Books, stories and a silent revolution: Samaritans take libraries to remote parts of Himachal Pradesh


The nearly 8km trek between Khurik village and Kaza in the rocky and cold terrain of Spiti valley is not easy. However, Tanzin Kinzang makes it look like a pie walk.

By the time she was 10, Kinzang was doing the route almost every day, mostly alone and sometimes with her father. Your destination is a library aptly named Let’s Open a Book. For her part, Kinzang “opened” at least 180 books in just over two months last year and took them home to read. An avid reader, she keeps coming back for more.

“I like reading stories, but at the primary school in my village there are only books that are part of the curriculum. When this library came about, I started visiting it almost every day. I usually come alone. Sometimes a friend or cousin comes along,” says Kinzang, who sometimes stays with her aunt nearby so she can be at the library early the next morning.

Ruchi Dhona regards Kinzang’s return to borrow more books as no less than a reward for her initiative. The 36-year-old from Calcuttawho quit her well-paying corporate job to find her “true calling” during a trip to Lahaul-Spiti in 2017, now has many such repeat readers – the library claims around 5,000 books to over 100 local children to have spent.

Like all great things, Dhona’s library movement started small, and it wasn’t until she realized on her first trip that the schoolchildren in the cold desert had never seen a bookstore that they forgot to read a book of fairy tales. Devastated, she returned home, quit her job and founded an NGO – Let’s Open a Book – based in New Delhi.

The NGO now runs libraries in 60 villages with around 1,000 students. (To express)

After initially struggling to overcome the odds of the harsh weather, Dhona started a pilot project in Lahaul-Spiti in late 2017 by giving a small collection of books to a few elementary schools and asking teachers there to rotate them at different schools throughout the winter months . She returned to Spiti in June 2018 to see how the initiative is progressing.

“There was hardly a single bookshop in Spiti and I saw that teachers and children really appreciated the books we gave them. In September 2018 I went back and did a workshop with teachers,” says Dhona, adding that the idea was to build a reading culture among children.

Her NGO now runs libraries in 60 villages with around 1,000 students and she now plans to teach training techniques to local teachers.

India is home to 46,746 registered libraries, according to accessed data Calcutta‘s Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) – an autonomous organization established and funded by the Union Ministry of Culture, but insufficient to support its 1.3 billion population. The problem is acute in distant and remote areas where creating a reading room and providing books becomes a strenuous task.

According to RRRLF, Himachal Pradesh has 945 registered libraries including one state library, some district libraries and 918 school libraries for a population of around 68 lakh (according to 2011 census). The numbers are alarming for the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana, which have 15 and 27 registered libraries respectively. While Punjab has only one state library and 14 district libraries serving 2.77 million people in the state, of the 27 libraries in Haryana, 19 are district libraries, seven subdivision libraries and one state library serving a population of 2.54 million people per RRRLF.

In the face of such a crisis, Good Samaritans like Dhona are taking it a step further to make books available to children in places where books and stories have remained a luxury.

Number of libraries in the states of India

Swati Kundra, 45, turned the ground floor of her home in Dharamshala into a library and the first floor into a reading café. A native of LucknowKundra worked in Neu Delhi 20 years as a financial advisor before planning to set up a reading place for the local children in Himachal.

“We source books from publishers and donations. The library has a capacity of 60 seats and a collection of over 3,000 books. We have Tibetan books besides those in English and Hindi. The library is a huge hit among students,” says Kundra, who launched the initiative in September 2018.

The cafe, where a plate of vada pav costs 25 rupees and aloo parantha 40 rupees, has secured Kundra a loyal customer base of around 45 students in grades 5 to 8 who visit the library daily.

As the Coronavirus The pandemic forced educational institutions to go offline, many primary schools with only 10-20 students in remote villages were closed. To ensure such students are not left out, Jasmine Kaur and Anoop Chugh, both from New Delhi, founded Kahani ki Dukaan to educate them through stories, plays, music and storybooks.

Kaur and Chugh, who founded their first library in Gunehar in Bir in 2019, say they work closely with the Gaddi tribe of the Kangra region.

Jasmina and Anoop with Travelers (Express)

“These children had no exposure to creative arts. The boys here go to the local elementary school and study up to 10th grade and then try to enlist in the army. However, the girls break off even earlier and get married. We wanted to get them interested in creative arts. We use books, plays and storytelling as media. Now the kids have started writing their own stories and poems,” says Kaur, who started out as a shoe designer but then switched to storytelling and travel.

Of the many initiatives Kahani ki Dukaan has launched, her mobile library – a yellow car – and children’s museum are a big hit with local residents.

“We fill the car with books and drive through the villages to give them to the children every weekend. The museum houses the children’s artwork and activities,” says Chugh, adding that it all started in 2019 when they visited Himachal Pradesh as part of a child engagement project.

However, they returned to their hometown a month later, but received calls from the children asking them to come back. “We found that there is a big gap between the facilities that children receive in cities and in remote areas. We rented a house and started a tourist walk to support ourselves. Since then we have expanded to 20 villages in Chamba, Mandi and the Tirthan Valley,” says Chugh, adding that the local children also interact with travellers, learning new words and teaching them some.

Kaur says that children read books, find new words and use them to create their own stories. “The stories range from social to environmental issues,” she adds.

However, the pandemic had halted those initiatives, and the progress these children had made also plummeted. Mridula Koshy, a free library activist and trustee of New Delhi-based The Community Library Project (TCLP), adds that the pandemic has created a huge void as schools have been closed and reading habits among children have plummeted.

“Books are a very powerful tool for developing a child’s imagination and general grandeur. However, unlike some other countries, India does not have a national library policy. No funds are provided for the infrastructure and equipment of a library either. In such a scenario, the minds of future leaders suffer,” says the activist, who opened a free library network in April 2020 and felt the need to keep kids busy.

Since then the community has started a free library network and volunteers work in Kargil, the Spiti Valley, jammuuttarakhand, Ahmedabad, and Tamil Nadu and has sent around 15,000 books to these places in two years. While Koshy’s small but big library movement sparked excitement in the minds of young readers, TCLP had a tough road ahead of them.

Jasmina and Anoop at the book distribution (Express)

TCLP Director Prachi Grover, who oversees the library’s curriculum, says the post-pandemic situation worsened as schools started to open as students fell back on their ability to study.

“Without reading sessions, speaking workshops, the children’s speed, accuracy and pronunciation suffered. When schools reopened, a 4th grader could read correctly at just 30 words per minute, down from the previous normal of around 80 words. Likewise, an 8th grade student who could otherwise read about 120 words per minute accurately could now only read half that in the same amount of time,” Grover says, adding that if this is the case in cities, one can only imagine imagine how a child’s reading accuracy must have suffered in remote places.

However, they are not the ones to give up. According to Dhona, the challenges are many and the journey is a long one, as her work doesn’t end with making the books available. She’s also working to make sure there’s a plan in place.

“The main issue is fundraising, half of which comes from crowdfunding campaigns and the other half from individual donors. We also have an Amazon Wishlist that people can check to send us books. The field work takes place between June and October when books are distributed, the library is operational, workshops are held etc.,” she says, adding that she will be moving to Dharmshala in October/November and staying there until May.

She now plans to build a team of local workers and volunteers to keep the library functioning year-round.

The rigid caste system also posed a major challenge for Kaur and Chugh. “While some children came to us voluntarily, caste separation was very pronounced. It’s so ingrained even in the minds of children that initially the people of the Rajput community didn’t want to share a space with the Dalit and the tribal children,” says Chugh, adding that they had to find a solution for this and books helped too .

“We have made a name change a rule. Anyone who came to us had to adopt a fantasy name. It could be something as simple as mango or even a fictional character. They sometimes switch names with each other and we’ve seen a welcome change in the children. That’s what we love about what we do most, being the change and making a change,” adds Kaur.


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