cover story

Page by page, a lift
for learning

The Parag Initiative is on a mission to spread the word on reading, to create an ecosystem that enables children to embrace the world of books

Being the solitary teacher at the Government Primary School in Mandal village in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district has been draining for Sabiha Shahnaj but she has a bit of help, and from an unlikely source at that.

“The library and the books here have been a blessing; it’s like having a second teacher,” says the sanguine Ms Shahnaj. “There are 35 children in our school and I know they will keep themselves engaged in our library during the time I need to take care of other stuff. Truth is, they would much rather read the library books than their textbooks.”

Ms Shahnaj is one among more than 3,300 government schoolteachers in Rajasthan who have been trained as librarians under a multidimensional education programme seeded and nurtured by the Parag Initiative of the Tata Trusts. This is an extensive and ambitious effort and it includes — besides libraries and capacity building through training courses — support for book publishing and awards and recognition for writers and illustrators of children’s literature.

Parag has, since its inception more than a decade ago, grown organically and logically to gather under its canopy a variety of elements to champion the cause of books and reading for children. Ground realities explain the rationale of an endeavour where the quest is to bridge gaps in India’s education milieu, particularly in public schools where the medium of education is not English.

There is no understating the need that children have for access to high-quality reading material that can help them attain foundational literacy skills. This is sorely lacking in the country’s government school system. It is estimated that merely 5% of book publishing in India is for children, and the bulk of it is in English. Barely one in three schools have functional libraries, there’s one book for 11 children in rural India — it’s five in urban regions — and under 30% of children’s literature is in Indian languages.

Connecting the dots

Parag has attempted to address these and other issues with a measured approach, cross-pollinating the different components in its programme, forging partnerships with government bodies, nonprofits and associate organisations of the Trusts, and linking the many stakeholders in the sector.

“Parag is unique in that it has tried to engage with the entire ecosystem of children’s literature in Indian languages,” says Amrita Patwardhan, who heads the education vertical at the Trusts. “We have done this by undertaking a multifaceted set of interventions and reaching out to key stakeholders: publishers, content creators, librarians and, through all of that, to children from marginalised communities.”

Ms Patwardhan is disinclined to place any one part of the programme on a pedestal, stressing that they feed off and complement one another. “We began with book development support work, then forayed into professional development and then libraries,” she explains.“Libraries are where we are closest to the end user, which is the child. But we see book development, training courses and libraries as a triangle; any one is incomplete without the others.”

There’s much that Parag has achieved thus far, and there’s much that remains to be done. “We feel there is a whole host of new areas of work,” adds Ms Patwardhan, “with smaller regional language publishers, with quality translations, with building capacities and with scaling up. We can play a stronger role in the coming years in the education sector by strengthening children’s literature and the library network.”

It takes time and an enduring commitment to realise the objectives Ms Patwardhan lays out. “The gaps in India’s education sector cannot be addressed in a short period; this will require several years of solid work,” she says. “We keep talking about inculcating 21st-century skills, but that cannot happen without a vibrant library in every school, without foundational learning and a strong base of critical reading and writing skills.”

Guests at the launch of the PARI series and other picture books in Bengaluru in September 2023

Contributory hand

This is a gargantuan task and the chances of it being accomplished are surely brighter with the social sector lending a contributing hand. That’s what the Parag Initiative has striven for with its mission to make a lasting difference in promoting children’s literature and reading.

For those in the midst of it all, there is plenty to celebrate despite the difficulties and roadblocks along the path. “For us as a team, for the Tata Trusts and for everybody who has backed this cause, it’s clear what creating a culture of reading can do, not just at an individual level but also for our society and our nation,” says Lakshmi Karunakaran, the programme manager leading the Parag Initiative.

As Ms Karunakaran emphasises, Parag could not have pulled off what it has without a diverse set of allies. “We’ve been able to do all this largely due to our partners, our network and the committed children’s literature community in the country,” she says.

Ms Karunakaran believes that Parag and, by extension, the Trusts are at a vantage point in an enriching journey to help India’s education system and to influence it on a sustained basis. “For me personally, being associated with this programme has been an intangible treasure.”

Writer and documentary filmmaker Samina Mishra (right) interacts with participants of the ‘library educators’ course’ in Bhopal