‘We need to create physical and virtual libraries everywhere’

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Rohini Nilekani  54 Co-Founder, Pratham Books & Founder-Chairperson, Arghyam
Rohini Nilekani, 54 Co-Founder, Pratham Books & Founder-Chairperson, Arghyam Photo: The Hindu

The work of governments and NGOs over the past two decades has certainly helped millions of children, all first-generation learners, get into school and take their first steps towards reading. However, for a vast majority, there is almost nothing joyful or interesting for them to practise their newfound skills on. The children of our elite classes have access to books from around the world, but kids learning in their own languages have precious little children’s literature to choose from.

The result is there for all to see, when survey after survey laments that one in two Class V children in India cannot read a passage fluently in any language. This is a national tragedy, as it becomes harder and harder to bridge the reading gap in later years. We have to catch the children young and prepare them for a society where textual knowledge is power and where reading is a fundamental requirement for self-empowerment.

In 1999, I was introduced to the work of the Pratham network, and felt the time was right to engage my time and money in working towards better primary education. I joined the Karnataka chapter, called the Akshara Foundation, and chaired and funded it until 2009.

Meanwhile, we saw the need to set up a children’s publishing house, and in 2004, I co-founded Pratham Books, an autonomous institution that aims to put “a book in every child’s hands”.

Pratham Books has tried to impact the ecosystem of children’s writing, publishing and distribution, with some success. We are one of the largest publishers of children’s books in India, and have produced more than 270 titles in up to 12 languages and sold and distributed more than 11 million books. We have a devoted group of writers and illustrators, and many volunteers who take our books to children in slums, hamlets and tribal areas.

Our books have gone to children through government procurement, community libraries, NGOs and private budget schools. We have also tried retail experiments such as selling story cards — sachet books priced at 2 — at kirana stores as well as riding on other distribution platforms, such as solar-lamp vendors.

We want to be able to go wherever children are, but reaching 230 million children through physical books may be environmentally unsustainable even if the books are shared multiple times. So we have had to formulate new approaches. Pratham Books has put out hundreds of books in the digital commons, which means they are free for all to access, download, print and even sell. We are future-proofing our work through this digital content and hope to do much more to make our books available across platforms.

Not for a moment do we think we can go it alone. We believe in creative collaboration and collaborative creativity, and the open nature of our publishing system means that our books can be reshaped and retold, written anew and shared at zero cost. In one instance, we provided writers with the graphics of one story, and the same set of images yielded multiple engaging stories. Through our work, we are opening the field for other publishers, who are seeing the potential of a vast market of eager and untapped young readers.

Governments have a large part to play. Currently, government procurement is so ridden with corruption that even a cursory visit to school libraries will reveal how inappropriate and poor quality material reaches children. We need a national movement to create physical and virtual libraries everywhere. Technology has dropped the costs of publishing dramatically, and with the large volumes expected, we can give India’s children wonderful books to read, which will empower them in many ways. Fluency in reading allows children to internalise the locus of their learning. What better way to get fluent than to curl up with an unputdownable book? We owe this to 230 million children. Now.

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