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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
Towards a global Tamil village on Internet
What is a frontier? It has meant different things in different ages. Men and women have convinced themselves that hunting grounds, the seas, fertile new lands are frontiers to be conquered. All these ceased, one after another, to challenge and thrill the human intellect with the fundamental changes that have revolutionised the forces of production and distribution. The men and women who were the fittest to survive each new frontier have led the March of Civilisation. Today, man-made brain power industries determine the future of capitalism. Information Technology (IT) is therefore shaping the contours of the new frontier that challenges our imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. Is Sri Lankan society fit enough to survive it? There is scarcely any ground to think so. Land is still seen by many politicians and ideologues in the south (abetted in no small measure by sections of the press) as the frontier to be conquered.
This is sadly the case even though we live next door to one of the fastest growing IT centres in the world - Madras. And typically, little attention was paid to a key IT event across the Palk Strait last week - TamilNet 99. This international conference and seminar on the Tamil Nadu government's most favoured IT project was aimed at making the general Tamil speaking population the world over as fit as any computer literate community in the West to take on the IT frontier and succeed.
The TamilNet project started in Singapore, in collaboration with top Tamil computer engineers and web designers in the west. The basic idea of TamilNet is to open up the educational, entrepreneurial and cultural potential of modern information technology to the average Tamil speaker who may not be English literate. Seeing the potential of the project for the rapid development and spread of IT as the basis of its industrial growth, the Tamil Nadu government took over TamilNet as the chief component of its brain power industry plans.
At the Tamil Nadu government's initiative, TamilNet 99 brought together over 100 leading Tamil Software experts from across the globe to work out solutions for important issues relating to Tamil usage on the computer. According to the organisers of the conference, there are an estimated one million Tamil users on the Internet today besides a vast number that use Tamil on the computer regularly. And I think many of them would agree that the spread of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the west and the politics of the Eelam cause played no small role in opening up the IT frontier and the proliferation of Tamil on the web.
N.Satyendra, formerly the LTTE's advisor in London, has put up a typically superficial article in his massive web site 'Tamil Nation' (1500 web pages) about the "Tamils and the digital revolution" recently. It nevertheless gives one an idea of the ethos impelling the Tamil Diaspora on to the web and the brain power industries. There are more than 14 active Eelam web sites on the internet today, including the sophisticated www.tamilcanadian.com . There are sixteen media sites, five daily discussion groups, six human rights, eight Eelam student organisation homepages, sixteen link pages, a Tamil electronic library etc., run by Sri Lankan Tamils in the west who support the LTTE.
There are many other Sri Lankan Tamil web sites which take a politically neutral line (but to computer illiterate Sri Lankan spooks, anything Tamil on the web has to be LTTE) One can, for example, listen to the latest thing that happened in some remote corner of Batticaloa on the TRT or IBC web site in any part of the world (the former offers a free download of the 'Real Audio' software' for the purpose). Both these organisations mint millions of Dollars providing hourly news about events back home.
Then there are the numerous commercial, cultural, educational web pages based in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil cinema industry is fast getting on to the net, realising the commercial potential for marketing movies to Sri Lankan Tamils in the west. But it is generally agreed that the real engine of growth in the field will be the complex of IT parks coming up in and around Madras. The Tamil Nadu government says that this complex will be the largest software producing spot in the world in an year or two. American defence analysts are not comfortable with this.
Prof. George J. Stein of the US Air war college in Alabama, a Pentagon subsidised Cassandra says: "If the world is really moving into a third wave information based era, failure to develop a strategy for both defensive and offensive information warfare could put the United States and the US military into the situation of being on the receiving end of an 'Electronic Pearl Harbor'. Information is fluid; the advantages we now have, and which were demonstrated in the Gulf War, could be lost because we have very little control over the diffusion of information technology. Second, it's a smaller world, and our potential opponents can observe our technologies and operational and operational innovations and copy ours without them having to invent new ones for themselves.
Remember, the biggest centre for developing new computer software is not Silicon Valley but Madras. What will they sell to whom". (Information Warfare. for the full article and similar material look up www.sdsar.af.mil/apj/stein.html ) So TamilNet 99 is window to the new frontier.
The goal of the conference, in the words of Dr Anandhakrishnan, chairman, sub-committee of the Tamil Nadu state-level Task Force on Information Technology,
He told the press that there are about 3,000 Web sites in Tamil on the Internet but there is no uniform standard for the fonts, leading to much difficulty for the users. "You would be surprised by the amount of usage of Tamil on the Internet," Dr.Anandhakrishnan told reporters at TamilNet 99.
The delegates represented Canada, United States, Switzerland, France, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius etc.,. According to Dr K Srinivasan of Canada the 100 specialists across the world have been working on the issue of standardisation of Tamil usage over the past two years and have been exchanging views over the Net. "These experts are mostly professionals settled abroad, with a zeal for the Tamil language. They have no vested interests in the whole affair and that is the reason why the Tamil Nadu government has chosen to involve them, through this conference for finalising the encoding system," he said. Srinivasan himself used to be a scientist at the Power Research Institute, Canada, and took to software development in Tamil out of choice.
At the conclusion of TamilNet 99 last Monday February 8, it was resolved to set up a Tamil Internet Research Centre under the TN government and a world wide Internet Communication Facility for Tamil. It was also resolved to hold the conference annually and to expedite the development of computer software for a Tamil dictionary, thesaurus, spell checking, E-mail, handwriting recognition, optical character recognition, voice processing, natural language processing, palm leaf character recognition etc., To overcome encoding constraints on account of lower space availability (Tamil script requires 247 independent character spaces while only 128 locations are available on an 8-bit system), the character and glyph encoding scheme for word processing and publishing in Tamil will now follow the monolingual scheme and if required can operate on the bilingual scheme using ASCII characters.
The standard adopted by TamilNet 99 has been put on the web (
www.elcot.com ) for enabling developers and users to try it out over different platforms and software. Feedback from users, over the next 100 days, would be taken into consideration and the final encoding standards adopted in early June. In his valedictory address, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi said "TamilNet 99 will go a long way in establishing better interchange of information in Tamil. It takes us closer to establishing a global Tamil village on the Internet."