Throughout history, many kings and rulers of the world had celebrated their birthdays, in different ways, but mostly to continue with their megalomania. But when a king proclaims his 60th Birth Anniversary celebrations as the Year of Reading for the children of the country, he is really entitled to the title of king. He is not doing it for himself but for his country.
That is what is happening in Bhutan today, the country which measures Gross National Happiness of their people instead of GNP. His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo, told the students, "if they strive to serve the country in the future, look after their parents, and become strong and successful adults, students must gain sound education. You must read about everything around you - not just subjects that interest you. You must learn about current events, history, science, culture and people around the world - the pursuit of knowledge must be lifelong."
They have opened a Facebook page, 'READ Bhutan' and establishing many READ Centers in Bhutan. Dr. Antonia "Toni" Neubauer founded Rural Education And Development, which had started in Nepal in 1991 as 'READ Nepal'. Today there are over 2.1 million rural villagers in 237 villages with access to 80 'READ Centers' in Nepal, India and Bhutan. These READ Centers offer training programs in literacy, livelihood skills, health and technology. They also include adult literacy and women's empowerment programs.
Passang "Passu" Tshering, writer, painter and photographer, wrote about the inauguration of the National Reading Year in Bhutan, "at the end there are only two types of people: the ones who are fortunate enough to read, and others who aren't. All the other differences are therefore connected to this division. I realized this late in life because of where I grew up - a small rural village called Yangthang, in the Haa district of Bhutan, which lacked educational opportunities."
Tshering also wrote, "coming from a farming background, I was rather good at reading the signs in the clouds in the sky or the falling tree-leaves or singing cuckoos. I did not develop the (reading) habit so easily." In Bhutan and in most villages where READ Centers have been established, the children could not read because they did not have the opportunity. Most of the villages did not have libraries, not even schools.
'Room to Read' has set up 1,694 libraries in Sri Lanka since 2005. They had also set up 3,776 libraries in Nepal since 1998. In 2008 they started in Bangladesh and today they have 545 libraries, and in India 6,803 libraries.
India has the 'Read India Read' campaign, with a mission to reach 10 million children across rural India to help them learn enhanced reading skills. Since they started ten years ago in Ahmedabad, they have conducted reading crash courses for more than 350,000 children and adults. They have a program to conduct crash courses for employees in public and private organizations. They are planning to venture into 'Read Asia Read' and then to go for 'Read World Read'.
We in our country have a Literary Month (September) and the Reading Month (October). But unfortunately most activities are limited to these two months only, and very few have the opportunity to participate in these activities. The media support to develop the reading habit among our children is almost non-existent.
It is very difficult to find out the number of books published in Sri Lanka, or statistics on reading, not just books, but even newspapers. Newspaper sales is not an indication. Based on the number of books received by the State Literary Panel, there are around 1700 books published in 2014. The National Archives which receives every book printed in the country does not publish any statistics on their website. The number of Sinhala novels published is only around 150 annually. It is not very often that a publisher prints more than a 1000 copies of a Sinhala novel, or 500 copies of a Sinhala poetry collection, if that could be an indication of the market demand for books, in a country with over 15 million people using Sinhala as their mother tongue, our literacy rate is meaningless.
In India on an average people spend 10.7 hours a week reading. This is in a country with population over one billion, and a literacy rate of only 62, where most people are also addicted to TV (with over a thousand cable TV channels available anywhere), and films. In Sri Lanka though we do not have accurate statistics, it is obvious that most of the people in the country are totally addicted to television, throughout the day. For some people their timetables both at home and place of work, are planned according to the TV schedules. Under such circumstances, trying to promote reading among the majority is next to impossible.
In our country almost all our children have access to schooling, even though some schools do not have even basic facilities. According to UNICEF statistics, in Bhutan total adult literacy rate was 52.8 (2012), 57.4 in Nepal and in India 62.8, while in Sri Lanka it was 91.2. The problem is we do not count our blessings. We have libraries in every corner of the country, all our universities have thousands of books in their libraries, so do most of the schools. Even our parliament has a library with 34,000 books for our members of parliament. How many of the books in the libraries of the universities, schools, the parliament and other institutions are used today is what we have to find out.
It is so unfortunate that we have such a high literacy rate, so many opportunities to read, yet most of us are not interested in reading anything. Before we go on establishing any new libraries, let us have a campaign for people to use the books in the libraries we already have.