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Reaching the poor by banking on education

Nahla Nainar
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knowledge world:Ashok D. Gandhi, Managing Trustee and Chairman, Book Bank Project, RWA Book Bank, in Tiruchi. —PHOTO: R.M. RAJARATHINAM
knowledge world:Ashok D. Gandhi, Managing Trustee and Chairman, Book Bank Project, RWA Book Bank, in Tiruchi. —PHOTO: R.M. RAJARATHINAM

Diamond Bazaar in Tiruchi promises to be a place full of, well, precious stones. But there’s something even more priceless – meticulously coded and stacked in alphabetical order in this busy lane of jewellery showrooms and gemstone merchants. This is the book bank run by the Rockcity Welfare Association (RWA), which has helped over 18,000 college students for the last 16 years.

A 50-strong group, whose members are mostly north Indian businessmen, RWA (now registered as a trust) had tried its hand at other social initiatives such as free food distribution and blood donation drives before turning its attention on the education sector in 1998, says Mr.Ashok Gandhi, chairman of the book bank since its inception. “We were inspired by the Rajasthan Youth Association of Chennai that has been running a book bank project for the past 50 years,” says Mr.Gandhi. “[Giving textbooks] is better than giving money to poor children because it might make them lazy or it may get misused. With the book bank’s help, they can study on their own and learn to be self-reliant and support their families after graduation.”

Shortlist of students

Around 1,500 undergraduates from arts and science streams are enrolled with the book bank every year. From 2013, the RWA has extended its reach to engineering colleges as well with 100 students from five institutions already on the rolls.

The programme shortlists academically bright students based on the recommendations of college faculty and their Plus Two exam results. Each potential member is then interviewed by an RWA committee before the final decision is announced.

“We have had to turn away many students because of fund constraints,” says Mr.Gandhi. “But this year, we have received a cash boost of Rs.3 lakhs from our local Member of Parliament Mr.P.Kumar that has enabled us to serve engineering students as well.” Once registered, the student receives the prescribed textbooks free of charge that have to be returned at the end of the semester. With the constant changes in syllabus, maintaining updated book lists is a challenge. “Very often the students request our library staff for specific texts, which we try and procure for them. We also keep reviewing our lists,” says Mr. Gandhi.

Maintaining the stock

A set of six to seven textbooks given to each student costs around Rs.1, 500 for arts and science courses. Engineering books are costlier, and RWA is anticipating spending around Rs.2, 000-2,500 per student. A textbook has a shelf life of around seven to eight years.Electronic books, already making inroads in publishing abroad, are not yet on the RWA’s radar, says Mr.Gandhi.

“E-books are being used only in a few engineering colleges in India, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing to beat the hardbound textbook.” The organisation’s website has helped garner interest from the public, particularly from those who want to donate their old books. “For local donors, we collect the books personally from them, while those from outside Tiruchi can send theirs by post.”

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