The hall is brightly illuminated and students, engrossed in books, are awash in light.

Silver-colour iron cabinets—some with glass panes and dangling padlocks and others wide open—have covered each wall. And inside of them: stacks of thick and thin books arranged in styles which delight the eye.

The new books, with glossy coloured covers and clean white labels of shelf numbers and library codes, quickly catch the onlooker’s attention. Yet, a distinctive smell of old books, emanating from some other cabinet, engulfs the air. This smell can melt any book lover’s heart, taking a reader into a complete vintage setting.

It is in this milieu that two young school-going students are sitting together on chairs, facing each other, in one of the corners of this hall. Their notebooks are wide open on the wooden table. They are picking notes from a reference book and talk in signs — following the instruction of the “Silence Please” signboard.

Soon the clock ticks 9: 45 p.m. Sahil Khan, 18 is restless. He is shuffling his notes and checking his wrist watch frequently. After five minutes, he takes out his cell-phone from his bag that he keeps on silent mode during the study. He goes out of the hall to make a call, and comes back quickly.

“I would love to study further,” Khan says. “But, I have to leave now.”

Khan is an aspiring polytechnic student who is living in crammed neighbourhood of Zakir Nagar in South Delhi, where hundreds of non-local students put up together in rented rooms, adjacent to Jamia Millia Islamia in Okhla suburb.

He has come all the way from Bihar to write an entrance test for polytechnic diploma at Jamia Millia. But due to the lack of enough space that he is sharing with other three boys, he is not able to fully concentrate on his studies.

“It is very difficult to manage our studies in a single room where we live,” Khan says. “If someone among us wants to sleep or watch movies, make a phone call or study, our choices usually clash.”

Khan was reluctant to discuss these problems with the family. He didn’t want to add to the worries of his parents.

“I was so stressed out about my studies,” he says, in a voice barely audible, so that other students don’t get disturbed. “But, there has been a light at the end of tunnel now. Thanks to this private-cum-public library.”

Khan joined the library in April this year, after one of the local neighbours told him about it. Now, he spends more than five hours every day.

“This library is just five-minute walk away from my room,” he says, and quips that he is privileged not to spend his pocket money on bus fare.

Sahil Khan - Amir Subhani Khan

Sahil Khan, 18 (right), and Amir Subhani Khan, 19 (left), spend their quality time to prepare for their exams at the Alhikmah Education Point in Zakir Nagar of South Delhi. Besides their academic studies, they also read newspapers and magazines. Image credits: Aliya Bashir

The public library, Alhikmah Education Point, was started by Alhikmah Foundation, in 1999 with the aim to help the outside-state students like Khan.

It offers a reading space along with the facilities of free access to more than 4000 books and daily newspapers, journals and magazines. But, seeing the response of the students and the success of the library, local people also got their children registered as members at the library.

“We started the library after a survey in the area. We found that the students coming from different parts of India are facing a lot of problems in pursuing their studies,” said Dr. Ziauddin Ahmad, Chairman of the foundation. “There is space crunch and a lot of socio-economic problems in the area.”

In early ’70s, when Delhi was being urbanised, professors of the Jamia Millia along with their families started living here. But, later the unchecked urbanization led to unauthorized and cramped colonies, Ahmed says.

Majority of the localities in this area – Zakir Nagar, Shaheen Bagh, Okhla Vihar, Johri Farm, Ghaffar Manzil, Batla House, Abul Fazal Enclave and Okhla Head – are populated by Muslims, mostly middle and lower middle class. The residents usually do not have spacious living places, making it difficult for children to study at home.

Students from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and other areas take the advantage of the library everyday from 4 p.m till 10 p.m, after finishing their school, college or university. The members pay registration fees of Rs 50 and a monthly fee of Rs 100. Those who cannot even pay are given a full-waiver by the organization, after the case of the student is reviewed by the administration.

“In today’s fast life, we always think about our personal lives to sustain ourselves,” Ahmed says. “But, I strongly believe that our happiness is incomplete unless we don’t do anything for the education of the underprivileged children.”

Illiteracy rate in India is 22 per cent, according to the 2011 Census report. The illiteracy is highest among Muslims at 42.72 per cent followed by Hindus at 36.40 per cent, Sikhs at 32.49 per cent, Buddhists at 28.17 per cent and Christians at 25.66 per cent. Jains are the most literate community with 86.73 per cent of them being literate and only 13.57 per cent as illiterate.

“Everyone can contribute in various ways to light the candle of education to illuminate the darkness in a community,” says Ahmad.

The library has registered 4500 students till now. Everyday around 55 students spend quality time in the library and consult various available books on different subjects.

“The library extends the study hours during our exams,” said Amir Subhani Khan, another student from Bihar, who is preparing for the law entrance scheduled for May 2017. “We cannot afford to purchase expensive reference books to prepare for competitive exams. But, here we can consult them as much as we want.”

The officials of the library order books as per the demand of the students so that most of them can take hassle free help of the study material. The books are mostly donated by volunteers from cross sections of the society.

The narrow lanes and crowded streets of the area where the library is situated are considered to be a safe, cheap and a preferable place for students. Due to the buzz of the streets with shops opening till late hours and a variety of cheap food outlets, most of these students prefer to stay in this area.

Mohammad Saud Alam, the librarian for the past six years, is quite happy with the result of the students who attend the library.

“Our students are mostly preparing for various competitive entrance tests,” he says. “Even after they qualify their exams, they visit the library and spend their time here.”

The local people seem to be quite interested with the literary environment that the library has been able to generate. That’s why, Saud Alam says, they have enrolled their children as young as 11 for the library membership.

“Parents said to us that their children will also develop reading habits right from their early age which will help them in the life ahead,” he said. “We felt so proud, seeing others getting inspired.”

Public Library DElhi

The public library was started with an aim to help students from outside of the state. It offers a reading space along with the facilities of free access to more than 4000 books and daily newspapers and journals. Image credits: Aliya Bashir

India is one of the 135 countries in the world that has rolled out the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2010, but on the ground it has failed to deliver. According to recent UNESCO statistics, the number of Indian children who are out of school is 61 million all in the age group of 6-17 years.

Mohammad Anwar, a local stationary owner in the area, has been following the growth of this public library since its inception.

“I still remember the times when the library would be visited by hardly 10 students each day,” he says. “Even this number would at times go down.”

Today, he is glad to see students even huddled in corners of the library to accommodate the maximum.

But, Anwar is doubly worried about the general education scenario of the area.

“There is a lack of government schools in the area due to the growing population density,” he said. “Poor students in the area cannot afford good private schools and they are not getting quality education in the available schools.”

For Anwar, an initiative like public libraries is the most crucial form of emancipation for deprived children for their better tomorrow.

Apart from school- and college-going students, research scholars engaged in serious academic work also take the benefit of Alhikmah Education Point. A lot of general readers also visit the library regularly.

Ahmed is constantly in touch with the students, local people and other volunteers to introduce new features to the library to make it useful for the students in many ways.

“We also want to turn this place into a resourceful counselling and coaching place for the students,” he says. “We have a lot of demand from the students to do so.”

As part of a future project, Alhikmah Foundation is planning to upgrade their library and enrich it more with the books and extend the services to the more needy children and start free coaching for them.

“Our efforts have been to inspire others so that they can also start such initiatives in their own communities,” Ahmed said. “We don’t believe in opening more and more branches. But, we are ready to share our model with the interested individuals or organizations.”

There are many financial constraints that the library faces and things have never been easy, he says.

“When we started the library, we only had financial support in the form of special donations by the volunteers and the board members,” Ahmed said. “But, now Delhi government is helping us with 40,000 rupees annually to meet the expenditure of reading material.”

The library has to bear the monthly expenditure of over 20,000 for just the rent, excluding other expenses. The annual expenditure, Ahmad says, shoots up to Rs 10 lakh.

The Foundation is keen to uplift the educational standard of students from poor backgrounds in the form of regular seminars, symposiums and guest lectures on various issues relevant to them.

Pramod Mangla, a noted librarian and academic, has criticised the public library mechanism in New Delhi, as the libraries are provided minimal funds and staff for a well-stocked library.

“Delhi still lags behind in the field of public library service. While the city is marching forward at a fast pace in different fields, the present position of public library service is rather inadequate and serving only a small percentage of the total population,” he highlighted in his report, “Public Library Service in Delhi: Present Status and Development Plan 2010-2020.”

The National Mission on Libraries, anchored in the Ministry of Culture, puts the number of public libraries in India at 54,856, beginning from English Colony Library at Chennai, started in 1661.

Khan, who visits the Alhikmah library every day, says that reading spaces like these are indispensable for people like him who cannot afford expensive books.

“In the beginning, I would only consider this place as a reading room. I would come, finish my home work and leave,” he said. “Today, I have developed a reading taste of other books also. Nothing makes me as happy as utilising my time in studies.”

As Khan packs his bag to leave for home, he enquires with the librarian about a science reference book that he had requested for to buying for the library. The librarian, Saud Alam, assures him that the book is under its way.

“This library has become my second home,” Khan says, with a broad smile. He walks out of the main gate and disappears in a crowded street.

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