The Char Library on Mazidbhita Char of Barpeta is a unique initiative to instill a love of learning and knowledge in one of the least-developed areas of the State
Six-year-old Jiya loves to read and is found cozying up on Saturdays and Sundays (her off-days) with a Famous Seven or Tottosan in a quiet corner of her Zoo Road home in Guwahati. But when her parents informed her that a library was being set up on Mazidbhita, a char village on the bank of the river Beki, she decided to chip in with books she had loved over the past couple of years. She hoped the other children too would share in her delight, a secret bond thus created which would tide over human barriers. One of the other contributors is Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer who has donated books related to law and politics. A significant part of Aman’s clientele comes from the chars and its surrounding areas, he is known as someone who is sympathetic to their concerns. In his own words, ‘I have grown up with books. I did read a lot of them but there were many others I didn’t. Just being surrounded by books is an experience that children should have. I know that expecting someone at the Char library to read The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen is a little far-fetched, but even if someone picks up the book and reads the author’s name and learns something about the book, I will feel rewarded.’
Making a Difference
The Jhai Foundation, an NGO run by a group of committed local young people, is the brains behind the initiative. They work with people of the char-chaporis and have recently worked on an innovation called plinth rising, where a house is built on a high earthen platform to stall the floodwaters. Assam floods had claimed more than 87 lives and affected the livelihoods of more than 1.7 million people this year. The worst affected were the people living on the chars, small sandbars on the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, enriched with alluvial soil and hardworking people, but ironically lacking even essential services such as the right to clean drinking water. On Mazidbhita char, 94 out of its 263 families use only river water for consumption. 11 families use water from common tube-wells and 156 families have their own tube-wells. Even families which have tube-wells suffer during the annual floods as these wells get partially or fully submerged under flood waters (Baseline survey, Jhai Foundation). Two students who were interning with the foundation raised funds to make sure safe drinking water is available to residents during the annual floods, a core committee was formed with local people and five community owned water points were built.
Their latest initiative, the Char library, has seen more than 700 books being collected from individuals who got to know about the collection drive on social media. ‘All the books have been crowd funded and social media has been a huge help. We are also happy about the diversity of the books being collected from an Assamese translation of Premchand’s Idgah to law books and classic Assamese and English novels. In fact, we consciously encouraged contributors to give us books on a variety of topics and languages, with the exception of religious texts’ says Abdul Kalaam Azad, the chief functionary of Jhai. It is pertinent to point out that the literacy rate in the chars has stayed well below the 15 % mark post Independence and has marginally increased to 19 % according to a recent report by the Directorate of Char Areas Development. There are around 300 families living on Mazidbhita char with only three Lower Primary schools among them. The oldest one was set up in 1945 but till about two years ago, the school was run by a single temporary teacher. The only TET certified teacher had stopped coming to the school, having outsourced his work to the temporary teacher for 500 rupees. It was at this point of time that the Jhai foundation mobilized the local people and met the DC (Deputy Commissioner) to register their protest. Now, there are three student volunteers who work with respective schools to make sure teachers attend to their wards. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg as there is no ME (Middle English) school in Mazidbhita. Students after finishing their primary education have to opt for the ME schools in one of these neighboring chaporis: Baliguri, Janata or Mili-Juli. The nearest chapori is Janata, three and half kilometers away. In between is the tempestuous Beki River, swallowing river banks in the monsoon and growing dry in the winter, when children wade through mud and shallow water to reach school. In this dismal scenario, one hopes that the library will be able to instill not only a love of books but a yearning for change in the young people of Mazidbhita.
Written by Nasreen Habib