Villages set up own libraries with a little help from friends

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Jul 20, 2021 07:11 AM IST

A rural library movement is sweeping across the country.

It is a blistering afternoon, but as you enter the community library in Kalda village, located in the Panchayat Ghar in the midst of green agricultural fields, you are buffeted by a gust of cool breeze wafting through its high open doors. About a dozen youngsters sit hunched over books at brand new desks. The library’s iron shelves have books for various competitive examinations. Through its windows, one can see the Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE) in the distance. “It is the favourite place of youngsters in the village; they spend most of the time here preparing for various competitive exams,” says Arvind Nagar, a village volunteer, who helps manage the library, which opened in November last year with the money contributed by villagers.

Kalda in Gautam Buddh Nagar district, about 45 km from Connaught Place, is not the only village to have set up a library—in fact, a rural library movement is sweeping across the country.(HT Photo)
Kalda in Gautam Buddh Nagar district, about 45 km from Connaught Place, is not the only village to have set up a library—in fact, a rural library movement is sweeping across the country.(HT Photo)

Kalda in Gautam Buddh Nagar district, about 45 km from Connaught Place, is not the only village to have set up a library—in fact, a rural library movement is sweeping across the country. In the past year alone, about 100 libraries with sleek, air-conditioned reading rooms have come up in the villages of Noida, Ghaziabad, Meerut, Bulandshahr, among others as part of Gram Pathshala, a community initiative led by youngsters in these villages. It started last year when a few students in the village approached Lal Bahar, an inspector with National Human Rights Commission, who lives in Ganauli village in Ghaziabad, complaining of a lack of a place to study

“I took up the matter with the villagers and the Gram Pradhan andsuggested that we should open a library in the village. Everyone immediately agreed. We collected 5 lakh rupees through donations from villagers and the library was opened in August last year,” says Lal Bahar.

A month later, Bahar started reaching out to neighbouring villages to encourage them to build similar libraries. The villagers responded with great enthusiasm, and a brand-new library has since been inaugurated in one or the other village of these districts almost every week in Panchayat buildings, which had been out of use for years. On Sunday, Bahar attended the inauguration of the 100th such library in the region, which came up in Kailashpur village in Greater Noida in Gautam Buddh Nagar district.

“Our mission is to open a library in every village of the country, and make Gautam Buddh Nagar the first district to have a library in every village,” says Bahar. “The villagers contribute anything between 100 to 20, 000 to set up the library. We only provide encouragement and advice. Now we are getting enquiries from villages in Bihar, Assam and Rajasthan and many other states,” adds Ajay Pal Nagar, who is part of the core team of Gram Pathshala initiative.

A few km away from Kalda village is Koodi Kheda, another village, where about a dozen students are reading inside the library, which was inaugurated in February this year. Like the one in Kalda, this one is also located in the verdant surrounding of Panchayat Ghar, which was renovated for the library. The rustle of the trees is the only sound one hears inside its high-ceilinged reading room, whose walls are adorned with framed posters of national leaders, and many inspiring slogans, one of which reads, “When in doubt, come to the library”.

“We decided to set up the library after the Gram Pathshala team approached our village and told us about their mission. Almost everyone in the village lapped up the idea,” says Arun Nagar, who is part of the village team that manages the library. Sunny Kumar, who is at the library preparing for the SSC GD examination for paramilitary services, adds, “I had no place to study at home. Lack of libraries and a place to study put students in villages at a great disadvantage. I am happy it is no longer the case in our village.”

Indeed, these community efforts are important in a country like India where per capita expenditure on libraries is among the lowest in the world. The US, for example, spends, 35.96 dollars per capita annually on public libraries, but in India it is a meagre 7 paise. According to the 2011 Census, there were 70,817 libraries in rural areas and 4,580 in urban areas serving a population of more than 830 million and 370 million, respectively. While libraries were part of the Census for the first time in 2011, there was no precise information on their condition and service capabilities.

While Ghaziabad-based Gram Pathshala’s movement’s objective is to give village students a convivial space to study, Noida-based organisation, Sarvahitey’s project Paper Bridge, aims to set up 1,000 libraries with the larger objective “to unify India culturally” and reduce a sense of alienation among the geographically isolated communities. Prem Prakash, the co-founder of Paper Bridge, says the organisation has set up over 300 libraries in villages in 11 states of the country, including the Northeast and Kashmir. “We have also set up about 150 libraries in the Naxal- affected rural areas of Jharkhand,” he says.

The organisation runs book donation drives at schools, colleges, corporate houses and has so far collected over 200,000 books. “We encourage people donating books to write a message on them for the people in the region where the books are destined. These messages act as a soft bridge between people; that is why we have named the project Paper Bridge,” he adds.

Among the villages where libraries have come up in the past few years, the most famous is Bhilar, near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. Famous as ‘Pustakanche Gaav’ or ‘Village of Books’, almost every house in this quaint hilly village has a library with about 1,000 books on a particular theme such as history, novel, short story, sports, among others. Large murals on the walls of the house depict the theme of the library it houses.

The libraries in the village, also known as India’s Hay-on-Wye, after the famous Welsh village in the UK known for its literary festival, is a project started by the Maharashtra government in 2017 with the objective of promoting Marathi literature. “We provide books, shelves, tables and chairs to set up libraries in the drawing rooms of these houses. The villagers do not charge us any rent and are welcoming hosts. We keep adding new books to the collection,” says Vinay Mavlankar, the project manager, whose office is located in the Bhilar village, which also organises gala cultural and literary programmes.

“Before Covid-19, we used to receive about 10 visitors a day. The library is part of our house, and so we get an opportunity to have long conversations with visitors about their lives, and literature, enhancing our understanding of other parts of the country and deepening our knowledge of books,” says Vaibhav Bhilare, whose house in the village is titled Kadambari-2, which is home to a library with Marathi novels.

Bhilar has inspired many villages across the country.

One of them is in Perumkulam, near Kollam, in Kerala. The villagers have put several sloped-roof, house-shaped glass bookshelves, with about 50 books each, across the village. Last year, well-known Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair declared it a “village of books”.

In the neighbouring Tamil Nadu, in the past few years, Shiva Shankar, a former professor at the Chennai Mathematical Institute and Asai Thambi Replong, English Literature professor at Pachaiyappa’s College, in Chennai, have been on a mission to set up libraries in Dalit villages across the state. So far, they have set up, 18 libraries in 15 districts, all of them with over 3,000 books. “We wish to create equitable opportunities for rural children and students, and our primary focus are Dalits. We approach the villages and all we ask for is a room in a public or private space and volunteers to run the libraries after we set it up. We want to create at least 100 libraries. Libraries, we believe, are an effective tool of social inclusion and empowerment,” says Replong.

Agrees, Lal Bahar, the man who started the village library movement in western UP. “Libraries can be the key to the social, educational and cultural revival of villages,” he says. “Earlier, in our village when an elderly person saw a youngster loitering around, he would say, ‘what are you doing here, go home; now the elderly villager says, ‘do not waste your time, go to the library.”


    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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