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Helping build a reading India

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Essar is, in a special way, lending its support to promoting something beyond literacy, even beyond education — helping to foster a love of knowledge.

July 16, 2012 Bookmark and Share  
Essar and its social development wing, Essar Foundation, has long been actively supporting education projects across the country. Supporting training programs for teachers has been a frequent exercise; building infrastructure at government-run schools (about 75 to date) across the country as well as offering scholarships to children from low-income families (about 5,000 students every year) are also well-established initiatives. It has independently constructed four schools in remote areas — at Tungi village in Maharashtra; Mahan in Madhya Pradesh; Chatro in Jharkhand; and Paradip in Odisha — at which more than 3,000 students are enrolled.

Such Essar initiatives in education are informed by the philosophy of the Right to Education Act. Thus, the projects address fundamental issues of access to and quality of education — while infrastructure-support and scholarships aim to improve access, training programs address issues of quality.

There is one area, however, where the Essar engagement with education follows a path that's off the beaten track, an initiative that promotes, simply, the joy of reading.

In October 2011, Essar Foundation associated itself with Pratham Books — an offshoot of the non-government organization (NGO), Pratham, which has been, for about two decades, working in the field of education — to organize a book fair at Essar company premises. Pratham Books was spawned when Pratham looked for children's books to promote a love of reading that would add to a love of learning. The NGO wanted books with an India focus, describing situations with which the children it targeted — mostly children in government schools, from relatively underprivileged backgrounds — would identify. In that process, it began to produce its own books ... and so Pratham Books was born.

Alongside, Pratham had begun to distribute books in schools, helping to set up school — and even classroom — libraries. In that process, yet another campaign for promoting the love of reading was born — Room to Read.

Essar tied up with Pratham Books, helping to promote reading in government schools across India in various ways. Initiatives are as varied as supporting the purchase of books by schools, participation in exhibitions and organizing discussion platforms on children's books.

The involvement of Essarites in these activities has been an attempt by the company to build a culture of social awareness and responsibility. Essar strives to involve employees in social development initiatives not only to help in the development of communities but also to consolidate the company's responsibility as a corporate citizen.

Essarites at social work

On July 12, 2012, ten Essarites gathered at the Nehru Science Centre and Planetarium in Mumbai. A part of the complex is given over every day to extra-curricular coaching classes for children from nearby schools, most of them municipal schools, and all the children from underprivileged backgrounds, many of them first-generation schoolchildren. The additional coaching, organized by the NGO Akanksha, has helped the children improve their school performance; but, as Rupa from Akanksha says, "more than anything, it has helped them improve their self-confidence".

The Essarites — Poulomi and Niharika of the CSR division, Sachin from the retail strategy team and Dinaz from the head office — sat down with the children to read stories, supervise craft-based activities and converse.

Diksha, a class-8 student from a nearby school, said how the classes have helped improve her skills in speaking and reading and writing English — "more than anything, more than improving in maths or any other subject, these classes have helped our English abilities," she said as friends Nazneen, Mahesh and Pragnya nodded agreement. In another group, Sunil and Prakash echo the opinion. All of them are in classes 7 to 9.

At a panel discussion organized by the Essar Foundation, Sampurna Murti, head of the Pratham Books western region offices, emphasized how "reading is important for learning; it inspires children to read more books. Our vision is that should be a book in every child's hand."

Essar Foundation head Deepak Arora said, "The partnership with Pratham was triggered because we at Essar were looking at bringing schools to remote areas and Pratham was already focused on these geographies, publishing in the same language and apt for the reading level."

Essar places particular focus on continuing education and adult literacy. This focus also brings to centre-stage its association with Pratham Books. The library movement, adult literacy classes and bridge courses for children who return to school after dropping out, all use non-curricular books to attract new and returning readers.

However, as Mr Arora said, the effort involves training teachers on how to use the books.

Essar Foundation also promoted books and reading through Bookaroo, the annual exhibition of children's books organized every November in  the Delhi-NCR region. Attractively produced, reasonably priced, describing stories situated in recognizable contexts within India, the books are all about attracting youngsters to read — and about making reading and, therefore, learning, fun!

Twitter chat with Pratham Books

On July 11, the Essar Foundation organized a chat with Pratham Books on Twitter, to spread awareness about the Indian education system and how there continue to be a number of stumbling blocks in the path to full literacy. The activity drew a very encouraging response, generating over 2.29 lakh impressions. Here's the transcript of the chat:

Essar: It is estimated that one in three school-going kids in India cannot read fluently. What could be the reason for this?

Pratham Books: Too many children in a class, absent or insufficient numbers of teachers results in higher dropouts.Teaching methods that do not engage the child and paucity of good reading material are other reasons.

Essar: Once children learn to read, it is critical to nurture the habit, so that they enjoy it. How do we nurture this?

Pratham Books: By providing more and more joyful, colourful, interesting choices of reading material.

Essar: How do we reach out to as many children as possible across India especially in villages and in remote locations?

Pratham Books: Read to children in your locality by going and adopting places you can reach, motivate locals to become reading mentors.

Essar: In a survey done by HT (@htTweets) in 2011: 35 per cent kids spend an average of 3-5 hours on non-school related reading in a week. What would be a good number of hours that a kid should put into non-school reading for overall development?

Pratham Books: Even if kids read for one hour out of choice, their reading skills improve steadily and over time they become good enough to find their own areas of interest.

Essar: With so much variety of books available today, what should children be reading?

Pratham Books: There is very little variety in available books in Indian languages. English has more books but affordability is an issue. Also, kids should be reading what interests them.

Essar: As a citizen of India, how can one contribute to this movement and ensure that we are working towards a '?Reading India'?

Pratham Books: Get involved with the local school to help in reading activities. Volunteer time, read at any place where children are. Start small and there will be a ripple effect.

Essar: What are your thoughts on initiatives where employees actively participate to be a part of such movements?

Pratham Books: An excellent initiative. Gives a platform to people who want to make a difference but don't know how and where to begin.

Essar: What role do you see employee volunteers from Essar contributing to the 'Read India Movement'?

Pratham Books: Volunteer to read to children, buy books and read themselves, build community libraries for those who cannot buy books.

To view the tweets we received, click here

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