Pradesh, is much more detailed, along with photographs, than the one in English, points out Arjuna Rao Chavala, an administrator with the Telugu Wikipedia.

Of all the Indian language Wikipedias, the Malayalam one has especially been noted for the quality of its articles. However, after the launch in 2002, it struggled with a tally of little over 400 entries till about 2005. That changed as workshops in Kerala sought to raise awareness and create a community of people who could generate reliable content. The number of entries on the site has now gone up to over 18,000; the articles are more detailed, with a high frequency of reliable citation. This has also indigenised knowledge generation. “For a long time, most of the contributions on Malayalam Wikipedia came from emigre Malayalis. But now we have started receiving more contributions from Kerala itself,” says Tinu Cherian, an editor with the site.

The Malayalam Wikipedia also prospered because of indirect backing from the previous Left Front government. It allowed Wikipedia to borrow content from Sarvavijnanakosam, a state-sponsored encyclopaedia, and launched ‘School Wiki’ in 2009, a website about the state’s schools and one that, like Wikipedia, can be edited by anyone, including students. The government also introduced a chapter on Wikipedia for students of classes VIII, IX and X. “All these measures will indirectly ensure that we have a community of people who can keep the Malayalam Wikipedia going,” says Shiju Alex, one of the site’s administrators.

“The key is greater awareness,” agrees Jayanth Nath, an administrator at the Bangla Wikipedia. The version has as many as 150 active users but strangely only 10 of them are from West Bengal. That’s because most users are Bangladeshis, perhaps why the site didn’t have a single India-related article till as late as 2007. “We have actually just finished a full-length feature article on India,” says Jayanth, quite unselfconsciously. “Of course, this also means that there is tremendous scope to grow.”

In fact, it was the dearth of Wikipedians that set the rot in the Oriya version of the encyclopaedia despite it being one of the first off the blocks in ’02. “For eight years, there were no efforts made to generate awareness or create a community. The entries just had titles, no text or pictures and no citations,” says Subhashish Panigrahi in Bangalore, who’s spearheading the resurrection drive. A repeat of the Oriya example is what Bishakha fears the most. “We keep asking—will there be a community to create Wikipedias, edit and sustain them always,” she says. This fear is at its most menacing for languages like Angika, spoken mostly in the hinterland far from the cities. “We have to reach out to people who have moved to urban areas and have adopted technology, instil in them a pride of having an encyclopaedia in their language,” says Mumbai-based Kundan Amitabh, administrator for the Angika Wikipedia.

The stakes in seeing Wikipedia succeed in India are high, not just for its supporters, but in a way also for the country. For its fortunes are intertwined with several factors: the survival and enrichment of Indian languages, access to the Net, growth in literacy and especially the development of computer interface. The day when Indian language Wikipedias list their millionth article, it will be a hard-earned triumph not just for the encyclopaedia but also for hundreds of millions of non-English speakers in this country. Wikipedia, after all, is just a footnote in the larger India story.

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