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The book is the hook

The Parag Initiative’s libraries project in Rajasthan has taken wing and, as this field report reveals, that has been made possible by a confluence of factors and facets

Whoever insisted libraries are only about books? Certainly not Durga Yogi. “The library is my refuge. I go there whenever I feel low or stressed; I find a kind of peace in the place,” says the bright-eyed Durga, a 15-year-old class IX student at the Mahatma Gandhi Government School in Chittorgarh in Rajasthan.

“We had something like a library here earlier but the books would just be lying around; nobody actually read them,” adds Durga. “The project changed that. It changed my attitude towards books and it changed my marks for the better.”

The project Ms Yogi refers to is a critical component of the Parag Initiative’s many-hued education package, which has in Rajasthan led to the activation of more than 3,300 school libraries and the setting up of 33 model libraries in government elementary schools. The positive impact this has had is palpable on the ground and Durga — one of about 300,000 students reached through the effort — is a beneficiary of it.

“Our school shifted to English medium last year and we had to make the switch from Hindi in a hurry,” says the confident Durga, who uses a sprinkling of English words when she speaks. “It was difficult at first but I’ve managed, not least because of the books I got to read. I want to join the police force when I finish my studies. I’d love to wear that uniform.”

Parag’s libraries programme is spread across nine Indian states and the canvas is widest in Rajasthan, where it functions in partnership with the state government’s education department and Centre for microFinance (CmF), the associate organisation of the Tata Trusts that implements the programme and is deeply involved with it.

Light of touch

In excess of 6,800 libraries are supported by the Initiative, the majority of them in government schools and the rest in community spaces. The books these libraries house invariably provide the first exposure to reading and literature for the children accessing them. Some of the books have emerged from Parag’s backing of book development, publishers, writers and illustrators, and they are leavened by a lightness of touch that enables children to connect readily with reading.

Picture books, regional language books, bilingual books, effective storytelling and colourful renditions are the hooks in the collection. Parag helps with the curation of library books, technical support and, importantly, librarian training for teachers and others to ensure that their distribution and dissemination happen in right earnest.

Piloted in Karnataka’s Yadgir district in 2016 along with another Tata Trusts associate organisation, Kalike, the libraries project was embedded shortly thereafter by CmF in schools in the Pali district of Rajasthan, where it has progressed at pace thanks to a partnership with the state government-run Rajasthan Council for School Education and the Rajasthan State Council for Education Research and Training.

Tutored to read

The ‘Rajasthan school library promotion programme’ (RSLPP), as it is called, aims to pave the path for children to have access to libraries. Model and extension (or activated) libraries have been set up in government schools in 33 districts, about 100 teachers in each of these districts have been trained as librarians, and high-quality books have been provided.

Training tack

The training of teacher-librarians has been crucial in the context of getting the education system in Rajasthan to accept and embrace the concept of libraries in schools. To that end, a ‘state resource group’ (SRG), comprising teachers, principals and education officials, has been formed.

The 82 SRG members have taken the ‘children’s library course’ — a three-month professional development module that trains them to train — and they are tasked with building the capacity of teachers to run school libraries. Some 3,200 schoolteachers have been trained in this manner through two-day workshops designed to be stimulating, interactive and feedback-oriented.

Two factors are vital for the enterprise as a whole to work: vivid and inviting books that draw children into the world of reading, and teacher-librarians equipped with knowledge and motivated enough to show their wards why, in the words of the American writer Stephen King, “books are a uniquely portable magic”.

Sanjukumari Baloda has gone the distance trying to bring alive that magic for the 53 students at the Government Upper Primary School in Delvas village in Chittorgarh district. “The way it used to be, we had library books but no library,” she says. “We had a bunch of books stored away in a cupboard and these were given, as a matter of routine, to our children to take home and read. I don’t think they did any reading.”

The RSLPP programme coming to the school in 2020 was a turning point. “Things began to change after we set up a library in the school — in the kitchen where our midday meals are cooked — and we teachers got trained as librarians,” adds Ms Baloda. “It wasn’t easy and it took time but slowly, slowly we were able to get our kids interested in books and reading.”

Learning Hindi, the medium of education at the school, is the first step, says headmistress Sunita Dadhich. “Only then can our students get better in all subjects, not just Hindi but in maths, science and the rest,” she adds. “What we have are picture books and the pictures compel the child to turn the page. What we don’t have as of now is a dedicated space for our library and that’s a necessity. I hope we get that.”

The degree of difficulty multiplies when it comes to English and the troubles don’t end there in Rajasthan’s rural schools. “We have Hindi-English books and I like reading them,” says Surjit Singh Rao, a class VIII student at the school. “I wish we had a proper library, though, and desks and benches for students. My back hurts from sitting on the floor all the time.” Nivedita Kunwar, also in class VIII, is more vociferous. “We could do with an upgrade in everything: more books, a big and proper library, benches and desks…”

The librarian training being imparted in the programme has made an impression on Deepmala Samaria, a teacher at the Government Upper Primary School in Hoda village in Chittorgarh district. “When I was put in charge of the library a year back, I didn’t have a clue how to run it,” she says. “The training I received changed that. I learned how to get our children keen about books and reading. The improvement I see now is clear-cut, especially with the girls. We have 1,598 books in our library and we want more.”

A student during a reading exercise at a school in Chittorgarh district

A library in every school

The effect all of this is having on the children the programme essentially targets is gratifying. “Every school should have a library; you can learn so much from books,” says Faizan Hussain, a precocious class III student at the Mahatma Gandhi Government School in Premnagar in Chittorgarh city. “I’m fascinated by the sun and the moon, stars and planets, black holes and white holes. I want to be a space voyager when I grow up.”

There’s high regard in official quarters for what CmF and Parag have accomplished in circumstances not always ideal. “Beyond developing an interest in reading among children, this is an effort to spark their imagination, to get them to understand the world around them, their environment, their society and their culture. It’s commendable,” says Pramod Kumar Dashora, additional district project coordinator with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Indian government’s flagship education initiative.

Mr Dashora is under no illusion that an immediate transformation will materialise. “The results from this programme may not show up quickly, but I have no doubt that if we keep it going for a longer stretch there will be a massive impact on children and their educational well-being,” he says. “I truly believe RSLPP is running an exceptional campaign and its usefulness in a state such as Rajasthan cannot be overstated.”

Teacher shortages, inadequate infrastructure and sundry maladies make the meeting of elementary education goals in Rajasthan challenging. SRG member and lecturer Mohammed Hussain Dayer’s views on one of these concerns is illuminating: “The issue that arises is the administrative and other tasks that teachers are typically burdened with, their constant transfers and the like,” he says. “Also, for the children they teach to be oriented towards reading, the teachers themselves have to be readers to begin with. That’s not always a given.”

For the people at CmF, the implementing organisation from the Tata Trusts side, there’s more to it than teachers and their heavy schedules. “With the training there is an initial apprehension, if not resistance, on the part of teachers, mainly because they are inclined to think this is another load being placed on them,” says Abdul Sharif, a zonal coordinator with CmF. “And it’s not down to just teachers. The system has to respond and that means principals, education officials at the village and district levels, etc. Everybody has to be on the same page.”

Librarian and ‘state resource group’ member Brijesh Sharma conducts an under-the-tree books and reading class in a village in Rajsamand district during the Covid days, when schools were shut and the programme tried to make up for the lack by visiting villages and distributing books to children near their homes by way of jhola pustakalayas (sling-bag libraries)

For Mr Sharif’s colleague Utkarsh Suthar, the big challenge is sustaining the commitment of teachers and principals to the project. “They have to consider this as more than a task to be undertaken; only then can we develop the culture of reading that the initiative is focused on,” he says. “There are gaps, of course, and our job is to close them. Children mirror the society they are nurtured in and so do libraries. Our endeavour is to connect the two.”

Dilip Sharma, also a zonal coordinator with CmF, has been with the project long enough to comprehend its nuances. “A library is a school within a school and the idea of it has to be integrated into the schooling system,” he says. “We have zeroed in on people who can push this from within. That demands a coming together of teachers, education officials, policymakers and the community. It demands a change in attitudes and mindsets. Only then can we get to where we want to.”

Mr Sharma reckons the sky is the limit with the programme, “but we need time, perhaps up to 10 years.” The expectation is that the initiative can reach every one of the 65,000-plus schools in Rajasthan. If that matters, it follows that reading matters.

A library facilitator conducts a read aloud session at a government primary school in Nazarapur in Karnataka’s Yadgir district