Revanna Kumar had gone to the Vidhana Soudha to meet officials to seek regularisation of his service. At 1.30 pm, visitors to the state secretariat found him lying in a pool of blood in the toilet on the third floor.
“I am sacrificing my life for the sake of 6,000 people… The government did not take any decision of appointing us as permanent employees. We are not even getting minimum wages and approaching the President and the Governor did not help. Our demands are 20 years old,” read the suicide note found on him.
Kumar, who survived the suicide attempt, is an assistant librarian and works on contract at Anoor village in Chintamani taluk, 94 km from Bengaluru.
While Bengalureans are aware of protests by pourakarmikas and anganwadi workers, they are not aware of the plight of librarians.
Wearing black bands but still going to work, library workers from the city’s 200 state-run libraries and 5,766 gram panchayat libraries have been demanding payment of minimum wages, social security benefits and regularisation of work.
Frustrated by the lack of response to their submissions to the chief minister, and the library, education and labour departments, they have been protesting since July 20.
“We keep waiting and officials keep changing,” said Mamatha, a library worker who has been in her current post for 17 years.
While many like Mamatha were brought in as housekeeping staff, they say their work hours and duties — registering users, and tagging and issuing books — puts them on a par with librarians.
They get Rs 6,500 a month as an honorarium for performing all duties required to run and maintain a library.
They want to be paid the minimum wage of Rs 14,040 along with social security benefits such as ESI, EPF, gratuity. They get only cash payments against vouchers.
Recently, when they voiced their demands, they were asked to present proof of their employment contacts. “We have no such letters,” says Mamatha.
Lekha, a legal activist with the Alternative Law Forum, who has been helping the workers, says “it is a sorry state of affairs for the custodians of the city’s rich history, heritage and literature.”
She says conciliation has been going on since they submitted a charter of demands in May last year.
Lekha and her team have cited a labour order passed in 2009 that gave 23 housekeeping employees permanent positions in libraries in Kalaburagi.
“Some officials say the staff work for just two hours and only do housekeeping. But in reality, you see they are taking care of the libraries. From every day newspaper and magazine tagging, collecting books and dusting the shelves, everything is done by these workers,’ said Lekha.
Even the labour commissioner has recommended the workers be paid minimum wages. But it’s not just the workers who are being short-changed. Readers are, too.
Preedip Balaji, a scholar at the Indian Institute of Human Settlement in Sadashivanagar, is one of three researchers who published a paper last year with interesting data about the low public expenditure on public libraries in India.
“Our RTI query sent to the Ministry of Culture revealed that there was no official data available on the per capita expenditure on public libraries in India,” he said.
Calculation cited by them in their study claims public library spending per person in India has worked out to be as low as 7 paise for the year 2015.
States with a lower literacy rate lack library legislation. The southern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which passed their library legislation early in 1948 and 1965 respectively, have a far higher number of libraries compared to other more populous states like Uttar Pradesh (2006) and Bihar (2008). Several states still do not have any library legislation in place.
While 20 states have passed state library legislation, only five provide for a library cess or tax. Tamil Nadu sets aside 10 per cent of property tax collected for libraries. The figures for other states are: Andhra Pradesh 8, Karnataka 6, Kerala 5, and Goa 1.7.
“The cess is not collected and distributed properly. Workers aren’t paid in time,” he says.
Balaji stresses the need to radically reimagine the role of libraries.
“S R Ranganathan, the father of library science in India, had extensively lobbied for the establishment of free public libraries but his dream was not realised,” says Balaji.
According to the 2011 census, there is one library in rural areas for every 11,500 people, and one for 80,000 people in the cities. (Total 70,817 libraries in rural areas and 4,580 in urban areas). Karnataka is estimated to have over 6,700 public libraries.
Libraries in boats and bullock cart
There was a time when India pioneered unique initiatives like mobile libraries in boats and bullock carts to make knowledge more accessible to the masses.
Today, as we live in the information age, spending on infrastructure and training is important to adapt to newer technology. The challenge for libraries is digitisation, says Preedip Balaji, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements.
He describes librarians as ‘proactive information mediators’ with the potential to invigorate communities and create better-informed individuals.
Stats on dues and vacancies
Satishkumar S Hosamani, director, Department of Public Libraries has been sharing statistics on library vacancies and dues owed to libraries in some media reports.
“Urban local bodies have not paid library cess (of Rs 333 crore) for operation and expansion in the past five years. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike owes Rs 222 crore,” he told a newspaper in January 2018.
“Around Rs 455 crore, collected as library cess by the BBMP, other municipal bodies, and gram panchayats is due,” he said in another recent report last month. The report also mentioned that nearly 44 per cent of the total 1,481 sanctioned library posts are lying vacant.
“In Karnataka, the civic body in Bengaluru, grama panchayats and the municipal administration in various districts owe the libraries funds to the
tune of Rs 479 crore in total for the past five years,” he said in a report last week.
The same report also said that about 40 per cent of the sanctioned posts (including chief librarians, assistant librarians, librarians, and other posts) of 1,481 librarians and staff are vacant in Karnataka. It also said that 72 per cent of the total 54 chief librarian posts are also vacant.