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Cartoons Break Language Barriers to Support Sustainable Transport in India
Editorial cartoons provide much-needed commentary on India's transport issues. Images via Times of India (h/t to Sudhir Ghota of CAI-Asia)

Editorial cartoons provide much-needed commentary on India's transport issues. Images via Times of India (h/t to Sudhir Ghota of CAI-Asia)

India’s booming population and rapidly urbanizing, motorizing society urgently demands better and affordable sustainable transportation, including bus rapid transit (BRT), sidewalks and cycling lanes. More and more, Indian civil society is mobilizing mass communications campaigns, especially through the Internet, to put pressure on languid government agencies to invest in innovative sustainable transportation initiatives.

But these groups of concerned citizens, such as Praja in Bangalore and the Active Alert Citizen Forum in Mumbai, face a unique challenge in India: understanding the language of their local and state governments.

Almost all of India’s 28 states and 7 union territories speak a different, statewide language. And while Hindi and English continue to be India’s official national languages, the 2001 census showed that only 41% of Indians consider Hindi as their “mother tongue,” and fewer attain fluency in English.

These language barriers hinder India’s economic and infrastructure development, including transportation.

While the Indian government gives all citizens the “Right to Information” (RTI) – mandating timely responses to citizen requests for government information – there is no guarantee that this information will come in one language or another.

For example, in Bangalore of Karnataka state, most Praja members and other citizen activists have recently received responses to RTI requests from both the local and state government in Kannada (Karnataka’s official state language.) Unfortunately, many of Bangalore’s citizens are from other states and can’t understand the government’s replies. Similar situations exist in other mega-cities in India, which have large immigrant populations from rural areas in other states. And even when inquirers explicitly request responses in English, they receive them in Kannada.

One way sustainable transport activists have overcome language hurdles has been through editorial cartoons in local newspapers, as Sudhir Ghota wrote about for CAI-Asia’s blog. “When editorial cartoons are supported by think pieces written by editors, policy makers and experts, it creates the momentum at the grass route level thereby increasing the support for the paradigm shift in transport,” Ghota says. Some hot topics over the years have included fuel prices, congestion, poor pedestrian infrastructure, and climate change.

But the Government of India will have to deal with this politically sticky issue at the state and local level, to ensure that RTI requests from citizens wondering about a metro’s progress or environmental impact, or BRT accessibility or road repairs, will be answered in a language that the inquirers can understand.

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  • Re: Karthik:
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments!
    I agree that the problem is very complex, and that we didn’t fully address depth of emotional/political ties to local languages.
    This blog post was meant to be an introduction about some of the language barriers in India that many people outside of India might not realize exist. I’m hoping to turn this into a series dealing with similar issues. With regard to policy about RTI responses, maybe I (or you!) could do a follow-up blog, talking more about how to overcome the challenges to language barriers, perhaps through a greater effort on the part of sustainable transportation advocates to learn the local language. In general in Bangalore, I didn’t see too much of this – have you?
    Your links are really interesting and I’m going to follow Parisar’s work in Pune from now on! Thank you. And please keep following our blogs, because we really appreciate your input.

  • I think the issue is a little more complex than “these language barriers hinder India’s economic and infrastructure development, including transportation”.

    The issue of language diversity has a complex history and evokes deeply emotional responses from Indians across the country, and the inherent conflicts often result in a great deal of violence. Of late, some tentative consensus has been established, and it would be stupid, very very stupid, to rock that boat.

    In the meanwhile, what is required is that the sustainable transport community in India learn to read, write and speak in the vernacular language. This campaign is a very good example of the vernacular language and newspapers in the vernacular language being used to very good effect to promote the ideals of sustainable transport.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. As demonstrated by members of Praja like Mr. Muralidhar Rao, the problem is not that we do not know colloquial Kannada (or other vernacular languages in the case of other cities) but that some of these languages lack a commonly understood technical vocabulary that would allow complex ideas to be conveyed. Using simpler terms or using cartoons can work only to an extent; eventually people – including members of the sustainable transport community – will have to develop the ability to convey complex ideas in vernacular languages.

    Transportation problems are complex, and responses to these problems will also tend to be complex and multi-faceted. At the same time, if the discussion of these problems were to be restricted to English, that will make it impossible for a majority of the citizens to participate in decision making. The onus is therefore on the sustainable transport community to acquire the ability to be able to communicate in all vernacular languages without excessively simplifying the discourse.

  • Clever! Sustainable transport activists in India overcome language barriers (20+ regional languages) w/editorial cartoons

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  • From @TheCityFix – Cartoons break language barriers to support #sustainable #transport in India

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  • Cartoons Break #Language Barriers to Support Sustainable Transport in #India |

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