AS it has gathered steam, the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) — a unique event in Pakistan — has collected around itself a band of devoted supporters sharing the ideals of the founders. A key objective of the festival is to encourage children to read books so that they develop the faculty of critical thinking. Recently Karachi hosted the 11th CLF and on this occasion the question asked was what purpose books would serve in these testing times. Ahmad Shah, the president of the Karachi Arts Council, who generously opened up the KAC’s premises for the children of the city, had the answer.

The basic aim of education should be to change the mindset of people, he said. This can be done by promoting the reading of books — a habit which gives exposure to a variety of opinions and enlightens the readers in the process.

Today the biggest challenge Pakistan faces is extremism and militancy. Ahmad Shah put it graphically when describing various ways of confronting these problems. “One can go and hide like a rat in its hole and get killed in hiding,” he observed. “Or one can go and fight the troublemakers head on. If he is killed he would at least have gone down fighting.”

Given the situation in the country, the time has come for this last-ditch battle. It will not be a battle fought with guns and bombs. It has to be a battle of ideas.

In other words, the need is to develop a progressive and tolerant mindset — an idea the additional chief secretary of Sindh, who also heads the Education and Literacy Department, wholeheartedly endorsed at CLF’s inaugural session. The sponsors of the festival are trying to inject this enlightenment into all related fields. In that alone lies the salvation of this doomed country.

A happy concurrent development has been the growth of the children’s book industry that has expanded rapidly over the last few years. Eighteen new books were launched at the CLF. Book publishing, creative writing, libraries and the reading culture constitute a complex and symbiotic phenomenon. At the centre is education which is vital for all.

Children who are motivated and want to read are disappointed when they find books beyond their reach because of high prices. Publishers who are now venturing into the enchanting world of books for young readers find it difficult to keep their products modestly priced because of the low print runs and high costs. What is missing is the economy of scale that allows publishers to lower the per unit price when demand is high.

Other countries have got round this challenge by expanding their library network which boosts the sale of books and facilitates the economics of publishing. At the same time, the reading needs of children are met. Small wonder the publishers are now focusing on libraries, and NGOs are promoting school library networks.

The concept of mobile libraries is also catching on. The Alif Laila Book Bus Society has been running a library in a colourfully painted bus for 35 years now in Lahore. Its success has inspired the Citizens Archives of Pakistan to set up a library in a van in Karachi.

These innovative ideas must be emulated. What better strategy would there be to promote libraries than to focus on school libraries? Cannot every school in Pakistan have a library?

This may be wishful thinking considering that the Annual Status of Education Report 2013 tells us that only 58pc of high schools in the public sector in rural areas have libraries and the number drops drastically at the lower levels (8.2pc in government primary schools). Private schools are slightly better off but not sufficiently so. Only 62.7pc of private high schools have libraries and a mere 19.3pc at the primary level.

In a session on school libraries at the KLF a fortnight earlier, Zobeida Jalal, a social worker and former federal education minister from Balochistan, identified the lack of resources as a major challenge deterring schools from having libraries. True. The solution lies in enacting a library law that was drafted by the Pakistan Library Association and vetted by Senator S.M. Zafar several years ago but was never adopted. The Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi, whose brainchild is the CLF, could champion the cause of the library law where the PLA failed.

Apart from providing for the establishment of public libraries, such a law should make it mandatory for governments to ensure that every educational institution has a library and a budget for the purchase of books. A library movement could lobby our legislators for the enactment of a library law.

After all, Article 25-A for education, libraries, children’s book publishing and the reading habit are logically interrelated and that is what the CLF is all about.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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