Prahlad Modern Public School is located in an urban slum in north Delhi. Here, at 11 a.m. every Saturday, something a little out of the ordinary happens: students between Classes III and VIII put their regular school work aside and for the next two hours, peek into worlds imagined by others. Just for this little while, their lives revolve around stories rather than sedate textbooks or real-life worries.
Bonding over books
The volunteers who guide the children to the fictional worlds of kings, fairies and ghouls belong to Share a Book India Association (Sabia), an NGO working to improve the reading abilities of under-privileged children. They are doing this by setting up libraries in government schools and by conducting reading sessions. The brains behind the operation are two young women from Kota, Priti Birgi and Srishti Parihar.
Birgi, a dentist by training, and Parihar, an engineer, bonded over their love for the written word while growing up. In 2016, on discovering the absence of libraries in schools around Kota, they set their careers aside to begin addressing this gap.
“Despite offering to work for free, we didn’t find many schools that were willing [to host us],” Parihar says. “Quite often, reading books is seen as a luxury and a distraction from the syllabus. Even when principals are enthusiastic, class teachers often aren’t because they fear this will add to their workload.” Teachers’ involvement is crucial to the project since they supervise the reading hour with Sabia.
The students, of course, seem to be enjoying these sessions, and look forward to them. When I visit, I find them listening intently and taking vigorous notes on the new words and phrases they encounter. As the session ends, they scamper to pick the best books on offer that they can borrow for a week at a time. I see them making a beeline for the ever-popular Akbar-Birbal, Pinocchio, Tinkle Digest, or the Amar Chitra Katha series, and smile to myself, remembering my own childhood.
Although Sabia has designed its modules in such a way that the volunteers can withdraw within three months of setting up the library, they often continue working longer with the schools. The general reluctance of teachers means that the volunteers often have to go back to the school and request teachers to let students access the books, which lie forgotten in the teachers’ lockers. Notwithstanding these glitches, Sabia has been successful enough to scale up. Aided by dedicated volunteers, they have expanded into Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, and plan to venture into Bengaluru next.
The work is not easy, Parihar acknowledges. The level of reading among even the older students is very low, and they are all drawn to picture books and comics rather than to longer stories. “We like these more than our NCERT books,” the children tell me in unison, “They are easier to read.” This is reflected in a survey of Delhi government schools, which revealed that 74% of students are unable to read their textbooks. This had prompted Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to launch a reading challenge among schools for the 70 days between Teacher’s Day and Children’s Day last year.
While it didn’t work any drastic magic, it did spark off a beginning. Meanwhile, the Sabia team is doing its bit to bring change. In an attempt to ignite minds last Diwali, they ran a nationwide book donation drive endorsed by the likes of Shashi Tharoor, and collected over 17,5000 books.