Samaritans bring libraries to remote parts of Himachal Pradesh, sparking a silent revolution
on Aug 17, 2022
The nearly 8-kilometer trek from Khurik village to Kaza in the Spiti Valley's rocky and cold terrain is not for the faint of heart. Tanzin Kinzang, on the other hand, makes it look easy.
Kinzang, who is ten years old, walks the distance almost every day, mostly alone and sometimes with her father. Let's Open a Book, a library, is her destination. In just over two months last year, Kinzang "opened" at least 180 books and took them home to read. She is a voracious reader who keeps coming back for more.
"I enjoy reading stories, but at my village's primary school, only books that are part of the curriculum are available." When this library opened, I began going almost every day. I usually come by myself. "Every now and then, a friend or cousin comes along," says Kinzang, who sometimes spends the night at her aunt's house nearby in order to get to the library early the next morning.
Ruchi Dhona sees Kinzang returning to borrow more books as a reward for her initiative. The 36-year-old from Kolkata, who quit her well-paying corporate job in 2017 to pursue her "true calling" in Lahaul-Spiti, now has many returning readers—the library claims to have distributed over 5,000 books to over 100 local children.
Dhona's library movement began small, and only after she noticed during her first trip that the school-aged children in the cold desert had never seen a bookstore, let alone read a storybook. She returned home, resigned from her job, and founded an NGO called 'Let's Open a Book' in New Delhi.
Following the initial struggle of overcoming the adversities of harsh weather, Dhona began a pilot project in Lahaul-Spiti by the end of 2017 by distributing a small collection of books to a few primary schools and requesting teachers to rotate them across different schools throughout the winter months. In June 2018, she returned to Spiti to see how the initiative was progressing.
"There was only one bookstore in Spiti, and I saw teachers and children appreciate the books we gave them." "In September 2018, I returned and conducted a workshop with teachers," Dhona says, adding that the goal was to foster a reading culture among children.
Her NGO now operates libraries in 60 villages, serving approximately 1,000 students, and she plans to teach local teachers training techniques.
According to data accessed from Kolkata's Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF)—an autonomous organisation established and financed by the Union Ministry of Culture—India has 46,746 registered libraries, which is insufficient to serve its 1.3 billion population. The problem is particularly acute in far-flung and remote areas, where creating a reading space and making books available is a difficult task.
Himachal Pradesh has 945 registered libraries, including one state library, some district libraries, and 918 school libraries, for a population of approximately 68 lakh people, according to RRRLF (as per the 2011 census). The figures are concerning for neighbouring Punjab and Haryana, which each have 15 and 27 registered libraries. While Punjab has only one state library and 14 district libraries serving a population of 2.77 crore people, Haryana has 19 district libraries, seven sub-divisional libraries, and one state library serving a population of 2.54 crore people, according to RRRLF.
In the face of such a crisis, good Samaritans like Dhona are going above and beyond to make books available to children in areas where books and stories have previously been considered a luxury.
Swati Kundra, 45, converted her Dharamshala home's ground floor into a library and the first floor into a reading café. Kundra, a native of Lucknow, worked as a financial advisor in New Delhi for 20 years before deciding to open a reading room for local children in Himachal.
"We get books from publishers and from donations." The library has 60 seats and a book collection of over 3,000 titles. We have Tibetan books in addition to English and Hindi. "The library has been a huge success with students," says Kundra, who launched the initiative in September 2018.
Kundra has a loyal customer base of around 45 students from classes 5 to 8, who visit the library on a daily basis, thanks to the cafe, where a plate of vada pav costs Rs 25 and aloo parantha costs Rs 40.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many primary schools with only 10-20 students were forced to close in remote villages. To ensure that such students are not left out, Jasmine Kaur and Anoop Chugh, both from New Delhi, founded Kahani ki Dukaan, a non-profit organisation that teaches them through stories, plays, music, and story books.
Kaur and Chugh, who opened their first library in Gunehar, Bir, in 2019, say they collaborate closely with the Kangra region's Gaddi tribe.
"These children had no exposure to creative art." The boys in this area attend the local primary school until class ten, when they attempt to enlist in the Army. The girls, on the other hand, drop out even earlier and marry. We wanted to pique their interest in the creative arts. As mediums, we employ books, plays, and storytelling. "The kids have started writing their own stories and poems," says Kaur, who used to be a shoe designer before switching to storytelling and travel.
Among the many initiatives launched by Kahani ki Dukaan, the mobile library—a yellow car—and the children's museum are big hits with the locals.
"Every weekend, we load up the car with books and drive around the villages, handing them out to children." "The museum houses the children's artworks and activities," Chugh explains, adding that it all began in 2019 when they visited Himachal Pradesh as part of a project to engage children.
According to Kaur, children read books, discover new words, and use them to create their own stories. "The stories cover a wide range of topics, from social to environmental," she adds.
However, the pandemic had put a halt to these initiatives, and the children's progress had also plummeted. Mridula Koshy, a free library movement activist and trustee of New Delhi-based The Community Library Project (TCLP), adds that the pandemic created a huge void when schools were closed, and children's reading habits suffered significantly as a result.
"Books are a very powerful tool for developing a child's imagination and overall upliftment." However, unlike some other countries, India has no national library policy. There is also no funding for a library's infrastructure and facilities. In such a scenario, future leaders' minds suffer," says the activist, who launched a free library network in April 2020 in response to the need to keep children engaged.
Since then, the community has established a free library network with volunteers in Kargil, the Spiti Valley, Jammu, Uttarakhand, Ahmedabad, and Tamil Nadu, and has sent approximately 15,000 books to these locations in two years. While Koshy's small yet large library movement created a buzz in the minds of young readers, TCLP faced a difficult road ahead.
According to TCLP director Prachi Grover, who oversees the library curriculum, the situation worsened after the pandemic when schools reopened and students relied on their own learning abilities.
"In the absence of reading sessions and elocution workshops, children's speed, accuracy, and pronunciation suffered." When schools reopened, a Class 4 student could only read 30 words correctly every minute, down from around 80 words previously. Similarly, a class 8 student who could previously read around 120 words accurately every minute could now read only half in the same time," says Grover, adding that if this is the case in cities, one can only imagine how a child's reading accuracy must have suffered in remote areas..
They, on the other hand, are not the ones to give up. Dhona says the challenges are numerous, and she has a long way to go because her work does not end with simply making the books available. She also works to ensure that a plan is in place.
"The main issue is funding, half of which comes from crowdfunding campaigns and the other half from individual donors." We also have an Amazon wish list where people can send books to us. "The fieldwork takes place between June and October, when books are distributed, the library is operational, workshops are held, and so on," she explains, adding that she relocates to Dharmshala in October/November and stays until May.
She is now planning to assemble a team of local workers and volunteers to keep the library open all year.
The rigid caste system was also a major challenge for Kaur and Chugh. "While some children came to us voluntarily, the caste divide was very visible." "It is so deeply ingrained in the minds of even children that the Rajput community people initially did not want to share space with the Dalit and tribal children," Chugh says, adding that they had to find a solution and that books also helped.
"We made a rule about changing names. Anyone who came to us had to create an alias for themselves. It could be as simple as mango or as complex as a fictional character. They occasionally switch names, and we noticed a positive change in the children. "Being the change and bringing about change is what we love most about what we do," Kaur adds.