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Taking libraries to villages in India

Nov 17, 2009

Beginning with one school in 2000, Pune-based entrepreneur and activist Pradeep Lokhande has set up libraries in 100 rural schools of Maharashtra in western India to inculcate reading habit in children. The initiative has helped young students acquire a better understanding of things and confidence.

Pune: In a village about 50 kms away from Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra, Sunita Padwal (12) has the distinction of standing first in her final examinations for the past three years. But apart from feeling happy and proud of having achieved such a status, what makes her more excited is a list that mentions the books she has read over the past eight months.

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“I have read 21 books so far and my aim is to complete reading 50 books in one year’s time,” she says. A year ago, this new-found hobby of Sunita would not have been possible. But now it is, thanks to a library that has been established in her school. This has been the work of a Pune-based entrepreneur and social activist Pradeep Lokhande who, in November 2008, flagged off an initiative called Gyan-Key.

This was done to introduce the habit of reading among rural children. To date, almost 100 schools across Maharashtra have such libraries donated by people from all over the world.

“I wanted to see the villages change and I find that books are the best medium to bring about this transformation since it is the children of the village who will later be responsible for it,” Lokhande states.

Each of the Gyan-Keys has at least 175 books of different genres like fiction, self-motivation, personality development, autobiographies, comics, music and so on.

“One donor funds one library to ensure that the entire financial transaction is between the donor and the publishers. The donors also get regular updates about how their Gyan-Keys are functioning,” Lokhande states.

Judging by the success of how children have taken to reading (and at times this habit has been caught on by their parents too), Lokhande now plans to start 100 more libraries over the next few months.

'Letters encourage me'

“My encouragement comes from the hundreds of letters I get from school children stating how reading has helped acquire a better understanding of things and given them a much higher level of confidence. There are some who are now requesting books in English because they want to improve their fluency in it. Essentially, they have realised now that it is very important to know of things other than what is taught through school texts,” Lokhande says.

All the Gyan-Keys, meant for students from standard five to ten, are managed by a girl student. “This was a conscious decision to highlight the importance of the girl child and show people in these villages about the change these girls can and are bringing about,” he elaborates.

The change is certainly evident enough. Nitya Ghogre, a standard nine student of a Gram Panchayat-managed school in a village near Aurangabad, has this to say: “Earlier I used to hate coming to school. But the setting up of the library has opened a new window for me. I love to read Marathi fiction, especially the books authored by noted writer Pu La Deshpande. Some of the books have been very inspiring such as the one that recounts astronaut Sunita Williams’ achievements. I have learned now that you must never lose your dream even if you fail in your attempts several times.”

Changing the rural scenario

For Lokhande, this is another attempt in his life-long commitment to changing the rural scenario of the country. And his biggest project so far has been to provide computers to schools in about 28,000 villages through his rural consumer organisation, Rural Relations.

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As to how it all started, Lokhande recalls: “I was born to a poor family. My father was a peon in Wai near Pune and I graduated as a private student. I then started working as a marketing executive but was once struck by the idea of building a rural marketing database. I then gave up my job, invested all my money into this new enterprise and scoured 4,000-odd villages to make direct contacts with opinion leaders in villages and record obscure details of the local economy. In 1996, I got my first customers for this data – Tata Tea and Parle. I now have clients such as HLL, P&G, Marico, Asian Paints, Telco and DSP Merrill Lynch.”

It was during this exercise of collecting data from villages that Lokhande realised how far away rural students were from the rapid advancements in computer technology and how computers can be put to work. He then sent out 31,000 computer literacy mailers to rural schools and received a whopping 378,000 responses.

Armed with this information that clearly showed the need to introduce computers to rural students, he requested 28 prominent Indians to donate used computers. However, no one responded. Lokhande therefore took it upon himself to acquire used computers and provide them to schools for free.

The movement that began with one school in 2000 today now has 225 schools equipped with computers with another 4,700 requests awaiting donors. “There are many such initiatives that can be taken to improve the lives of the villagers. It’s a tough job but not impossible,” he says.

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