Malvika Aggarwal, Jatin Lalit Singh, and Abhishek Vyas are the co-founders of three entirely crowd-funded community libraries in UP
Anne Frank wrote in ‘Diary of a Young Girl`: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Three young Indians – Jatin Lalit Singh and Malvika Aggarwal (both final-year law students, Galgotias University, Delhi), and Abhishek Vyas, law graduate, Gujarat National Law University – are doing just that. In the worst pandemic witnessed in a hundred years, in which more than 3.8 million people have lost their lives worldwide, the trio, the force behind the Bansa Community Library, is improving the world one book at a time.
To urbane Indians privileged to have had access to books in the home, reading is a leisurely pursuit. Academic reading and rote learning is thrust on them because of the way Indian education is designed, but reading for pleasure provides relief and escape from the mundane, often into fictional worlds, enlarging the mind and allowing the imagination to travel widely for little more than the price of a book, whether owned, borrowed or filched.
In rural India, this is an alien conception. Among the farming communities of Uttar Pradesh, children, especially males, are schooled just enough to be literate, so that they can decipher a money-lender’s ledger notations or a tehsildar’s arcane notices – whatever is needed to keep the family and community on the right side of the law, and barely. Any higher reading is done for the sole purpose of preparing for exams such as UPSC, so that some lucky villager might have a shot at a cushy and secure government job, without the spine-warping hard labour and constant worry the land extracts. Reading is at best a chore; pleasure is absent.
Bang in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Malvika, Jatin and Abhishek, who have never met each other in person, launched the Bansa Community Library in UP (where anyone can come and engage with reading for free) to expose farming families to the joys of the written word, and provide them with safe spaces to read, study and engage the intellect.
“A community library is a space where anyone from the community, from any age group, can come to read. It’s very important to start reading at an early age. And rural India has very few resources for reading. Reading for pleasure is not even considered in most places; to them, reading a book means reading for exams,” Malvika, who is based in Meerut, said.
But why did they choose to study the law? Malvika, whose maternal grandfather was the only lawyer in the family, said she chose the law because she wanted to be like him, and “was interested in being connected with the outer world”. “It was my notion that students who study law are more connected to politics, or what is actually going on in the world,” she said.
“I like to read the Constitution. Everyone should be aware of what our basic laws are; this was my mindset when I was in school. That’s how I decided that I wanted to pursue the law. I interned with an NGO on the ground, where we did many surveys. We were doing something to bring about a change. I thought the law would be the perfect career to be connected with whatever is going on politically and socially,” she said.
Jatin, who lives in Bansa, said: “I was interested in general knowledge and current affairs since childhood. I don’t have lawyers in my family, but have seen that lawyers tend to be vocal; they can stand for marginalised people. And I had no interest in mathematics and engineering.”
Malvika and Jatin were both part of The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi and work with the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU). “Malvika and I were the founding members of ICLU, which runs projects with specific initiatives. For example, last year, I coordinated the migrant workers’ project. This year, I was on the core committee for Covid-19 relief work,” Jatin said.
“There are four community library projects in Delhi and Gurgaon,” Malvika said. “Jatin and I used to go there every Monday and volunteer for two to three hours. We would read aloud to children who came there, many of whom could not read. We would tell them stories and assign small tasks, like keeping the books back properly, or numbering them. From TCLP, we got the idea that we should do something like this. Jatin wanted to open a library in his village.”
Jatin said the first community library he started shut down in four months. “I started the library in 2017 in a nearby village. At the time, I had no experience of how to sustain it, but my friends and I were enthusiastic. We collected books from people when they were cleaning their homes for Diwali, and we put them in one place. But because there was no plan for how it would survive, the library shut down within four months,” he said.
“At that time, I decided that whenever I open a library next, I would start with a plan for how it would sustain itself. During the lockdown, I started the first library in Ballia district, the Digital Public Library. A friend, Praveen, was the co-founder and had experience working with TCLP. The Cheruia public library opened in August 2020 and we got a very good response from that village,” Jatin said, adding that in Ballia, “you could easily purchase a countrymade pistol”, but not a book.
Where do they get funding for their libraries? “Most things, right from the construction of the libraries to getting books and electrical fixtures, have been crowdfunded,” said Abhishek, who is from Ahmedabad. “Jatin does a wonderful thing; he makes extensive Amazon wishlists of all the books we require. If someone does not want to contribute monetarily, but wants to buy five books for us, we tell them which five we need immediately. Some patrons contribute monthly towards the honorarium for our library staff – the librarians, supervisors and housekeepers. The beautiful thing about this is that although the libraries are located at fixed places, people from across the country and even the world contribute to them.”
How did they manage to get land to house their libraries and empowerment centres? “In Cheruia, we got an old government rest house. We created a model library in Bansa (Malvika and I had been studying how libraries are run for some time), because Bansa is my village; my family is there. And I know a lot of people in Bansa,” said Jatin. “The library is in a temple compound. The temple owns the land and it was given to us on a lease for 99 years, for a token sum of Re 1.”
In Bahraich district, where they are opening their next library, the main challenge was that this is an agricultural belt, and people are either farmers or their daily-wage labourers. “The only other thing apart from farm work that parents and students can think of is a government job, and everyone’s chasing these jobs. So our objective here is to also provide assistance to students for competitive exams at our libraries,” said Jatin. “We are trying to get coaching centres to allow us to livestream classes in Bansa, so a student won`t have to move to a city, rent a room, and pay hefty coaching fees. And since they can continue to live in the village, they can help their parents in the farm in the day, and study at night.”
The trio said they put all these plans before the temple trust, and the trustees were happy to give them the land they needed. “The land where we built our library was barren, and it was not hard to convince them to give it to us,” Jatin said.
“In Ballia, females weren’t allowed to come to the library. Cheruia is a small village around 50 km from the district headquarters. The rationale is that they might fall in love and boys might convince them to elope with them; this is the apprehension of the parents. So currently, when a girl needs a book, she sends a brother or another male relative to the library, where we issue the book in her name,” said Jatin.
“But when we posted photos of the library on our social media handles, donors and contributors would ask, ‘Where are the girls?’ So, since villagers’ notions will not change in a month or two, we opened a women’s empowerment centre in the village. It has all the literature books that girls there prefer. And we are also trying to get some sewing machines and build a skills and training centre there.”
He added that Bansa is different from Cheruia in that nearly 50 per cent of visitors to the community library are female. “In March, we organised a quiz competition. Out of 74 participants, 55 were female.”
They mentioned a clear distinction between the females and males in the village populations. But what about the trans population? Or are there no openly transgender persons in these villages? “I don’t think there’s any talk about this at all,” said Malvika.
June is international Pride Month, but because of the absolute lack of awareness or the active suppression of non-binary identities, things such as gender and sexuality are not spoken about in ‘polite’ circles in villages. “Students and people our age go to cities and learn about Pride from different sources, including online reading. But community elders are unfamiliar with the topic and inflexible in their attitudes,” said Malvika.
“Most people are not aware of gender identities (apart from male and female),” said Jatin. “It is unfortunate, but I have to share this: in our district when I was growing up, the only trans people I or anyone knew were those who sang at marriages and at the births of children in rich families. (Court) judgments may be handed down, progress might come to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai or Kolkata, but it is not going down to the village level. Not even one per cent of it is.”
What about caste discrimination in the community libraries? Are the so-called savarnas okay with sharing spaces with the people they refer to as “lower castes”?
“There is caste discrimination, absolutely, and it is very visible in all the villages where we run the libraries, especially in Bansa. In my own home, too,” said Jatin.
In the week after the library started, he said he invited the librarian, the library supervisor, and some volunteers and readers home and they all had tea. “When they left, my grandmother saw that one of them, considered a lower caste person, had had tea from the same tea set as everyone else. She began shouting and carried out a ‘cleansing’ ritual on the used cup. She told me there was a separate set of utensils to be used for Muslims and other castes. “She was brainwashed and thought a crime had been committed. But that day, I made it clear to my family that this should never happen again,” Jatin, who is an OBC, said.
The libraries may have a zero-discrimination policy, but in practice, is there pushback from the villagers along religion, caste and class lines? “At the libraries, from day one, everyone is welcome (we learned this from TCLP). We have made it clear that nobody is to try to carve out any space for any particular community anywhere, unlike in the villages itself, which have separate mohallas for Muslims, for example,” said Malvika.
“One of our star learners at the library, Julie, is from the SC community. Starting out, she felt hesitant and wondered how people would treat her. But we made it very, very clear – to the librarians, to our team members, and in fact, everyone – that nobody could discriminate against anyone on the grounds of caste or religion – or shame any child for wearing torn or dirty clothes. I’ve been very vocal at the libraries about all these things,” said Jatin.
How do they deal with the fact of their own privilege and how does it influence the work they do? “I realised that wherever I am today is because of the layers of inherent privilege I enjoy,” said Abhishek. “I had an English medium education and studied at a good law school. We need to be aware of this. Last year, I converted my Instagram account to something called ‘Share your privilege’ to acknowledge the fact that we have it. It was an academic exercise; but what next? So if you’re a young person and know English, teach English; if you have extra pocket money, help someone who needs it; if you have time, use it to volunteer.”
“I’m pretty privileged. But I don’t discriminate against people or do all the things I’ve seen many privileged people doing,” said Jatin.
“When you come from a privileged background (like I do), you have to acknowledge it. There are people less privileged than us; often, they don’t even have a roof over their heads. And most of that is because of caste and class divisions,” said Malvika.
Apart from their work setting up and running libraries, Abhishek, Malvika and Jatin are also involved in Covid-19 relief work. What prompted them to channel their experience into pandemic relief efforts? “Last year, the three of us were working with migrant workers. We first connected over this project, which helped to provide around 20,000 migrant workers with sustenance and the chance of a safe home-coming,” said Jatin.
“In the second wave, Jatin has been working on the ground in Bansa, overseeing everything, from distributing masks to helping people register for vaccinations,” said Malvika.
“We have a team of 22 volunteers working with us in Bansa. After the panchayat elections in my district ended on April 15, we witnessed a series of deaths in the villages. More than 40 people died in a span of 11 days,” said Jatin.
“We were alarmed and I shared my fears with Abhishek and Malaga. We sanitised the village in three days. Then we saw the need to get all the villagers to wear masks, and realised we would need oximeters as well. At that point, we made a blueprint of what we would do. It started with creating awareness, masking up, coordinating oxygen supplies and ambulances, and then vaccinations. And lastly, providing food and dry rations.”
How and where do people approach them? “We made our library the centre of the relief work. Heavy equipment is kept there. Along with the villagers, our team of volunteers visits each village to monitor social distancing and other Covid-19 protocols. If we get a call from a village very far away that needs oximeters, we try to find volunteers who can go there. The villagers can also come to us and collect them, so it happens both ways. But we try to deliver medicines and other essentials to the doorstep with the help of volunteers,” said Jatin.
Are Covid-19 deaths being undercounted, in his opinion? “In the beginning, on an average, three people were dying daily in the village. There was no testing, and there was a rumour that the entire family of anyone found testing positive would be banished for 14 days. At that time, no one came to us. People were dying and their families wouldn’t tell us they had fever; they wouldn’t disclose their symptoms.
“These people died because there was no testing, because there was no government involved, because they didn’t even go to any hospitals. These deaths are not classified as Covid-19 deaths even till today. The cremation grounds were typically handling more than double the bodies they would encounter earlier, but they followed no Covid-19 protocols. You have to get a ticket issued to cremate a body, and it costs Rs 30. Not many people could pay that. We are still trying actually to include more people in the lists, so that their family can get benefits from government schemes. It is very challenging for us,” said Jatin.
Have any of them faced resistance or harassment from government agencies for the work they do? And do they harbour political ambitions?
“Ultimately, the local officials are from the villages. They were as helpless as us when I approached them for Covid-19 relief work,” said Jatin. “The same nodal officers appointed as election agents were immediately put in charge of Covid-19 relief work when the polls ended. At the time, they didn’t have a clue. Of the 11 ASHA and anganwadi workers I saw, only two were wearing N95 masks. I told the sector magistrate this and he didn’t say anything. Not because he was insensitive, but because where would he get N95 masks from? So no, I don’t have any political ambitions.”
As India’s second Covid-19 wave seems to be petering out, the question is, should they wrap up their relief work? “We don’t know yet,” said Jatin. “Recently, somebody needed a thermometer, and someone else needed medicines and oximeters. We don’t know when we can wind up.”
Do they plan to continue with their community work and activism in the future? “Even if we pursue different things in the future, we won’t stop this work,” said Abhishek, adding that once the Covid-19 restrictions ease, perhaps he, Malvika and Jatin can finally meet each other in person. “We are actually planning to meet in Bansa.”