Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Only the Minor Languages Minister?

Only the Minor Languages Minister?
So the Union Human Resource Development Ministry has decided to launch a programme to salvage the minor languages of India from ‘possible extinction in the not-so-distant future’. This will be done a project christened the ‘Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana’. The project will be implemented by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore (CIIL). The project is for minor languages that are not covered under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, primarily those spoken by about 10000 or lesser number of persons. There are nearly 100 such languages. And if you are looking for languages spoken by 10000 or more speakers, the list grows to 450.
One would have felt happy and commended the ministry for such an obviously good endeavour were it not late by over half a century. One would like to know how many minor languages India and the subcontinent have already lost in the last century and under colonial rule. Has the CIIL documented the linguistic extinction that has already taken place? Nevertheless, at least the government has woken up to the need for taking ‘urgent steps to preserve the unique heritage India has in its linguistic diversity.’
The HRD Ministry is asking the Planning Commission to allocate Rs. 50 crore for it in the 11th Five Year Plan. This comes to Rs. 10 crore a year for at least 100 of these languages. The project will involve documentation of these languages, their literatures, oral traditions, historical and sociological research on scripts and orthographic conventions, typographic and design, linguistic and lexicographic research. You can guess how much money will actually get to be effectively spent on each language given the way our great and efficient bureaucracy works.
Apart from these academic reasons the Ministry has also stressed to the Commission the importance of socio-linguistic development of small and marginalized communities in our multi-lingual country. This is some progress. From looking at the issue of minor languages from an academic perspective the government has finally linked it with the social development of the communities speaking them.
I guess we will have to wait for another 50-60 years for someone in the government to see the link between language, society, culture and finally, economy. Actually, the most surprising thing is that while there is so much debate and concern about the cultural impact of globalisation, even the impact on languages has been commented upon in academic circles, there is hardly any public evidence that the Indian intelligentsia has noticed and studied the link between language and economy of a community and the way they interact with each other and other factors.
Allow me a little vanity here and say that I told the Prime Minister about it. The occasion was the infrequent but mandatory meeting of the Kendriya Hindi Samiti, the highest supervisory body for the promotion of ‘rajbhasha’ Hindi. The Prime Minister heads it, the Union Home Minister if its vice chairman. Its members include six chief ministers, six union ministers and Hindi activists, writers, journalists etc. Yours truly is a member too. So, at the last meeting I submitted to the PM that as an economist he should appreciate that besides all the literary-cultural aspects, language is an economic issue. And that it was a great pity and a surprise that no one seemed to make the connection.
Let me explain the point I made. Besides the oft-quoted digital divide, there is also a language divide. It is clear. It is visible. But we don’t seem to see it. There are the English-haves and the English-have-nots. The E-haves find all doors of growth, opportunity, prestige, access to technology, latest knowledge, know-how, upward mobility open to them if they have the talent, the inclination and the drive. The E-have-nots too have these, but to a distressingly smaller extent. They too grow but when not competing with the E-haves. Most see it. When you mention it they agree that the divide exists.
But it is not just a social reality. It is an economic one too. There is an economic cost; immense cost actually, that both the E-have-nots as well as the national economy pay. It is the opportunity cost of missed prosperity, missed entrepreneurship, missed wealth and job creation. Imagine the economic value added if both the E-haves and the E-have-nots were equal partners and collaborators in using their combined potential and talent.
Its not that economists don’t see something so obvious. They call it the Bharat-India divide. The PM himself has repeatedly stressed the consequences of the growing regional and urban-rural divide. Shankar Acharya, among the country’s policy top economists and former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, has published a collection of writings titled ‘Can India grow without Bharat?’
What is this distinction but linguistic? What is this distinction but that India speaks English and Bharat its languages?
The surprise is that such perspicacity stops short of seeing the connection between economic growth and the changing dynamics of language use, language hierarchies and the relative place and power of Indian languages vis-à-vis English. I understand one of the hottest topics among linguists globally is the relentless growth of the dominance of English across countries and societies, and the possible strategies of saving the local languages. The danger before big and hitherto powerful languages like Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil etc. is that of increasing marginalization. The smaller, minor languages face extinction, often not only at the hands of English but of dominant local languages.
The adjectives being used in academic linguist circles for English in this context across UK, Thailand, Australia, Europe, China, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka et al. are self-explanatory – ‘killer language’, ‘destructive language’, ‘linguistic imperialism’, ‘linguicism’. Some academics have described the phenomenon as being a bigger disaster than the extinction of species of animals and plants. Here is a quote ..” Some people say it is implicated in a major human disaster, involving the destruction of linguistic and cultural diversity on a scale far larger than the parallel ecological destruction of biodiversity. English is, according to such views, a language of economic opportunity only for a few: for the rest it creates a new global mechanism for structuring inequality both between 'the west' and 'the rest' and within the populations of nonwestern countries.”
The PM, and other worthies assembled at the Hindi meeting did not respond except that that committee existed only to look at the implementation of the Constitutional mandate of promotion of Hindi as the Union’s official language.
However, do you think there’s something here worthy of the attention of the HRD Ministry and the Central Institute of Indian Languages? Is it only the 100 below-10000-speaker minor languages that need help? Who will save the so called mighty ones like the 20 on the Eighth Schedule from ongoing marginalization and possible extinction a few generations down the line? How?
Isn’t it time all major language groups in India got together and started looking for strategies and means to slow, halt and reverse the phenomenon?
Rahul Dev
October 20 2007

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