Lessons from Chennai

2011-02-21 00:00

I’ve just returned from a visit to Chennai, India, courtesy of the Indian government. What an impressive city, with signs of growth everywhere.

The skyline is dotted with cranes towering upwards from a vast number of construction sites. The roads are being upgraded and there is a fast rail system (similar to our Gautrain) under construction. A visitor definitely gets the impression that this is a city on the move.

I was in Chennai to cover India’s first international Handwoven Fair. Handweaving of cottons and silks has largely been a cottage industry in India. The government has helped to boost this sector by providing backing in the form of innovation, design and marketing. The result is that many of these small family-based businesses have now become major exporters of their products, which range from rolls of cloth to a variety of fashion and completed household textile items. This will be covered in a more extensive article.

In this column I want to concentrate on the one feature of Chennai that made me fall in love with the city. This is the newly built massive Anna Centenary Library. It is an architectural gem that stands eight stories high and is built along one of the main highways of the city. For me this imposing structure stood out as a testimony to the value of scholarship, books, reading and learning in that society.

Every taxi driver that I travelled with proudly pointed out the library, some even made a detour to show me the building. Named after a former and much-revered chief minister of Tamil Nadu, C.N. Annadurai, the complex is a state library and forms the backbone to a network of public libraries in Tamil Nadu.

According to descriptions, the complex is the largest library in South Asia and counts among the biggest libraries in the world. It has the capacity to house over a million books. There is also state-of-the-art access to electronic books and digital material.

The library has a children’s section on the first floor. The second floor has books in Tamil, and on the third floor books in English. There is a whole floor dedicated to science, engineering and medical books and journals. Other sections include oriental manuscripts and there is a floor dedicated to rare books together with facilities for the restoration of old documents.

Forbes Magazine has described Chennai as one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Could there be a link between a progressive city and one that reveres its library system? Viewing the awesome Anna Centenary library, I couldn’t help thinking that there must be an inextricable link. Most other cities, including here in South Africa, have seen library budgets shrinking, but in Chennai a massive chunk of the budget went into the building of a library.

Currently, top priorities in SA are the challenges of addressing unemployment and poverty. Job creation strategies are being explored as well as ways and means of making people employable. One area that needs to be tapped is how libraries can be used to help citizens acquire knowledge and skills. For this we need not look to Chennai, but go back to our own history.

When the Nationalist government came to power, one of its first initiatives was a drive to address the plight of poor whites. This included defined policies and programmes aimed at their economic upliftment. Of course this gave rise to aberrations such as job reservation, but there was also an intense skills and education drive. Apprenticeship programmes were introduced, as well as night schools and a key initiative was the push for libraries.

According to librarian Archie Dicks, this included Afrikaner women’s organisations and other Afrikaner cultural organisations being influential in the agitation for free public library services in SA. Dicks says the emphasis was on social upliftment of poor whites and included an awakened appetite for reading. The scheme also included box libraries sent out to rural outposts to get Afrikaners living in rural areas to start reading. The result today is that SA boasts one of the most extensive networks of public libraries that stretches to the smallest of towns.

Sadly budget cuts mean that fewer libraries are being built in former townships where they are needed most. Budget cuts also mean that existing libraries do not have funds to buy new books.

Chennai taught me that we have got to see libraries as an integral part of the development drive.

It wasn’t just the Anna Centenary library that was impressive, all around me there were people reading. Newspapers are big in India. An early morning walk saw tuk-tuk drivers with the day’s newspaper spread out before them. There were vendors at street stalls and young people at bus stops reading.

For South Africa to grow we’ve got to get our citizens reading!

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