A group of young people from Assam’s Guwahati came together to create a community library for children between the age of 5 and 15 in the Majuli district of the state. These people who include artists, filmmakers and social entrepreneurs, took this initiative under a collective called the Maati Community Movement.
The Maati Community Movement’s idea was to construct a community library in an eco-friendly approach. Materials such as bamboo and cane were used to build this library and most of the books have been crowd sourced with the help of social media platforms.
Majuli—the disappearing Island
For many years, the northeastern part of India has remained elusive for people outside the region but now it is being explored by people from other parts of the country and across the world in the name of ‘tourism’. Majuli in Assam is one such area, which has over the years seen an increased fascination from visitors far and wide. Known to be the largest river island in the world, it is inhabited by at least nine ethnicities, home to rare species of plants, and many endangered fauna. Its culture has been dominated by the Neo-Vaishnavite Satras or monasteries, started by the saint-preacher-reformer-artist-composer Sankardeva (1499-1568) in the 15th century with the idea of spreading Vaishnavite faith. In 2016, it was declared as India’s first river island district by the BJP-led government in Assam.
The Brahmaputra which is known to be one of the most controlling rivers in the world, and is infamous for changing its course without notice has played a decisive role in Assam’s destiny. Majuli has been one of the worst victims of the erosion caused by the Brahmaputra—the total area of its land being reduced from 1,256 sq km to 515 sq km—makes it a disappearing island.
Community Library Initiative
Every year, during the floods, a child’s education is hampered; schools close down as crossing the saaporis (alluvial sand banks created by the river over the years) on boats that aren’t strong enough to combat the fast currents of the river become an issue. These saaporis are usually taken up by farmers who lose their lands due to erosion.
In the year 2016, when Rishi Raj Sarmah, a Guwahati-based social entrepreneur visited the island, he hadn’t even thought he would one day become instrumental in setting up a community library in one of the areas of Majuli. He along with artist Neelim Mahanta, and a few like-minded people came up with the idea of constructing this library in Chitadhar Chuk village, which is inhabited mostly by the Mishing tribe with about 120 households. Sarmah’s social enterprise Maati Centre in Guwahati is home to local arts and crafts from the Northeast region, which he had started along with his wife Pabitra Lama Sarmah in February 2017, the place has since then also become a meeting point for talented people from various fields of art and culture.
Sarmah says, “I had first visited the island two years back to meet local artisans, but in November 2017 at the annual Raas festival, we thought of doing something for the Mishing community, we planned for a library for the children in November, rolled out the campaign in February, and in March we launched. We came in contact with Haren Narah, a local man from the village who has a sprawling resort named ‘Me: Po Okum’ (Happy Home) which he runs along with Momi Payeng Narah, his wife. We decided to build this library in his spacious resort as it was at the centre of the village and was convenient for everyone.”
Besides, young filmmaker Akash Das made a short film on the campaign, artist Neelim Mahanta has done artwork on the walls of the library, a story telling session for the children undertaken by Yuveka Singh, founder of Darwesh, a storytelling organization “residing in the areas of culture, education and training”, and an open air film screening was also organized on March 25, the day when the library formally opened.
For the children, it was a chance to escape their regular day-to-day activities at school—from being able to lay their hands on new books that they had never seen before to listening to Yuveka tell them stories in a unique way—the library has been able to offer them a space to learn and have fun while also kindling their creative expression, and freedom to express themselves. Some children were even instrumental in raising awareness among the people of the village and their friends for setting up the library.
Sarmah says, “This was entirely a collective effort by the young people from Guwahati, and the people and children of the village.”