READ India to educate and empower in Birbhum
READ India – A hundred years is a significant amount of time! In Surul, Birbhum, however, time stood still as India’s first Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, sought to establish a world first. Visva Bharati University is a world first in terms of establishing a higher education institution that connects the globe to India and India to the world.
As a founding trustee of Rural Education and Development, READ India, it was my responsibility to open the 53rd community library and resource centre there. In the last 15 years, the READ model has evolved from a community library in the most underserved communities to a skill development and sustainable livelihood hub for “inspiring rural prosperity” thanks to the epidemic. Women in sewing-machine-equipped centres stitched, supplied, and marketed masks during the Covid waves, not only decreasing rural mortality but also compensating for their men’s manufacturing occupations.
Consider my surprise when the speaker who introduced me said that Gurudev Tagore had inaugurated the first edition of the centre as a community health delivery sub-system in the form of a society – Surul Swasthya Samiti or Surul (name of village) health society – to serve not only that community but also 100 Adivasi villages in the area.
It’s not often that you realize you’re walking in the footsteps of giants, but the sense of history of the institution, which is now being repaired and built upon by the READ India team, reminded me that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants who once walked these bylanes.
In fact, in researching popular literature about the Covid pandemic, I came up short on mentions of the influenza virus that killed out about 30% of India’s population at the time. The only fact I discovered was mentioned in Chinmay Tumbe’s book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, where he referred to Jim Corbett’s book. I remembered a passage in which Corbett explained why tigers in the area had become man-eaters, and he mentioned a mysterious illness that caused villagers to throw bodies from great heights into rivers and water bodies below, where they would invariably become tiger prey, turning them into man-eaters.
To an amazed enthralled audience, I mentioned this in my speech. It’s difficult to know where you are and when you are when history is all around you. The involvement of the village governing committee, which not only put together a cultural programme for Poila Baisakh but also had the municipal councillor and the head of Visva Bharati’s rural outreach at the event, enthralled me.
If Kantha embroidery is found in Surul, West Bengal, Chikankari is found in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. It could be dried spices in the forest areas around Sri City, Andhra Pradesh, or Khadi textiles in Geejgarh, Alwar, Rajasthan. The pride of crafting their destinies even in the midst of extreme difficulty, and yet being empowered and involved enough to ask for more, was evident in all of the video conversations I made to centre heads and beneficiaries at these centres over the previous two years, during lockdowns. In addition to digital selling, entrepreneurship, and social media skills training, 25 of the 52 centres needed healthcare worker training.
Three incredible women who shaped and carried out the vision
As I reflect on READ’s 15-year journey, I’d like to express my gratitude to three incredible people who helped to design and implement the vision. The first is Geeta Malhotra, the country director, who has held the fort and developed an entire cadre of young leaders who are carrying forward READ India’s vision and goal, while also having a beneficial impact on half a million rural households.
Toni Neubauer, the founder of the READ Global movement, started the mission in Nepal, which I helped to join and shape in India, particularly as a key contributor to Section 135, and through my early involvement with IICA, which designed the program-driven mission mode approach that the CSR Act had mandated.
Finally, the heart of the library movement, India’s first woman librarian, Kalpana Dasgupta, who led the National Library and the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, and whose all-in engagement with READ India and unconditional support for both the cause of universal access to learning and a specific focus on women empowerment has enabled us to create a model that lives in the middle of the community, with their support and reflecting their aspirations.
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