Giving Away A Billion Books: Rohini Nilekani at TEDxGateway

Feb 12, 2013


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk, ‘Giving Away A Billion Books’, delivered at a TEDx Gateway event. Rohini Nilekani was the Founder-Chairperson of Pratham Books, a charitable trust which seeks to put “A book in every child’s hand.”

When I was a child, I learned a skill that I believe has given me the greatest joy of my life. Peering over my older sister’s shoulders, I learned how to read long before I was officially taught at school. Noddy was my first book friend, and he came to us in wonderful hardbound books that my sister used to borrow from the nearby lending library. He was so strange and unfamiliar, yet something about Noddy’s frailty and creativity allowed me to identify with him. That was the moment I was hooked on books. I was always reading, to a point where my mother had to drag me out from under the bed where I was reading, so that I could do my daily duties around the house. To this day, I read three or four books at any given time. I hope that this story resonates with many people, despite the myriad distractions we have now. I hope that many people know the feeling of curling up with a good book, being winged away to imaginary lands, and living vicariously through characters.

Decades later, I realised how much that kind of childhood was a privilege that only some enjoyed. For more than 12 years now, I have been involved with the nonprofit sector in India, working with Pratham, which aims to put every child in school and learning well. Through this network, tens of thousands of children in every part of the country were able to learn how to read, but we realised that they did not have any books to practice their new skills with. First generation learners, whose parents did not know how to read, did not have access to any books that weren’t school textbooks, which are not exactly reader-friendly. So this was the problem that we wanted to address.

A Book in Every Child’s Hand

India is a young nation, with 300 million children who need good books to read, year after year. Books get devoured easily, so more have to be produced all the time. However, approximately 25,000 children’s books get published every year. Further compounding our problem is that the majority of these books are only written in English and Hindi, in a country where dialects, and sometimes even languages, change every 100 kilometres. If we look at the United Kingdom, they have a population of about 12 million children. They produce 72,000 books every year, which means they have six books for every child. In comparison, in India one book has to be shared between 20 children, if those children have access to the book in the first place.While there are many publishers in India who put out fantastic books in India, unfortunately they are not able to reach many children. As a way of tackling this problem, on a cold January morning in 2004 we set up Pratham Books, with the bold vision of “a book in every child’s hand.”

Our goal was to create high quality content that was local and relevant, in a variety of Indian languages, and at accessible prices. This was the task we set for ourselves, which was easier said than done. We were complete novices at the art of publishing, and we quickly realised that we could not do this in a business-as-usual format. If we are talking about reaching millions of children, we could not use the usual retail model. Instead, we would have to innovate and catalyse the ecosystem itself. It meant that we would have to partner, collaborate, influence, and disrupt the system. Since we were a nonprofit, we didn’t have to get cramped by the idea of financial sustainability. Although we live in a world where markets seem to be the solution for almost everything, I don’t believe social problems can be solved by any one narrow model. So we set ourselves up with some philanthropic capital. Along with generous donations funding the foundation, we also had many volunteers, publishers, writers, and illustrators, who gave us their time and talent. For a societal mission on this scale, everyone would have to pitch in, and that’s exactly what happened.

Our plan was to innovate, ride every distribution channel that we could find, and try some unorthodox methods. For instance, there used to be Unilever Shakti Ammas who used to go door to door selling Fair & Lovely sachets. We sent our books out with them, which worked very well for a while. People who were selling solar lanterns also carried our books, to a point where the salesmen would be met by the village children running to them asking “Where are the books?” We have also been working closely with governments. The government of Bihar helped us to put our books into every one of the 72,000 schools in the state. Those books are still there, one of the few things to have survived the floods in the area, because they were laminated. We have also worked with railway stations and post offices —anything to open up and innovate the distribution model. The result is that in the last eight years, Pratham Books has produced 245 original titles translated in different languages for a total of 1,573 books. 10.3 million books are now out there in the hands of children. 10 million story cards have been produced, small sachet books priced as low as two rupees. And because our books are being shared, we believe that we’ve had a readership of about 25 million children so far.

The Power of Stories

It’s amazing to watch a young child experience their first book. I’ve seen how they clutch it in disbelief, because it’s such a novel experience for them. In North Karnataka, a school had been set up in a small town for the children of nomadic soothsayers who had never stayed in one place before. We had helped to set up a library there, and I’ll never forget the nine-year-old child read one of our Kannada books aloud in front of his whole class. He stopped everyone from clapping so that he could read the story again, but in English which he had also just learned. I think that’s the power of a great story — it inspires you to learn more. Of course, in India there are always many challenges. There are so many more children to reach and we can’t do it alone. We have to think differently and publish more books in different languages. But we also need a platform which is open-sourced, and which other people can build on. To this end, we have put 300 of our books out under the Creative Commons license, which allows knowledge to be created and to be shared without proprietary walls, copyrights, or patents. Our books under Creative Commons can be read online, shared, printed, and distributed. India is getting increasingly connected, through technology and the internet, so our driving motive was to get these books to children in whatever way we can.

The response we have gotten has been incredibly encouraging. Our online books have been read 500,000 times. Our texts and pages have been looked at more than two lakh times on Facebook, Twitter, Scribd, and Flickr. We have seen the power of creative collaboration, as people from around the world take our books and translate them. We have had translations in French, Spanish, German, Assamese, and an internet language called Lojban. There’s also the power of collaborative creation, which means we put our text and visuals out and encourage people to reimagine those stories. Collaboration is a must if we want to get children across the country to have access to stories. As an experiment, on International Literacy Day last September, we decided to put a book out and see whether our volunteers around the country would be able to share it with children in every state.

The book we chose was ‘Susheela’s Kolams’, a story about a young girl who keeps drawing rangoli-like designs everywhere. The results of our experiment were stupendous, with our online communities creating an offline storm. Our book was printed in five languages, and read out in nine languages including sign language. There were 419 storytellings and almost 20,000 children got to share that book in one day. Every single state responded and children all over the country got to read and learn about Susheela and her kolams. This is the power of the collective.
There are many problems in India, but there are also ways to cut through barriers and make each one of us part of the solution, not part of the problem. The future of India’s children depends of course on many things. It depends on their access to safe water, nutritious food, critical health care, and a good education. But that future also depends on a child getting a great book in their hands to give wings to their imagination. At a time when knowledge is power and creativity can mean freedom, children deserve the opportunity to cut out of the reality of their daily life.



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