By Kamal Gola
I studied in government schools throughout where the focus was mostly on studies. After school I would spend a few hours assisting my father with his business. That window allowed me to try reading borrowed newspapers in English. I was greatly influenced by comics in Hindi and had a habit of sketching the characters. However, there was not enough time and guidance to think about books beyond academics. A library was missing, both locally and in school.
I enrolled into Chartered Accountancy (CA) course simultaneously while getting admitted to college. There were vast libraries beyond my imagination both at college and at Institute of CA. Things didn’t change much regarding my reading pattern - it was always academic books, journals and newspapers. After a few years in professional career, I started reading fiction written by Indian authors, bought from the used books at Sunday market in Daryaganj, Delhi. In 2008 I moved to Atlanta, USA for work. I was saving precious hours by staying close to office and used the time to develop reading habits, courtesy huge book stores nearby, Amazon and free community libraries. There were always tons of bestsellers on a variety of topics at huge discounts. I built my own library over a decade in USA consisting of books on sports, biographies, health, fitness, fiction, social topics etc. and realized the vast world of knowledge I had entered.
Upon moving back to India in 2017, I started volunteering with an organic produce project in a remote village Pantwari in Garhwal region, Uttarakhand. Living in the village gave me a chance to interact with the youth. I noticed their limited general knowledge and awareness level. The children in the village there have access to Hindi medium schools and far off degree colleges but not to books beyond academics or even newspapers. A community library is missing in the remote villages I visited. Resources are a constraint as most of the families are marginalized farmers with very little income. The combination of these factors have affected the youth’s confidence adversely in comparison to city youth. I could relate to their situation and started to think if a community library could be one step to improve the situation.
I thought of doing an experiment to test my understanding by placing 20+ books in Hindi, mostly biographies at village Pantwari. This mini experiment was a success. The students were very excited to see the collection. I took some time in explaining a bit about different books and all the books got issued in a few minutes. They even started to exchange as they were really curious to read most of them. I had a word about this initiative with a group of Indian Air Force employees who were planning to visit that part of the mountains for a hiking expedition. They donated 100+ books, on various topics but most of them were in English. Children were interested in exploring these books but needed help in understanding the English language. On speaking with the seniors in the villages about a community library for children, they were willing to offer space. Now the need was to figure out resources – financial and volunteers to make this project operational.
I had already visited several remote villages during the few months of volunteering and had noticed a similar need. I realized that there is a need for this educational project on a larger scale. I spent a few weeks in planning a month long road trip to identify more such villages as the first step in the process. Uttarakhand is a very beautiful state, blessed with culture, nature, mountains, rivers and streams. I looked at this expedition to accomplish a few objectives – identifying villages being the prime and exploring the state in the most environment friendly way. Hence, I chose to cover the 1700 kms long expedition on a mountain bicycle with few hikes along the way, publish and promote the beauty of remote places using social media.
It was a beautiful learning experience. I chose the popular Chaar Dhaam route for the month long journey as it is well connected with proper roads/highways and it goes through hundreds of remote villages. People of such villages can be met on the highways itself as that’s where they need to be, to get public transport or run shops. People I got to know when I volunteered, helped me in planning the route, listing the villages to visit en-route and more. We formed a group on Whatsapp and started to add more locals along the way. I used to share my location before sunset and they were always able to find a connection in the closest village. I was welcomed with open arms in all the villages, at all times, especially for overnight stay with the best of homemade food.
I visited a few villages every day and completed a survey form. Lack of basic healthcare facilities and far off hospitals was a common phenomenon and took precedence over improving the education for some. Most households earned bare minimum and survived on farming. They relied on shared cabs for transportation needs. In case of medical emergency during odd hours, the situation could turn grim. They cannot afford to send their children for better education to cities. They also need a helping hand with household and farming work.
I have identified 50 villages which would form 50 clusters of 200+ villages. All 50 villages promised to offer space. I met and discussed the proposition with a lot of people including locals, head of the village (Gram Pradhan), teachers, professors, principals, politicians, social workers, people working for environmental supportive projects, NGOs, business people, police, media, army and learnt a lot from their perspectives.
The first project will be in village Pantwari where the principal of a primary public school has offered a well-furnished room in the school premises. I don’t plan on setting up a new NGO as there already are many, I just need to shortlist few of them. It costs around half only to set up libraries in remote villages as compared to cities due to affordable cost of living. Space has been guaranteed already by the villages. As every village has different needs, each library will be a unique project. There will be obstacles along the way. Different age groups have different needs. Engaging the students post school/college hours is going to be tricky as it requires behavioral shift. Moreover, every family member contributes to household and farm work, which consumes a lot of time. Finding locals who are capable and interested in taking up employment in villages with least development would be a challenging task as they tend to move to cities for survival. We need to think about arrangements for their training in a cost-efficient and sustainable manner. Internet network tends to be weak or missing in most areas.
I came to know about a successful community library while I was in the US. It was in Delhi, inside a Learning Center operated by the NGO Deepalaya and meant for underprivileged children. I got in touch with volunteers in the project and found that they were involved in a larger effort - The Community Library Project - to support the creation of more community libraries. My conversations with them guided my thinking about creating libraries in Uttarakhand. TCLP donated hundreds of books for my initiative in Uttarakhand.
I plan on: reaching out to NGOs operating in education arena and who are willing to support the initiative in remote villages; outreach to publishing houses which at times donate books in bulk, e.g. Duckbill Books and offer substantial discounts on bulk purchases; scouting for volunteers willing to give back to the country while cherishing the purest air, water and food during their stay; scouting for corporates for CSR allocation; seeking assistance for training opportunities for locals who will be managing the libraries in their clusters.
There is scope for setting up vocational training centers to generate livelihood opportunities as a complementary step. I have plans to organize environmentally friendly outdoor sports events, yoga and meditation retreats in the villages. This will not only support the micro economies and boost rural tourism, but part of profits will be devoted to the education project as well.
I envision 50 chapters in 5 years’ time i.e. by end of 2023 enabling the children of 200+ villages in multiple ways. Libraries, learning centers, vocational training centers, art & craft workshops, computer centers, micro, small and medium enterprises. A book in every hand with an ability to read and write in English. Development of micro economies. Boost in rural tourism and home stays. Reduced migration to cities. Accessibility to affordable healthcare and high-speed internet. Success looks like a very green picture to me.
And the celebration of life should continue forever…
[Kamal Gola is a trained Chartered Accountant. After working in India for a few years, he moved to USA for work for 9 years and completed MBA meanwhile. Having spent a lot of time in the mountains for outdoors he developed a passion for nature, protection of environment and sustainable living. On returning to India in March 2017, he chose to quit his corporate career and pursue activities aligned with his passion.]