“I want to study. My parents are labourers, and it is tough. I want a better job,” said Simran Kaur. A class seven student, Simran is a regular visitor to the student-led mobile community library in the village of Barkidandi in Nanakmatta, Uttarakhand. Nanakmatta is an important Sikh pilgrimage site in the district of Udham Singh Nagar.

As in the rest of the country, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing national lockdown adversely affected the education of children like Simran, who come from low-income, working-class backgrounds. In response to their problems, an informal network of community libraries in the area, an initiative of the students of Nanakmatta Public School, sprang up.

Kamlesh Atwal, one of the founding members of this English medium private school in Uttarakhand, explained that it became difficult for students to access library books during the lockdown. The school took the decision to allow student volunteers to take the books home to their villages, in order to start the community libraries. The volunteers were known as “library leaders.” The main inspiration came from similar library movements across Uttarakhand, in areas as far-flung as Rampur and Pittoragarh.

A child at the community library in Barkidandi.

Getting it going

The first mobile library began on 9 September 2020, at the height of the lockdown. Riya Chand, a Class 10 student at Nanakmatta Public School, was one of the key volunteers behind this initiative. In fact, the library leaders at this school are all around Riya’s age group, generally students in class eight, nine, or ten, who bring the books to the libraries for each two-hour session. Riya said that her school provided the books from its own library. No text books are circulated, just Hindi storybooks – since that is what the children particularly love – with a few English books as well.

For the library leaders, finding a place to set up the actual library, where children and other interested readers could meet on a regular basis, was difficult. But the children persisted in their efforts and were finally granted access to a locked government school. Still, it was always going to be a temporary space.

Finding a suitable spot for each of the libraries was always the most difficult task, with those in charge of community spaces being reluctant to allow public gatherings, arguing that they could be accused of violating covid protocols.

A library volunteer helping children at the community library in Jhanket.

The community libraries in Nanakmatta do not have any permanent physical structures. Based on daily conversations to update one another on timings, the library convenes on a particular day. The children meet at a designated spot in each village at a fixed time every afternoon.

In order to sustain the effort and to see to it that the books are going to the audiences that need them the most, they are rotated between the libraries on a regular basis. Regular meetings are held at Nanakmatta Public School in order to assess how best to do this. Apart from books from the school library, the community libraries also receive books from initiatives like Books For All, taken by an NGO named Guzarish, publishers like Navarun, and individual authors like Dewen Mewari, Madhu Kankariya and Shekhar Joshi. The school receives support from the Teach for India programme.

The majority of the students who attend the library sessions are from low-income families who study in government schools or schools run by private charities. A few are as young as five. Some of the youngest participants come with siblings – usually sisters – who have been given the responsibility of taking care of them for the day.

The gains for students

The library leaders said that speaking to the children about what they hope to achieve was the first step towards a community library. The children generally responded enthusiastically, especially since most were already longing to go back to school.

At the community library in Barkidandi, which is attended by many children from the Dalit Rai Sikh community, Rajvinder Kaur, a class four student, stated her reasons for wanting to go back to school. “In school, you can play at least during intervals. At home you have to work all the time.” She added that she wants to study but has forgotten most of what she learnt in school, which has been closed for a long time because of the lockdown.

When school is closed, it means increased domestic chores for students like Rajvinder. Luckily for her, her family encourages her to attend the mobile library. Community libraries, like this one in Nanakmatta, are the closest thing that the village has seen to a functional school since the lockdown began.

For many parents, the library is a fruitful learning space where students can engage intellectually with one another. For children, it offers the semblance of formal learning in an informal atmosphere.

Prince, who is all of 5, regularly attends the community library at Jhankat village. Though he cannot read or write yet, he said he loves books. When I asked him how old he might be, he enthusiastically replied that he is 10 and has been attending the library for 10 years. Amid peals of laughter, his companions confirmed that he is 5.

Prince, 5, at the community library at Jhanket.

One of the library leaders added that younger children like Prince, who cannot read or write just yet, prefer books with pictures and colourful illustrations. Often, library leaders read out stories and poems to them, besides helping the older children who find it difficult to read on their own.

Of course, running these libraries is not always smooth. Young library leaders face many challenges, including, sadly, the harassment of girls and young women who form a sizeable section of the library leaders. Atwal often has to sort things out with community leaders across different villages.

Despite these challenges, many more students are keen to join as library leaders. Indeed, the success of the first few libraries in the state prompted other students to start libraries in their own areas. Although the Uttarakhand State Government reopened schools for classes six to nine on February 8, this network of informal libraries continues to grow.

At the moment there are 17 libraries in the areas in and around Nanakmatta, including Nagla, Kalyanpur, Bengali Colony, Barkidandi, Sunkhari, Tapeda, Tikuri Majhola and Jhankat. The young leaders on their bicycles ensure that despite the lack of infrastructure, children who want to read do have access to books.

Children reading at the community library in Nagala.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.