Twenty-six years ago, an idea was conceived at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) called, Same Language Subtitling (SLS). Essentially it suggested adding subtitles on mainstream video-based entertainment in the ‘same’ language as the audio to serve a vision: Every Indian, a fluent reader.
Built on a bedrock of evidence-based policy-making, that thought has now translated into IIMA’s Billion Readers (BIRD) initiative on a mission to scale SLS on TV and streaming platforms in all Indian languages to give a billion TV viewers automatic reading practice and improvement, every day and for life. The average Indian will watch 3-4 four hours of TV every day, for 70 odd years. You switch on TV; you switch on reading.
IIMA is pleased to announce that BIRD has been awarded a system change grant from the global philanthropic collaborative, Co-Impact, that brings together philanthropists, foundations, and private sector partners from around the world to pool funding. BIRD is the proud recipient of this prestigious grant alongside 34 initiatives across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to help make systems more just and inclusive.
“Our institute has nurtured the SLS innovation from its very beginning and over the next five years we aim to scale it nationally in partnership with the government, private sector, civil society and other institutions,” said Professor Errol D’Souza, Director, IIMA. “We are grateful to Co-Impact for giving us an opportunity to make a meaningful national contribution by putting a billion people on a lifelong path to reading progress.”
Currently, India’s literacy rate is around 80 percent but the quality of literacy is low. Studies have found that over half the “literates” cannot read simple texts, much less a newspaper. Children fall behind in reading from the early grades and weak skills fray further in life due to a lack of reading practice. While illiteracy may be concentrated in some states, every state confronts weak reading at scale. India is estimated to have 600 million weak readers, in addition to 250 million non-readers.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) passed the Accessibility Standards (2019) requiring all TV channels to add SLS on at least half the entertainment content they telecast. The challenge now is quality implementation at scale. Besides literacy, BIRD’s systemwide implementation of SLS is driven by Indian language learning and media access among the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH).
CIIE.CO at IIMA will incubate BIRD as a system change initiative executed by PlanetRead and a coalition of partner organisations. A key goal is to ensure that all new and existing video-based entertainment content has, not two, but three elements – audio, visuals and SLS – that can be switched on/off. For SLS implementation at low cost, high quality and scale, BIRD is partnering with the Nilekani Centre at AI4Bharat, located at IIT Madras to develop open AI speech-to-text tools in Indian languages.
Brij Kothari, who conceived SLS for reading literacy, emphasized that BIRD is sharply focused on impacting the reading skills of girls and women, “Over sixty percent of India’s non-readers and weak readers are female. Our priority is to add SLS on entertainment content that they watch with a passion.” A fluently reading female population, the BIRD team believes, will unlock unimaginable possibilities of dignity, skill, and empowerment for all.