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Why Can’t Nearly 150 Million Children Read In India?

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Written by Sarah Berry for our “300m Challenge”

Students learning from our book “Bioscope” at Katha Lab School



I once read this quote somewhere, “A reader lives a thousand lives …” Over the years, with the pressure of time and responsibilities, the reading was buried, until one day, a chance dusting led me to a ‘pandora box of sorts’: “Polar Bear”, a book by Norbert Rosing, published by Katha India, stirred up a hornet’s nest in me.

I wondered why I had abandoned my best friend, my books, for so many years. It’s not that we don’t have the time, or can’t find it, sometimes it has to be snatched for those we love the most, and for those who are most loving and loyal to us. Books love us unconditionally. Period.

So, when I read that approximately 150 million children in my country cannot read at grade level, I was plagued with a bout of sadness. Why? What can I, as a citizen do?

I recall a conversation I once had with a well-to-do parent. “I always loved to read. My child doesn’t. Not at all. I have tried everything.” It brought to my mind how I learnt to read, so long ago, vivid in my mind … I learnt to read with the help of picture books, relishing the photographs, my index finger moving over each word, pronouncing it, understanding its meaning, its relevance, and interpretation in context, questioning, finding answers … it was a process, an experience, and a delight.

Having too many resources available on our fingerprints diluted this journey, perhaps. I recall yet another conversation with a father who never had the privilege to gain literacy. He had toiled hard and his forefathers had toiled hard too. Speaking from his soul, he had said to me, “My eyes filled with joy; the tears fell; tears of joy, when I heard my daughter read for the first time, joining words together to read out sentences.” I remember how touched I was, almost understanding his joy.

Or yet another conversation with a mother, who herself an animal lover, couldn’t understand her son’s apathy for animals. Of course, every individual is different. It was by chance that the child’s mother introduced him to Tigers Forever by Ruskin Bond.

He associated with the character of the animal to a large extent … strange, but true … it led to a series of questions — about the animal … about the food chain … about the environment … about the conservation of the same … about humans and what they should/could do … it was an eye-opener for both of us,” said the mother.

A journey with a book is a re-discovery of the self, each time. Reading is, perhaps, one of the most treasured experiences. So, when people say that approximately 150 million of our children can’t read at grade level, it is shocking, and painful to say the least.

Where did we fall behind? And why? Can we, perhaps, save the situation? Perhaps, we can. Perhaps, we need to rethink the essence of reading – not just for learning, but for fun and meaning.

I recall, vividly, an incident from my childhood, where my mother ‘discovered’ a ‘shop’ on the pavement, in the middle of a bazaar, near my grandmother’s home. This gentleman sold second-hand books all the way from Russia.

And, I remember that this was my first introduction to the country and its culture – an important lesson in multiculturalism that served me well not only in my career, but was vital for me as a person too. And, this is just one of the many important benefits of learning – stimulation for the senses, holistic development, a source of exploration/inspiration/introspection/meditation…and the list goes on.

The journey with a book is not just a bunch of words, but a journey into a world of its own – a world that the reader and the book weave together. Don’t you think? Write to me, if you do, and if you wish to work with me to give reading its much-deserved place under the sun.

About the author: Sarah Berry heads External Affairs at Katha and hails from a multicultural background — her father being Indian and mother being German. She brings with her 24 years of diverse professional experiences covering public diplomacy/advocacy, training, outreach, content generation/management and communications, amongst others.

300m Challenge is a mission embarked upon by Katha to change things for our children through the power of reading! We partner with like-minded organizations and bring the joy of well-illustrated books to children and bridge the gap in literacy and reading in India. If you wish to be part of this mission, please feel free to write to us at with your ideas.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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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.

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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.

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