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Abhijit Bora
Date of Publish: 2015-08-28


More the better


Time we think of widening the reach of print media in the vernacular languages of the North East, if we want their survival in the long run.

Abhijit Bora


The latest report of the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), New Delhi, points at an important trend in Indian print journalism which can give us a vital insight into the survival index of many vernacular languages of the country including those in the North East. ABC says, between July and December, 2014, newspapers in only eight Indian languages have registered a circulation of a minimum of ten lakh copies each in certified circulation figures. Here of course, Hindi tops the list followed by English. The other languages that find a place include Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and Gujarati in that order. All other Indian languages make up the rest of the circulation figure of 26.5 lakh.

Even as we need to accept the huge readership base of the languages mentioned above, we also need to reflect on the other vernacular languages languishing far behind them. We need to understand here that good media presence of a language also means good visibility of it in the public, more usage, and thereby it’s potential for survival in the long run. In case of Assamese, the ABC has listed only two newspapers –Asomiya Pratidin and Niyamia Barta -- with average qualifying sales figures certified up to May 8, 2015, with a comfortable amount of sales.

Before we press the panic button, let’s bring in the KPMG-FICCI Frames 2013 report. It is buoyant, says there is overall good news for print media in our languages. That over the years, there has been a gradual increase in themarket share of vernacular newspapers. The combined share of Hindi and vernacular dailies has risen from 53 per cent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2012. The industry expects this trend to continue, largely due to volume growth driven by the launch of new local editions and gradual improvement in advertisement rates in these markets.(According to The Power of a Billion, Realizing the Indian Dream, FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report, 2013).

Now comes the concern. What happens to the vernacular languages with lesser numerical strength of speakers or readers? To focus particularly on Assam, herein comes the question of survival of a host of languages spoken in the State other than Assamese, such as Bodo (the only other language from Assam recognized by Indian Constitution), Mising, Rabha, Karbi, Dimasa, Tiwa and Deuri.

The panel of accredited media outlets of the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) of the Assam Government has close to a hundred newspapers (dailies, bi-weeklies, weeklies). Out of this, the highest figure of 45 goes to Assamese followed by 28 in Bengali, 12 in English, six in Hindi,three in Bodo and one in Nepali. So even though there might be unregistered newspapers in some other languages, they must be of a very negligible circulation and available only as a local entity.

Let’s widen the net to include such figures in other North-eastern States. The panel of accredited newspapers of the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs of Tripura Government has a total of 60 newspapers in different categories. Of these, only one is completely in Kokborok–otherwise a major language in that north-eastern State. And three are bilingual – two in Bengali and Kokborok and one in Bengali and Bishnupriya. 

In Mizoram though, the situation seems promising as there are quite a few newspapers in Mizo in addition to a few in English amongst the registered figure of 40 newspapers and magazines. 

The scene for Meghalaya also seems somewhat better as there are more than ten newspapers and magazines in vernacular languages besides five in English.

Unfortunately, for Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, these figures could not be ascertained as this author failed to locate such data in the websites of the State DIPRs. (The attempt to gather information only from the DIPRS of the NE State Governments was made because it was difficult to authenticate any other source of information for practical purposes. However, the information on Mizoram was culled not from its DIPR website.)

Of course, there definitely will be more publications in languages other than those listed by the State DIPRs. They may not have been listed in these panels for various factors. But the bigger question here is of survival of the languages in which such possible publications may be coming out. Can there be a viable solution for their survival by heightening their media presence? I don’t see why not. A newspaper, TV / radio channel is not only a profit-oriented activity or a public service instrument. It is also an important tool to keep a language alive for the future. In Assam, for instance, various ages of its literature have been named after a specific Assamese magazine right from Jonaki to Abahan. Similar is the influence of the printed word in other smaller languages of the State. It is a living proof then that more and more newspapers and magazines in a language can be a very good solution, not only for its survival but for its spread in future.

It needs mention here that Hindi being the official language of the country gets priority in many spheres. English has its own advantage as an international language and also with its growing significance even within the nation. Naturally then, to face the onslaught of such languages, Indian languages with fewer speakers would need to have more and more media outlets, particularly those that deal with the printed word. Clearly, more readers mean more visibility, more usage and a better chance of it remaining alive.

This also brings us to an oft-seen attempt in the North East to promote a local language over the one considered a threat. Let’s take the case of the secessionist groups’ fatwa against Hindi movies in Manipur as an example here. It may have driven audience towards films in local languages but forcefully banning anything is not a viable solution in the long run.

Further, it should not be a question of banning something to make room for something else. Instead, attempt should be made to produce quality newspapers and magazines (or films) in local languages and let them compete with those in the languages widely used. People will certainly pick a quality product. The point here is, no amount of patronizing shall be able to help in the long run if the focus is not on quality.

Some time ago, UNESCO highlighted what all would be lost if we lose a language. Expressing grave concern on the issue, the UN body underlined that languages are not only tools of communications but also reflect a view of the world. They are vehicles of value systems and cultural expressions and are an essential component of the living heritage of humanity. Yet, many of them are in danger of disappearing. It is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today all over the world will disappear by the end of this century. With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.

Here, I would like to bring in again the KPMG-FICCI report. It talks of a big scope for enhancing circulation of print media in most Indian languages. It has direct linkages with the literacy rate of the country, which has increased to a national average of 74 per cent as per 2011 India Census. However, as per the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) Q3 results of 2012, approximately 44 per cent of these people did not read any newspaper. This fact translates into almost 394 million peopleout of the total of 895 million literate population of the country (2011 Census). Interestingly, 56 per cent of this countrywide figure goes to Assam though her literacy rate equals that of the national average. It indicates that there is a lot of scope in Assam for converting such a huge literate population into newspaper and magazine readers. And thereby increase the amount of readers for Assamese print media. And also in other smaller languages of the State.

In India, in addition to the 22 officially-recognised languages, around 33 languages and 2000 dialects have been identified, of which some are going through survival pangs presently. Unless we take some definitive steps in this connection --such as widening their share in media, it is just a matter of time before some of them will extinct without a trace. And along with them will sink the identity of some societies, some communities, and their bounty of traditional knowledge and culture.

(The author is Head, Mass Communications and Journalism Department, Tezpur University )




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