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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Runaway success of India's mobile books

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Story making with Satyavati Sharma
The joys of reading have been brought to life

It is a hot summer mid-morning. The temperature is pushing close to 35C.

But in a narrow lane in east Delhi, the discomfort of the heat and the dust is forgotten as a group of excited children surround a young woman who is carrying a bulky bag.

As Satyavati Sharma opens the bag to reveal a collection of story books, the children get ever more excited.

Ms Sharma is a volunteer with an Indian non-governmental organisation (NGO), Pratham (First), which runs mobile libraries for the children of Delhi's slums.

The NGO has developed a novel way of helping under-privileged children learn to read - they deliver books door to door.

Total literacy

Only 65% of India's billion plus population is literate and among them, millions are unable even to read a paragraph.

Radhika Iyengar, Programme Coordinator with Pratham
It's the children who can't read at all who are the biggest beneficiaries of our libraries
Radhika Iyengar, programme co-ordinator with Pratham

India's school infrastructure is of poor quality, and more than half the children enrolled never make it to the end of primary school.

So, it is hoped that the mobile libraries may play a key role in achieving total literacy where the schools have failed.

Radhika Iyengar, programme co-ordinator with Pratham, says that every morning of the week Sharma and 200 volunteers carry a variety of books in a bag and go around the community.

"First the teacher goes house to house and tells the children that we're running a library here. And then the teacher decides on four to five hot-spots in the community where she can sit and where children can come."

Ms Iyengar says there are no criteria for joining the library and all the children between the ages of six and 14 are welcome.

Applause and laughter

"They see these picture books and when our librarians tell them the stories, they want to borrow the books and try and read them. It helps build their confidence too."

To sustain the children's interest, Pratham also organises lots of fun activities.

Children attend Pratham session
The reading project has become enormously popular

Satyavati Sharma gives out five words - boy, girl, Hindu priest, Muslim priest and village - and asks the children to weave a story around them.

The boys in the group are excited by the challenge: the girls require some cajoling to join in. The final result is greeted with applause and laughter.

Through its volunteer system, Pratham libraries cater to 40,000 children in Delhi. In a country where 30m children in the age group of six to 14 years cannot read at all and 40m children can read only a few letters, Pratham's collection of picture books and big bold lettering has become a resounding success.

Kirti Kumar Bahadur is 11 and a regular at this road-side library.

"I study in class four. I love reading books. They have nice stories, and great pictures. In the last three months I've borrowed six to seven books. My favourite is Suraj ka gussa [Anger of the sun]. It's a story about how the sun gets angry with all those who wake up late."

Teething problems

Ravinder Singh Air says he has borrowed several books from the library. I first thought I'll have to pay money to borrow the books. But then my friends told me it's free. They have some very nice books."

Pratham library books
Books were previously unavailable for many slum children

One Pratham volunteer, Suman Lata, not just lends books, she also helps children learn to read. She sits in the corridor of a run-down building helping about 50 children recite a poem from a book.

As I watch, the number of children continues to swell.

"My library has about 500 children as members, and about 50 of them come every day. I take classes for three hours every morning - we do drawings, make newspapers, do a bit of role-playing. One day if I don't turn up, they come to my house to call me. They know where I live."

The first library started about eight months ago and today, there are 200 mobile libraries operating around Delhi. Although the libraries have now begun to draw in the crowds, Ms Iyengar says there were initial teething problems.

"We had a problem convincing parents about our libraries. They felt it was not directly related to the school curriculum and it was difficult explaining to them that it's part of the holistic approach to the studies.

"It was difficult to convince the parents that it will expose their children to a lot of reading material and will open their minds to new ideas. We had to sit down with parents and counsel them," she says.

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