After more than 40 people died in Bansa, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district, within two weeks in April, the workers of Bansa Community Library and Resource Centre immediately decided to shut all operations. With minimal support from the administration, they began relief work for the villages around their library — sanitising public areas, distributing thermometers, oximeters and corona kits, providing dry ration, and so on. Overnight, their work expanded to areas beyond what they had perceived their library would be doing.
Libraries, for centuries, have served as learning spaces for people of all ages. Community libraries largely operate to provide learning opportunities to marginalised populations and bring literature, art, education, and culture to spaces where even books are hard to come by. But, with the second wave of the pandemic, the work of libraries evolved and many started reflecting on their roles in a community.
“The truth is, libraries — reading, art and culture — are null if the community does not exist,” says Lakshmi Karunakaran, children’s programme director at Hasiru Dala, and the founder of the Buguri Community Library in Karnataka. “If a community library wants to remain relevant, it needs to respond to the community. So, it becomes a responsibility and an extension of our work to become resource centres for the community.”
Bansa Community Library joined hands with Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM), and anganwadi workers in the vicinity to create a 5-step blueprint of their ‘Rural Covid Relief Work’ campaign — awareness, coordination, equipment, dry ration and immunity boosters, and vaccination. According to Jatin Lalit Singh, the founder of the library, they have distributed more than 5,000 masks to seven nearby villages, provided ration to more than 240 people, and made kits of Covid-19 equipment to be used by the residents of the surrounding villages.
The library has also set up teleconsultation services with seven doctors on board. “Whoever wants to consult a doctor, either about Covid or in general about their health, can come to the library,” says Singh. “The library acts as a storehouse now, and we have distributed pamphlets of all the services we are providing.” We are seeing an incredible response, says Singh, with four to six calls to doctors daily.
After multiple requests, the workers were also able to organise randomised testing at their library. Currently, they are helping residents with the vaccine registration process for a vaccination centre, which is approximately 12 kilometres from their village and even provides transportation services in dire circumstances.
Buguri Library in Bengaluru belongs to Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation that works with waste workers. The library specifically works with children of waste pickers, who, Buguri says, are some of the most marginalised populations of ‘at risk’ children.
When the second wave hit, the team at the library focused specifically on cases of pregnant women and children. The team organised randomised testing for the community and saw cases emerge among groups that previously never had, such as children.
Working with children was a special challenge, says Karunakaran. “There was a huge lack of understanding, and Covid isolation for children and pregnant women was quite challenging at the beginning. Children were not yet seen as serious carriers because their cases were either mild or asymptomatic. In addition, isolation for children was not really possible.” Eventually, with the help of Childline India and the CWC, they have now built an understanding of different kinds of cases to establish a proper care mechanism.
Hasiru Dala, along with a few other organisations — HBS hospitals, Karnataka COVID: Jeevan Anmol, Mercy Mission, XRLI Alumni Association, Mission Vishwas, Titan Company, and St. Joseph’s College — set up a create a Covid care isolation centre for the underprivileged in Bengaluru. They called the children’s branch of the Covid centre the ‘Happy Centre’. “With books, crayons, music and volunteers who routinely interact with the kids, we have tried to create an upbeat environment at the centre,” says Karunakaran.
The Community Library Project (TCLP), which operates in four centres for low-income communities in Delhi and Gurugram, worked differently. When the pandemic hit, they identified themselves as an information hub and became a coordinating agency.
In the first wave of the pandemic, they called all the members across their libraries to identify their needs and keep a track of them as they moved to, or planned to move to, their hometowns. “The most urgent thing, then, was not the disease, but the loss of ration, livelihood, and the income loss in our communities,” says Purnima Rao, the media coordinator at TCLP.
Like most others, they had not anticipated the second wave to be so huge. “However, over the past year, we had done an excellent thing — keeping in touch with our members, along with taking a huge portion of our library operations online,” adds Rao. So with the second wave, they again called all their members to identify and work with their problems.
Currently, Rao says, they are offering help with vaccine registration, navigating online portals, and registration the community for labour cards. In addition, as they identify as an agitational organisation, they also surveyed their members to bring forward their problems. “One of the things we have asked is what do they want from the government, and if they have a message for the government,” adds Rao. “Among the 1000-odd families who exist with us, almost 300 were unreachable—which is a huge concern. All we can do is agitate because we can’t solve neither the food security problem nor the livelihood problem.” The results of their survey were published as a social media campaign.
Over the last 3 weeks TCLP’s library leaders have tried to contact over 1000 active library members and their families. We reached 700+ of them. Over the next few days, we will roll out our issue-wise insights, starting with #vaccines. #freevaccineforall #rights pic.twitter.com/44sxJzT7TO
— The Community Library Project (@CommunityLibPro) May 22, 2021
*TCLP’s COVID-19 DISTRESS SURVEY 2021**
FOOD & EDUCATION
Families reported extreme stress including food insecurity, ration shops denying them part of all of their ration quota, not being able to access ration without ration cards. 1/n pic.twitter.com/KdcQFLLiov
— The Community Library Project (@CommunityLibPro) May 24, 2021
The past year has seen a transformation of the work of community libraries and the nature of their existence in a community. And one devastating consequence of this has been the shift of focus from education and cultural development. But as they navigate this change, Rao says, this year proves and strengthens the need for a free library revolution.
Now, more than ever, we need more community libraries and community spaces in the country. Karunakaran agrees and adds, “When all this is done, and hopefully soon, I don’t think normalcy will come soon. Recovering from this pandemic would be very uneven and slow. And it is these community projects, community libraries and community spaces that will support and help us heal”. It is these community-led spaces that will help society move forward.
(The writer is an intern with The Indian Express)