Itanagar: In 2020, C. Lawm-zuala and Lallaisangzuali, from Mizoram University’s Central Library, established a small non-profit roadside library in Aizawl, the state capital.
Their initiative was inspired by similar reading nooks they had encountered during their travels to the United States.
This venture, in a state with a relatively high literacy rate, sparked a similar movement in the border state of Arunachal Pradesh, where sisters Ngurang Meena and Reena established mini roadside libraries in three remote districts – Papum Pare, Kurung Kumey, and Tirap.
Ngurang Meena, a 33-year-old schoolteacher, and her younger sister Reena, a PhD scholar at JNU, New Delhi, founded the Ngurang Learning Institute (NLI) in 2014.
When all activities came to a halt during the pandemic, Meena, who had seen a Facebook post about the Mizoram roadside libraries, decided to open one in her village.
The hurdles were significant. As Reena pointed out, unlike Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh lags behind in various parameters.
“The state is the worst performing compared to all its ‘sister’ states and most of the Indian states, notably in literacy. It is also the second-lowest-performing state on NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goals index on gender equality and among the lowest performers in quality education,” she told The Telegraph.
Despite these challenges, the sisters have made significant strides in just three years.
Their Free Street Library Initiative has recently been recognized as an exemplary project by the United Nations General Assembly.
Reena attributes their success to the love and support from the Arunachal society, friends, and well-wishers, including writers, human rights defenders, and cultural institutions in India and abroad.
With the initial funding of Rs 10,000 for books and an equal amount for wooden shelves, the project has grown to encompass 26 roadside libraries, some simply comprising racks in the crevices of trees.
Meena, a teacher at Kimin Higher Secondary School, has devised innovative methods to inculcate the reading habit in children, including offering treats and gifts to keep them engaged. Through partnerships with various educational, cultural, and non-profit institutions, NLI has amplified its outreach and impact on literacy.
During the pandemic, when schools were closed, the libraries thrived. However, footfall dropped considerably once educational institutions reopened. Meena, along with her partner Diwang Hosai, continues to spearhead this unique literacy campaign.
The sisters’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded their efforts in Mann Ki Baat, and the Arunachal government honored Meena this year as part of International Women’s Day celebrations.
With international recognition, the sisters hope to extend their venture to all districts in the state, especially the remote border ones.
They are also working to improve infrastructure and network connectivity in these areas to enhance access to resources.
As the first woman in her family to pursue higher education, Meena values books and is determined to inculcate the reading habit in her students to improve their writing skills and overall literacy.
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