Reading in a new world

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Over the past two decades, there has been a considerable shift towards digitisation in all respects. The segment that has borne the biggest brunt is the publishing sector, especially those publishing books. Despite a global shift in reading habits from printed books and newspapers to digital, a provincial education minister has suggested exemptions in taxes and duties for paper — which is imported into the country. The obvious benefits, Sindh Education Minister Syed Sardar Ali Shah said, was that it would make education more accessible in the country as tax exemptions would lead to production of cheaper books.

International Book Fair Chairman Aziz Khalid had recounted during the opening of the 16th International Book Festival in Karachi that the taxes had pushed the cost of books beyond the reach of even middle-income folks. There is indeed a case to be made for reducing taxes on imported paper if it can lead to publishing of cheaper books and thus easier access to textbooks. But the question is whether that still holds true for a generation that is far more in sync with consuming media and doing their studies digitally rather than older generations which found greater value in published products. In such a scenario one perhaps needs to weigh the costs and benefits of giving students books versus digital tools. The enforced adoption of digital classrooms and distance learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic mean that more and more students are engaged with digital learning products when compared to books.

However, the challenges faced in ensuring widespread adoption of digital technology and lower literacy overall mean that books will remain viable in the country for a good while longer. Hence, printed books will continue to play a critical role in providing cheaper education. The government certainly ought to at least consider the suggestion, making sure that any eventual remission is ultimately passed on to the public even as it devises a future educational policy.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2022.

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