Bilingua Franca?

The bureaucratic exercise that the Indian
Banks’ Association (IBA) undertook for over two years has resulted in a rather
insignificant circular sent out to member banks: that they will have to make their own
decision for selection and purchase of bilingual software (English and Hindi) to be used
in banks. Of course, the circular listed a choice of four software vendors, one of which
had a ready-to-use product.

The idea of bilingual software as part of
the nationalized banks’ computerization efforts-the roots of which go as far back as
1985-is the product of the Official Language Implementation Committee under the Department
of Official Language, Ministry of Home Affairs. The decks for bank computerization,
however, could only be cleared after the employee settlement of 1993. About two years ago,
under the aegis of the RBI, the IBA agreed to coordinate a development effort for
bilingual software with certain shortlisted vendors. The exercise as conceived initially
involved implementation of a pilot project on a bilingual software, running an identified
banking procedure, once the vendor and the software were decided. Later on, based upon the
success of that software the IBA was to recommend it to member banks.

However, IBA’s sub-committee on the matter,
after prolonged deliberation on the issue in a series of meetings held in Mumbai, Delhi,
and Jaipur, didn’t show any promising results. A total of 24 software companies were
contacted and asked to send in their quotations for the product or express their
willingness to develop one. The number whittled down to a mere four, namely, Kale
Consultants, Onward Technologies, Natural Technologies, and Re-inform. Four? In a country
with umpteen software developers and enormous computing talent?

“There was lack of interest from both
sides,” says Dr R Gangwar, General Manager, RBI, Mumbai. Vendors thought there was
“no market for Hindi” software; banks thought “they won’t get the Hindi
capability,” so they continued with English.

Not all vendors and banks subscribe to
these perceptions, though. Punjab & Sind Bank, for instance, is already talking to
Jaipur-based Natural Technologies Pvt. Ltd (NTPL), whose BancMate software has been
demonstrated to the IBA sub-committee. Says Swarn Singh, Assistant General Manager, Punjab
& Sind Bank, “As the IBA has said each bank has to contact the vendor separately
and make its own purchase, we have asked NTPL to build its package into our in-house
banking software.” Even otherwise, he says, the bank will go for it. BancMate,
according to NTPL Managing Director Vinod Kumar Goel, was developed after a two-year
effort and after “carefully studying the mandatory provisions of the Official
Languages Act, 1963.”

Kale Consultants, one of the oldest names
in bank automation software in the country, is also upbeat on the language potential of
its software. “Our product Plutus BAS, which is used by more than 450 bank branches
in India and abroad, has a multilingual feature including Devanagari [the Hindi
script],” says Assistant General Manager CE Potnis. The company is launching its new
Windows NT-based branch automation software, WinBank, in September which has the
multilingual feature.

In fact, according to the company, building
multilingual capability into the package does not require too much effort on the part of
the developer. This can be done by a fairly simple manipulation or putting a font layer
onto the software. Third-party software developers can obtain the fonts from Pune-based
computing research organization, C-DAC. Its Graphics & International Script Technology
(GIST) Group has the wherewithals to provide not only the fonts for various Indian
regional languages but also complete language computing solutions. The Bureau of Indian
Standards has approved of the coding developed by C-DAC, called ISCII (Indian Standard
Code for Information Interchange), using which, says Devi Prasad Rao, Media Consultant to
C-DAC, “any vendor can develop applications on any platform.” The organization
is in talks with IBA as well as all the four vendors specified by it. Already, several
cooperative banks in Maharashtra and Gujarat are using C-DAC’s technology to carry out
banking transactions and issue passbooks in the local languages. National Informatics
Centre, the RBI, and Punjab National Bank are also using GIST’s Leap software.

The Plight
The enthusiasm of a few banks
and vendors notwithstanding, bilingual computing still faces teething troubles, even past
its adolescence. The most unfortunate thing in the public sector banking computerization
scenario is the fact that there has been a fundamental lack of comprehensive approach to
enterprise-level system design and integration. The state of health of the 19-odd
nationalized banks-and hence probably of bilingual computing-would have been much better
if the government in its total branch automation initiative had been able to take a
unified view of system and software deployment instead of the fragmented approach it
followed.

A similar, insidious-never mind
unpremeditated-fallout may be seen in the proceedings of the IBA. By pulling out from the
task of evaluating and, more important, implementing something that has the capability to
tremendously increase the penetration of computing among the masses, IBA has once again
proved itself to be an ineffective body. A body that, according to management consultant
Arthur Andersen, needs “a dynamic leadership, an empowered secretariat and effective
standing committees.”

Going Bilingual
It is indeed unfortunate, says
a software professional, that a country that is serving the computing needs of other
nations is in a perilous position when it comes to serving itself in its own languages.
“Why not take a cue from, say, China or Japan, where computing in their own languages
is admirably strong?” he says.

His point is valid, but the big question
that looms large, both over the vendors and the banks, remains: Is regional language
computing, bilingual or multilingual, really a profitable proposition, especially for the
nationalized and other scheduled banks serving to non-English-speaking areas of the
country?

If you answer this question keeping the
present state of technology in the country in mind, the answer of course is
“no.” Just pause to take in the ambitious plans of the country to become an IT
superpower in the next whatever years and you have a void for the answer. Because it
immediately becomes obvious that the IT penetration will have to be raised
phenomenally-and banking cannot be an exception. Amid all the hype of jazzy credit cards,
tele-banking and ATMs in the metros, the penetration will remain limited to a few big
cities. But, what if one can use multilingual computing power right from the front end to
the back end? Given the reach of the banking sector, especially the nationalized ones, we
can very well take computing to the masses in their own language.

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