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When Was The Last Time You Went To A Public Library In India?

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By Subadra Ramakrishnan:

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” ― Albert Einstein

They have been called “raucous clubhouses for free speech”. They have been called “delivery rooms for the birth of ideas”. Without them, societies have been warned, that they have “no past and no future”. With them, societies have been assured, there is no better protection against tyranny, xenophobia and ignorance.

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With such widespread and deep intellectual backing across the world, India was no stranger to the great benefits of public libraries.

Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the Maharaja of Baroda, who kick-started the public-library system in 1910, wanted his people to be “pupils in the people’s university”. The kingdom of Kolhapur, in what is now Maharashtra, passed India’s first Public Library Act in 1945. Since then, 19 Indian states–the latest being Arunachal Pradesh in 2009–have passed laws enabling the establishment of libraries open to the public.

Yet, India with its 1.2 billion people and after almost seven decades of independence, does not know how many public libraries it has.

Using a conservative estimate of 35,000 libraries, based on calculations by Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), a trust which funds public libraries and comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, there is only one library per 36,000 people.

Compare that with China with a 2013 population of 1.36 billion and 51,311 libraries i.e. one public library per roughly 26,000 people. The United States with a population of 315 million and 16,500 public libraries has one library for every 19,000 people.

An effort to correct the anomaly was the launch of National Mission on Libraries (NML) in February 2014 by President Pranab Mukherjee. Acknowledging the critical role of libraries–and apparently paraphrasing the Maharaja of Baroda–Mukherjee said: “A public library is often called the “people’s university” because it is available to all sections of the society regardless of age, gender, or skill levels.”

The Government of India has allocated Rs 400 crore for the National Mission on Libraries (NML) over the next three years, including the creation of a national virtual library, model libraries and staff training. (Read a previous report on how the NML could revitalise the public library system here.)

But India’s largest, most-populous states don’t really care.

As the graph below indicates, large states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand have not bothered to even apply for the money available. Only 2% of the total 12,000+ libraries that received assistance were in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country.

The Foundation helps states customise libraries, but no more than 12,000 libraries are formally registered and, according to this 2012-2013 report, the national average for funds used stood at 27%. Delhi used all the funds available, followed by Chandigarh at 81%. Many states hovered around the 40% mark, but states like Bihar, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana did not use any of the funds available.

Not surprisingly, states without proper public-library systems have low literacy rates. States with higher literacy rates consistently utilised a bigger portion of state funds earmarked for library improvement programs as compared to states with lower literacy.

When the system does work

There are some common traits among states that have a vibrant public-library system, such as Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat to name a few.

One, they have fully functional websites, with details and membership forms, online catalogues, details of manuscripts, journals and other essential information.

Two, most of them have adopted the library legislation, which gives them benchmarks to monitor and improve on.

Three, they regularly tap into RRRLF resources to scale up infrastructure, buy more books, digitise existing books and train staff. The table below gives you a snapshot of states that are serious about public libraries:


The National Mission on Libraries makes sense, but the basic problem remains: how will it help libraries if the RRRLF–the implementing agency–does not know that they exist, apart from the 12,000 officially registered?

A central online repository of all public libraries in the country might help.

There are many benefits to a vastly improved public-library system across India, with suggestions to link them to, among others, literacy programmes and community services.

As this paper said: “India is in a position to redefine what a public library means, especially with regard to the delivery of community information services and the preservation of local cultural traditions. These are exciting and important times, as a vast number of India’s citizens can serve to benefit from improved public library services… (We need) to continue building this new vision, and… (engage in) sustained and creative action. Millions are waiting.


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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