A motley group drawn from diverse fields, they are establishing regular, street and mobile libraries for children in government schools and rural communities across Tamil Nadu, India.
The premise pivotal to Dulkal’s project: Books are a window to the world. Some have no other window to take in the wider world. For some others, the window needs to be fitted in, joisted on a steady supply of free reading material.
A voluntary group, Dulkal — which concatenates groups of letters in former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam’s name — establishes libraries in government schools and in communities “marooned in developmental hinterlands”.
The gift of knowledge shared by Dulkal Libraries, as the project is called, smells of cellulose. The team is clear, at least for now, that “only physical books” would make up its libraries. The core team — Karthikeyan Panchanathan, Leela Karthiga, Mini N, Amirtha and Marian Britto, all of them from Chennai — are in the 24-to-29 age group, their mean age at 26.
So much for millennial stereotyping about reading, particularly reading the “old way”.
“We are working professionals from different fields. I am a marine engineer; Britto is an IT professional; Leela, also an IT professional; Mini is a college professor; and Amritha, a primary school teacher. Our paths crossed while volunteering for different NGOs; together, we started this initiative. We are not friends from school or college or office,” Karthikeyan points out. “There are 150 to 200 volunteers, with Chennai accounting for a major chunk of it. In the rest of Tamil Nadu, many government school teachers volunteer with us.”
The founders launched Dulkal one-and-half years ago as “for government school students, beyond academics, the exposure to the outside world was negligent, in fact beginning only after their schooling years.”
For an initiative this young, the numbers are impressive, especially because much of the work unfolded against the backdrop of a pandemic.
Three full-fledged libraries: At a government high school in Vengaluthur, Kancheepuram district (800 books); a primary school at Anayeri in Thiruvanamalai district (700 books); and a community library “inaugurated only a month ago” at Sathiraithoppu in Thiruvallur district (500 books), “primarily for the benefit of children from an Irular community found in Sathiraithoppu and surrounding villages”.
Around 70 mobile libraries: “During the pandemic, these small libraries were run in around 70 villages, including 25 in tribal belts, with around 5,500 books. We started it when government school teachers expressed fears that the children might not return to school, post-pandemic, having to work to shore up their families’ finances. We would send these government school teachers books, which they would get the children to read, and return. In some villages, mobile libraries were kept at residents’ homes; in others, they were operated with pushcarts,” he elaborates.
Six street libraries: “Again, during the pandemic, we set up street libraries at six streets in Pirattiyur, a village in Tiruchirappalli, as children from government schools did not have access to learning. We coordinated with the local officials for this work. A street library would be parked at one home in a street, with the volunteer-family keeping the one-rack library outside during the day. No register; children are trusted to take the books, read and return them to the rack,” Karthikeyan further explains.
The libraries are composed of Tamil books (85 p.c.) and English books (15 p.c.).
“At full-fledged libraries, data is collected rigorously to find out who reads much, and which books are read the most. The monitoring is done with the help of student coordinators. We encourage students to create art out of the books they have read, through storyboards,” says Karthikeyan.
The government school or community we established a library because the focal point of continued engagement.
“We have ongoing educative programmes for children in some of these areas,” says Karthikeyan. “If a government school needs some support, we try to meet it with the help of our network.”
Dulkal runs its libraries by organising book-donation and crowd-funding drives.
He explains: “We collect used books, and buy new ones through funds received. To give an example, the ‘mobile libraries’ were organised through a ‘Gift-A-Book’ crowd-funding project. We started a 50 rupee challenge, a book costing ₹50. So, donations of ₹ 50 or ₹ 100, ₹150 would come in.”