CHENNAI: A dream, a shared vision, and a mission to transform India into a developed nation by 2020 — spurred on by former President late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the beginning of the new millennium was nothing but remarkable. Breathing the stirring idea with a focussed manifesto for change, he laid the path for the country’s future generations — to dream, create, take action and step into a brave new future filled with possibilities and opportunities — one where the rural-urban divide is reduced to a thin almost invisible line, there’s equitable distribution of resources, and education is not denied to any meritorious candidate because of socio-economic discrimination, among several other distinctive contours. Cut to present, twenty years have gone by, yet, realising Dr Kalam’s vision seems far-fetched. Inconsistent growth rates, not-so-inclusive policies and lack of infrastructural developments, if not stunted, have certainly decelerated the process by manifolds. But despite the odds, several youngsters from different pockets of the country are silently yet potently forging the future.
Chennai’s Dulkal Library is the newest catalyst for change to join this movement. A youth-led initiative, Dulkal aims to set up a network of libraries at government schools in remote areas, tribal villages, and communities that have no access to books or knowledge-giving tools. Inspired by Kalam’s words and the vision he had for ‘Gen Next’, Dulkal was formed by five youngsters — Karthikeyan Panchanathan, Leela Karthiga, Mini N, Marian Britto and Amritha Prem in January 2020.
“We are working professionals from different sectors but contributing for causes along with NGOs has always been something we’ve been passionate about. In the heart of these causes we’ve worked for, children have always been the focus. So, that common thread pushed us to form Dulkal, to shape and change the lives of children, who, in the words of Dr Kalam are the future pillars of the country,” says Karthikeyan, a marine engineer.Earlier this year, Dulkal received its first request from St Antony’s Primary School in Anaiyeri, Villupuram, to set up a library in its premises. The second library was inaugurated on March 15 at the Government Higher Secondary School, Vengalathur, Thiruvanamalai, with 528 books for children between classes 1 to 10.
Beyond the walls
While the primary focus is to enrich lives through books, the idea of Dulkal also goes beyond the four walls of a library and is not space-specific. “Our work doesn’t just stop with setting up these libraries. We engage with children and conduct skill-based activities for their holistic development; we sensitise the children, teachers and the community members on different social issues that are otherwise not spoken about. We also provide career guidance to children in need. It’s in many ways like adopting a community for their betterment. It’s a movement,” says Leela, a software quality analyst.
For Dulkal and its 40-odd volunteers, setting up a learning space for children doesn’t start and end with the mere action of stacking books in a room. The team has a multi-step process of receiving and filtering requests based on priority, student needs, accessibility, conducting book donation drives and fundraisers, handpicking books from publishers and distributors, segregation and finally, setting it up. “Funds are usually raised by curating crowdfunding campaigns when there is a requirement. Corporates contribute as part of their CSR activities. While setting up the library, we ensure that the students and the community involve themselves in the process. This way, they not only become consumers but will also be accountable and play a role in its upkeep, along with the school authority.
As part of the setting-up process, the walls of the library are painted in child and environment-centric themes. This is a community activity,” explains Mini, a Psychology graduate with a post-graduate degree in criminology.
Sessions on child sexual abuse, menstrual health, environmental awareness, gardening, zero waste management, minimalism, fireless cooking, yoga, dance and art are also conducted. “Most of these children come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some don’t even have access to a phone. In such cases, they grow up without any exposure to the ever-changing world. We hope to give them a glimpse of this new world, enabling them to imagine and reimagine a future for themselves,” she says.
Currently, Dulkal’s library houses a heterogeneous mix of fictional and nonfictional books, covering genres including folklore, classics, picture books, science fiction, historical fiction, moral stories, biographies and environment. “The books are handpicked as per the needs and age groups of the children, to ensure the books help in developing their creativity, comprehension and vocabulary (LSRW) skills.
While the demographic of the children we’ve catered to so far didn’t include those with disabilities, we hope to focus on making all the libraries inclusive. For instance, even if a school doesn’t have a child with disabilities, we are hoping to add books that will open dialogues about those with disabilities. Books focusing on different sexual orientations, sex education and mental health in the form of picture books, magazines and tools suitable for children will also make way into our libraries. It is a work in progress,” shares Karthikeyan.
Progress in a pandemic
In May 2020, when the pandemic had stopped children from going to schools, Dulkal began receiving requests for books from teachers and volunteer networks from rural parts of Tamil Nadu, leading to the formation of the ‘Gift a book, enrich a life’ campaign. “Several students, especially those from the tribal communities were considering dropping out of school due to the pandemic and the eventual loss of livelihoods that their families were facing.
As a result, there was an alarming increase in child marriages and child labour during this time. Since many were unable to attend classes, we started accepting requests from schools and volunteers from rural areas and sent books according to their needs. The idea was to keep the children engaged, well-informed on what was happening and in touch with education. It worked! So far 700 to 800 students have benefited from the campaign,” he says.
Soon, Dulkal will be formulating a children’s parliament module and implement it at schools in rural areas, helping students take part in the development process of their community. “We want to turn these children into leaders, who can independently solve their issues and help their kith and kin grow as a community,” says Mini, giving us hope for the future. Perhaps, the Missile Man’s dream and vision will soon see the light of the day and not remain a mere mirage.For details, visit Instagram page @dulkal2020, or Facebook page Dulkal, or call 8825773907
Dulkal has also been conducting Dulkal Talks, a Zoom session twice a week, inviting eminent speakers to discuss tabooed topics and those that are timely and relevant.