What was I up to in 2015?

Apart from college and general Delhi-dallying, I spent a good part of 2015 working with an amazing team of people – spread across the country, but connected by the belief in Why we need something like Student Think Tank for India.

Our Annual Update for 2015 (click on the image to read it) is a snapshot of where the organisation is right now, and where we want to go in 2016. There has been a good amount of growth since I wrote this report in January – the team is growing, schools are opening up to us, and we’re gaining more clarity on what we want this educational experience to achieve.

Happy reading, and I always look forward to critical feedback and questions!

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Student Voice at #changethescript

I enjoy going to conferences. Listening to the big names, getting to know about the hundreds of new things being carried out in pockets across our huge population. But education conferences — and education in general — has continued with the practice of not listening to its most important stakeholders: the children themselves.

Change the Script, Dream a Dream’s annual conference was refreshingly different. The event was hosted by children who are participants or graduates of their Life Skills programmes, and their confidence spoke volumes about Dream a Dream. Across the halls, you could see young children among the usual audience of teachers, principals, policy-makers. Vishal Talreja’s opening address highlighted the importance in education of listening to children – the rest of the conference proved it.

 

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Our hosts Mamtha and Rajesh

 

My favourite part of the conference was the Youth Keynote Panel, where students from innovative learning spaces responded to the question: What changes do you think our education system needs?

Now, I know we’ve thought about and responded to these questions way too many times – in arguments with uncles, in Sunday op-eds, in every education/employment conference and in the legends and myths of entrepreneurs. But I’ll encourage you to listen to a few snippets of this discussion, where students share their experiences and extremely valid criticisms.

We had Pallavi Gopal, Dream Graduate of Dream a Dream Program; Akshaya Aravindh, student of TVS Academy, Hosur; Arpit, a student at Muni International School and Soumithro Sarkar, Participant, Dream a Dream Program. I couldn’t capture Soumithro speaking. A big loss, because he was witty and pretty damn articulate.


The discussion was followed by a round of questions from the audience. Akanksha asked about how personalised, student-driven learning would drive excellence. Akshaya responded that following one’s interest brings out the best in a person, and that excellence can be defined in a thousand ways outside the frame of a 3-hour examination. I don’t entirely agree.

As self-directed learners, I think that we can easily use the practice of following our own pace & standards as an excuse to shy away from pegging our progress or abilities against any kind of standards. It can make us complacent and delusional, taking us down the vague hole of relativism, where nothing should be measured and everything is acceptable. A friend and I were in that obstinate place for a few months, at a time when we were out of school, and trying to chart our own learning paths, but we were lucky to have people keep us accountable, and in touch with reality. This is a common problem but not an inevitable one, and folks across the education spectrum respond to it differently. 

A gentleman asked Arpit why teachers dumb down the standards a question, and answered it himself. They do it to cater the bottom-average section of different “intelligence levels”.

Even though that’s a valid explanation, it got me very, very annoyed. To which another educator responded, “Sir, students are not talking about what is, they are talking about what can be.” I saw where that annoyance was coming from. It was an irritation I feel when explanations of how current systems work are used as speedbreakers to re-imagining those very systems.

Dream a Dream as an organisation sounds like it is built on an engaging base of student-centred learning, and they aren’t alone. More and more learning spaces and the people who build them are realizing that children need to be an active part of that process, not just as passive, end-of-chain consumers. (Favourite: Creativity Adda)


By the end of the session I was reminded of Nikhil Goyal’s writing, and StuVoice’s work across the US. In particular, this: On a field trip across America, they are collecting students’ stories of school, and ideas for education reform. 

Three questions for all of us, Under25

Getting ready for the Under25 summit in Bangalore today, at the World Trade Centre. It’s an event for young people under the age of 25 with platforms for people who are leaders in various fields, and a coming together of makers and doers of all shades. About 2,000 people have signed up for the sold-out event, and anybody who’s serious about this demographic is paying attention to the Under 25 club.

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Most people have already some fantastic interviews with young people on their startup stories and failure sagas, their lean strategies and inspiring turning point. I love this stuff. But there are three other questions I’ll throw out to all of us at the Under25 community, that go beyond youth entrepreneurship itself.

 

  1. Many people are starting enterprises and initiating ambitious projects at an age where the norm is to work for other people or study. People are making these choices, and they might be part of an increasing trend, but there must be many ways of doing so. While the Varun Agarwal//Anu aunty story has a cult following, I believe there are ways other than dropping out through which people are going about these choices.

    How did young people negotiate with conventional schooling and parenting to reach where they are? we’re in the midst of a huge transition — what are we choosing to keep, and what’s being left behind?

  2. We sort of know that youth entrepreneurship is a trend on the rise. Looking at data on this would be fantastic. Under25 Club is growing to be an umbrella of sorts in the field — it’d be awesome if they could actually get the hard numbers on this, and if we could break these down by demographic categories.

    Particularly, it’d be interesting so see if trends go outside these categories — urban, upper-middle class, male and tech-oriented.  

    On a related note — what factors do they think contribute to one’s success as a young entrepreneur in India, and which of them shouldn’t? (Baap ka naam, college ka ranking? 🙂 )

  3. Youth entrepreneurship will shape the economy and the workforce tomorrow in a significant manner. So how does this section of the future population  think about responsibility — to family, the environment and the community at large?

    Today we criticise the ruling class for not doing good enough for the world — how are we going to change the script when it’s our turn?


These are questions I’m thinking about as an Under25 entrepreneur, and I’m optimistic that many of us are paying attention to it as well. It would be awesome to be proven right on that!

STTI Session: India’s relationship with Engineering

About STTI: Student Think Tank for India creates models for schools and colleges to critically explore and understand civic issues. The following is an account of our most recent session with Class 11 and 12 students of the STTI Club at DPS, Hyderabad.
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In the search for relatable topics to discuss in our session, the “obsession” with Engineering came up quite a few times. Being located in the heartland of Andhra & Telangana, the issue is extremely personal for many students, as they stand at the centre of many SECP (social, economic, cultural and political) forces affecting this issue. We were initially hesitant about this topic, Aakash was endlessly warning against it/articulating worst case scenarios, and that really pushed us to think about if and how we wanted to approach this discussion. To start with, we positioned the central topic as “India’s relationship with Engineering”. I went back and forth during my preparation for this session to see how it could it best fulfil the mission of STTI: which is to explore issues that manifest in our lives, yes, but from the vantage point of larger SECP forces so that we can paint a complete picture of the root of some individual instance.

Similar to our previous session, I wanted us to first lay out what we meant when we said “engineering”. So we had a 5-minute word storming primer where we together arrived at the word MEANT. It was a challenge here to wean the responses away from things like what the words DENOTED, or some wry jokes about its current state in India etc. Eg: Engineering doesn’t mean anything in India, because everyone wants to be an engineer. Like, no. That might be a popular connotation or the last Whatsapp joke you heard, but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s come back to what it MEANS. We did that — Engineering is the art of working with machines and building things etc – and laid out its relation to how it requires knowledge, skills, a problem-solving mindset and so on. Then Mukesh spoke about the historical context of Engineering. Industrial revolution, spurt in production, therefore need for machines – British trading and factories in India – Our choices in 1947 about growing as a country, choosing the Nehruvian emphasis on industrialisation – Setting up of institutions that would produce the manpower for this, IITs set up by foreign funding – Engg. becomes a prestigious as well as a safe way to job security and better life conditions, and that developed the cultural valuing of being an engineer, driving demand for engineering education – opening up of more institutions so that more engineers would come out of them, without a focus on quality and standards, case study of US, China and India’s engineering education: http://issues.org/23-3/wadhwa/ – mushrooming of coaching institutes and many more engineering colleges to cater to that demand – unemployability of the massive number of graduates, again, because of extremely low quality teaching + curriculum + infrastructure + practical opportunities + lack of research and no space for innovation + corruption in the system (did not really go into that, though).

Kabir then recounted some examples and experiences from his work as an artist, and the emergence of new well-paying careers in the creative and entrepreneurial space. We traced this to the massive diversification that has taken place in the country’s economy, and conditions that have begun to allow freelancing, startups, creative professionals etc to prosper, especially in growing urban India. One student spoke about his uncle who had a garage where he tinkered with things only to go on to become big with robotics, although in the US and not in India. We then discussed what it might take to be successful at something, in a best-case, conventional scenario: Passion, creating a product or service that people will pay for, and most importantly the discipline to stick with something to develop expertise. And the function of educational institutions is to decide and make mandatory the conditions that they think will produce expert and disciplined engineers, or whatever. A similar role with parents – they decide what they think will best achieve the goals they want for their children… and that’s how something becomes conventional.

We then sort of unpacked the word “unconventional”, and discussed how India is at the midst of a massive continuum between tradition and modernity. Wrapped up by discussing how any personal choices were shaped by these larger forces.

I was extremely concerned about how this discussion might centre around us or the students airing our personal views and choices in a manner that was not a well reasoned argument. Thankfully, that did not happen much, and we were able to keep coming back to the larger issue at hand. As always, the students were amazing – as soon as we were able to set the tone of tracing these bits and pieces of what we hear about engineering, back to their relation with the big issue, we were able to have a good discussion going. Keeping up a combination of questions and ‘gyaan’ (talking in slightly long stretches about what we know and what we have read about a certain issue) by moderators was important.

The typical exchange was like

Moderator: “Why do you think X happened/ happens the way it does?”

Students: “Because Y”

Moderator: “Exactly… (and then a longer explanation of Y, with facts and arguments that we have researched before coming to the session).

If students did not reach a reasonable argument to a question, we asked more questions to arrive at it, and continued that process without responding with any variant of “No, you’re wrong”. And a lot of things we spoke about here are contested, and there was no force to arrive at a consensus. Diverse opinions are welcome, as are more and more questions! We hope to reach a good balance here between inquiry and reinventing the wheel, and that distinction will be understood after some practice of this discussion style. We should probably work with some texts to see how the Socratic method’s discussion style pans out.

The aim of the discussion was to lay out all the factors that have shaped and continue to shape India’s relationship with Engineering, and I think we were able to achieve that. At the very least, we made the picture more complex than either glorifying engineering, or outright rejecting and demeaning it.

[I find the second discourse is surprisingly prevalent (especially amongst the liberal arts/humanities groups) and is a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For the longest time I was vehemently dismissive of science and engineering, on the grounds that the method of learning pursued at most institutions in India did not really develop either the scientific temper or the problem solving mindset. But what’s the analysis of that problem? Our institutions are broken — engineering isn’t.

Some inspiring links to check out:
1. http://avantifellows.org/learning-centres/our-pedagogy/
2. http://hackerspaces.org/
3. http://learn.media.mit.edu/how-mit-learns]

Learning City Unconference at Prakriti, Noida

This Saturday, three friends and I set off on an early morning Rajiv Chowk + Blue Line adventure to attend The Noida Learning City Unconference. Hosted jointly by Shikshantar and the Prakriti learning community, the event was a day-long coming together of 400+ people taking a shot at reimagining what a learning city could look like. 

The day started with a pay-as-you-wish registration, and lots of free hugs. For the first few minutes, the four of us were visibly uncomfortable in this environment — thoughts in my head ranged from “This is so hippie!” to “Is this safe?” But the energy around was infectious, and the space felt safe enough to let go, so after a few moments of hesitation, I did. Some faces at the event were familiar from Facebook groups and conversations, mostly friends from the Swashikshan Indian Homeschoolers network. Any other setting would have necessarily included the awkwardness of “I know you but I’ve never actually met you”. Here, we met as familiar friends, exchanging hugs and introducing our friends to each other.

While people were still trickling in, a gameathon took off in the courtyard. Apples and coffee made their rounds, as people of all ages made the gradual shift to playing Simon Says and some really active storytelling.

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 Among the many stalls surrounding the courtyard was a pop up shop built on the concept of gift culture: “Take what you need, leave what you don’t!” — there is no money involved in the exchange. The Dariya Dil Dukaan set up by the altogether fabulous Deepa has popped up regularly in last few months, and grown into a pan India online community  for people to freely request and offer things. Child has grown up and you don’t know what to do with the pram? Dariya Dil it.

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Picture by Devika Bedi


We then headed to the amphitheatre where Mridul and Manish laid out the structure of the unconference for us. Read more about what this is here. The agenda for the unconference was set in the weeks leading up to it, by who was attending and what workshops or sessions they wanted to offer. A large whiteboard near the main entry had the agenda — sessions on learning, dance, design thinking, parenting, games, slow food, non-violent communication (NVC), pottery and much more. The spontaneity showed in the usage of erasable markers, and in the new tables and benches that were being fashioned into new corners and showcases.

The stage was set, and the next thing we did was to get into groups of four, with strangers, and talk about our journeys and what brought us to the conference. At this stage the ease of opening up was getting better. But the hesitation during the shift was palpable — what was it that made playing and speaking to strangers and just being free so difficult?

A range of perspectives can tell us why, but one answer comes from a paper I have been reading for my sociology course titled Conceptualising Rural and Urban Societies. Louis Wirth, with a cautious but comprehensive prescience wrote in 1938 on Urbanism as a way of life. (View/download the paper here). He provides a sociological explanation of how the city shapes human interactions:

“Characteristically, urbanites meet one another in highly segmental roles. They are, to be sure, dependent upon more people for the satisfactions of their life needs than are rural people and thus areas associated with a greater number of organized groups,but they are less dependent upon particular persons,and their dependence upon others is confined to a highly  fractionalized aspect of the other’s round of activity. This is essentially what is meant by saying that the city is characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts. The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face,but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental.The reserve, the indifference and the blasé outlook which urbanites manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others.

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The superficiality, the anonymity, and the transitory character of urban-social relations make intelligible, also, the sophistication and the rationality generally ascribed to city-dwellers. Our acquaintances tend to stand in a relationship of utility to us in the sense that the role which each one plays in our life is overwhelmingly regarded as a means for the achievement of our own ends. Whereas, therefore, the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society. This constitutes essentially the state of anomie or the social void to which Durkheim alludes in attempting to account for the various forms of social disorganization in a technological society.”

The unconference challenged all of these ‘default’ ways of being, by building an intentional space with alternative ways of being: through intimate and personal conversations with strangers, through exchanges based on needs and not money, and through a common goal of reimagining learning.

During the morning, I attended a workshop on Sociocracy that was being offered by Shammi Nanda, a practitioner of non-violent communication (NVC) whose work I have been following for the last year. In his intro to the workshop, Shammi said, “We try and practice alternative education, eat alternative food, lead alternative lifestyles, but when it comes to decision-making, hum usi sade hue conflict-resolution systems ka istemaal karte hai. (we end up using the same rotten systems of conflict-resolution).” In the setting of a social organisation, NVC and Sociocracy operates on consensus. Even if not the needs of all members cannot be met, the process gives an effective voice to everybody’s needs. (My two-line summary does not adequately capture the process, making it sound instead like a sterile communistic practice. Read about it on Shammi’s blog.)

If these labels — slow food, non-violent communication, unschooling — arouse skepticism, I think that is completely warranted. But what we should avoid, is an outright dismissal of alternative movements because, at face value, they do not seem to be a ready-to-apply solution to our broken systems.

I am going to take my unschooling as an example. The two years I spent outside of formal education institutions taught me a lot about pursuing interests, autonomy, discipline, experiencing failure, emotional adequacy etc. Gradually, my interests moved to reform of mainstream formal education. Unschooling and mainstream school reform? Where is the relevance? Not in the assertion that such a way of learning is a solution for every one of our 400 million young citizens. But that:

  1. There are elements of unschooling that are extremely relevant in helping us reimagine a system-wide solution eg: autonomy of the learner, experiential learning, activity-based learning.
  2.  In specific contexts, such a learning structure might consciously be a good idea, or unwittingly turn out to be a great experience.

Bridging sensible links between the alternative and the mainstream has been a constant struggle, because of the appeal of the former, and the compelling pull of the latter. But the example above feels like a good template to work with in the future. So I am going to do the same with, say, an exploration of Sociocracy. Instead of dismissing it as idealistic on the account that it won’t replace voting as we know it, I want to understand its premise and processes, assess which contexts it could immediately work in, and consider elements that can be used in system-wide change.

Over the course of the day I also got to meet people from some familiar and some new organisations. Some interesting ones: Swechha, I Am a Teacher, Creativity Adda.

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But the biggest highlight of the day was finding great common ground with a friend that a friend had brought (Hello, Devika!) and seeing my other two friends have a good time. We hope to be able to bring back some of this spontaneity to AUD!

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Here are some more pictures of the heartwarming space and community that came together on 19th September, 2015, at Prakriti. (The Mi 4i’s camera has made me very happy!)

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Arivu 2014. Theme: Rice

The learning methodology at Vidya Vanam is shaped each term around a theme: this time, it was rice. Throughout the term, all subject areas explore this decided theme, culminating in Project Day, a showcase of the community’s learning.

Theme-based learning

Click on this to view the album:

As you browse through the album there is a progression of the theme from one subject area to another. For example, in Math there is lots of measurement and statistics around rice; Science explores Biology and Agriculture; English, Hindi and Tamil has stories and poems, and the languages are used as vehicles of documentation and expression.

As you also go through pictures also of recipes, art work, intricate models meticulous crafts, you see that academic subjects are but one part of the learning.

Working with just the head, to the exclusion of the hands and the heart, could never lead to such cohesion in these students’ doing, and being. What is holistic understanding? The learners, they hear about the history of rice, and its related economics, and its price today, how they grow it in their farms and families, what their school garden looks like and how Gopi is the jester and Manav the resource-box, the dance that Archana and Kalpana choreographed, the different parts of rice that work well in craft — hay, husk, puffed rice — oh, hay rhymes with lay!, we could make a poem out of this… turns out there have been songs on rice for years immemorial! What are their memories, and those of their grandparents’? Bt cotton has reduced a community to a commodity, surely we need to understand and debate this… and so on. It all simply grows on them. Organically. Everything is part of a whole and they are wholly a part of it.

No wonder then, when P Sainath, the Chief Guest of the event, with great generosity and without haste, took time to say these words at the close of Project Day (accompanied by Tamil translation by the Director, Prema Rangachary):

P Sainath speaks to the Vidya Vanam community

First of all, thank you for inviting me here. It has been a fantastic experience. Well, on the way here from the airport, I requested that before I speak, I should see your project and exhibition. And I’m very glad I insisted on that because otherwise I would really have made a fool of myself.

Everything that I have seen today was of such high quality. I want say that — in the order of which I saw it — the singing, which was beautiful, the dance which was so good, the debate I heard here today on GM crops — it was so good. Both for and against, the speakers were of extremely high quality, the arguments were of extremely high quality. I can tell you that the level of the debate that I saw here was more sophisticated than what I find in the media, the TV channels and newspapers. There were real questions asked, and real questions were addressed. You could disagree with one side or the other, but it was a high quality debate far more sophisticated than what I see on television.

I had many things to say which I will not say now, because you have said it all in your exhibition.

Today as your are celebrating the theme of rice, all over the country, similar festivals are going on. In Bengal, Nobano, the new rice festival is being celebrated. In Tripura, Mayunamma, the goddess of rice is being worshipped this week. It is happening all over the country — it is so central to our existence as a society, as a nation. And for more than half the population of the world, as your exhibition shows us, this is the staple crop. So it is the number one crop in the world in that sense.

In the discussion that you had on whether GM is good, or Bt is good, what methods of production we must use, you know, on the one hand, the product we call rice is such an important, such a beautiful thing. On the other hand, the condition of the rice growers is not good at all, because of the prices they get. The actual producer makes very little income; people above him or her, they take much of the income — the big companies, the merchants, the money-lenders, they make the money from the rice.

That is also the story worldwide. Mostly rice is grown in Asian countries; the profits in rice are made outside of these countries. In fact, almost a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore, the first winner of the Nobel Prize outside of European, he said in one line: “Food is a source of great prosperity. But the production of food is a source of great misery.” — because the producer makes very little.

Some of the most ancient sources of cultivation of rice are in Eastern India. In fact, we know that there is evidence of grain in the Indus Valley civilisation, which was almost 2,000 years ago. However, there are even older sites of cultivation of rice in India. In Orissa, there are two districts called Koraput and Malkangiri. There is evidence that rice was domesticated in these places 8,000 years ago, second only to China. Even now, who grows it is very interesting. It is grown by very poor tribals and adivasis, by the Garabas, the Parajas, and the Khons. They have been growing rice for thousands of years, and they are the holders of some of the greatest knowledge of rice. So though many adivasi groups and tribes are not rice eaters, even then, those tribes that are, from the Koraput region, they are the custodians of the historical legacy of rice in this country.

There is a reason why some of the ancient tribes are also so good at rice, and it has something to do with the character of rice itself. Just like you have done so many projects here, there has been a very big project in the world recently, comparing the social structures of rice and wheat. And the difference is this: that rice-growing is much more a community activity, a collective effort. It brings people together and they work in greater synchronisation and harmony. Wheat-growing, according to the studies that have been coming out in the last 2-3 years, is much more an individual product. You set your crop and you wait for the rain. But in rice-growing, it’s very complex. Lots of people have to work together — for the transplantations, for seeding, for irrigation, for the watering of the plants. It requires a large scale collective effort of coordination and synchronisation. Rice-growing communities are more closely knit than wheat-growing communities.

Also, the role of women’s labour is greater in rice, in paddy, than in most other crops.

The food security of a nation and the security of a nation is very largely dependent, and going to be more dependent, on the production of food grain, especially rice. In your exhibition, you had mentioned MSSRF, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, and the founder of MSSRF, Dr.M.S.Swaminathan himself said about 2-3 years ago, “Today the world is ruled by those nations that control the guns. In ten years’ time, the world will be dominated by those who control the grains, and not the guns.”

Rice is already the biggest crop in India, bigger than wheat. But as Tagore said, those who produce and those who exploit the product called rice, have different benefits. Indeed, half a dozen companies control the rice price of the world in the markets and commodity exchanges. It is not the farmers who control it, it is not the women who do the paddy transplantation — she has no say in the price of rice, in the profits — but just half a dozen companies which control the product made by the labour of millions of others.

Everywhere in this country where rice is consumed, there is a goddess, a deity of rice: Annapoorna, Dhanyaalakshmi, Mayunamma. Even as you travel to homes in the east, there is a sacred space in every house where rice of the previous year is stored. And then, when the new rice is harvested, it is replaced, and continued to be worshipped. In spite of all this, though our total production is growing, little by little each year, the situation of how much rice we need to grow and how much we are growing is not good. And, the varieties of rice that we have are reducing very fast. So we need to be giving a lot more attention to rice cultivation, to rice cultivators, and to the women farmers who are the basis of rice production in this country.

Lastly, I want to answer the question that was put to me from the stage. Again, the debate on the GM crops was of extremely high quality, the points were very clear, the arguments of both the sides were excellent. As a journalist, as a reporter, as a writer, I cover agriculture. One last word that was said by a young man here. He said, “Okay, you’re saying that we have no evidence now. Maybe 35 years from now there will be evidence.” That has happened in many products. For hundred years, we refused to accept the existence of evidence that tobacco causes cancer. Today we know, after millions of deaths.

My answer to the question is this: We must do the research You can do genetic engineering research, or any other type of research. But it has to be subject to three or four conditions. One, you don’t have science for the sake of science. You have it to address an issue — how does it address the livelihoods of people. That is one condition.

Second is — Also, I heard in the debate, it was Bt versus Hybrid. In India, Bt is also a Hybrid. It is not a straight variety. The Bt cotton introduced in India is a genetically modified crop, of a hybrid variety. What’s used in the US is a straight variety. So in India, even Bt cotton is a hybrid cotton.

Also, we need to worry about the loss of varieties. Where Bt cotton has come, ancient Indian traditional cotton has been wiped off. But apart from Bt, and apart from hybrid, there were also cottons that were neither Bt nor hybrid but from the Indian soil. Those were the cheapest to grow, they did not need pesticides because they are native. They require very little water, they grow in Rajasthan. We destroyed all those varieties of cotton. And cotton, today, is the sector that takes the most amount of pesticides where earlier, cottons from India, China and Egypt were famous. Today, even the manufacturers of Bt have admitted that other pests are affecting even their cotton. That’s why they are changing from Bolgart 1 to Bogart 2. Officially they have admitted that the first Bt cotton they bought, the pests are immune to them.

So think about livelihoods, usefulness, cost… It is about 200-300% more costly to grow these present varieties of cotton, than it was 15 years ago.

And lastly I wanted to say, all the projects that I saw, I was deeply impressed by your method of learning. I congratulate both the students and the teachers who have done such a good job. Even a simple project like the Butterfly project, the Frog project, it was a different kind of learning which I’m sure will take you in a better direction than the kind of education and schooling that I had.

I think I know quite a bit about rice, but I did not know that
Nakasone means “middle root”, and Toyota means “bountiful paddy field”. I had no idea of this till I came here. I congratulate all of you, I think this a great effort, a brilliant, brilliant exhibition. The debate was terrific, your songs were great. And I think this method of learning will educate you better than the method of learning which we understood, where everything that came from outside the country was better.

Thank you very much.

A voice recording of the speech (with Tamil translation by Prema Paati) is available here

– – – – – – – –

With the first performances of the day taking place in the field, I slipped under the proverbial red ribbon, yet uncut, into the exhibition hall. The camera, detailed projects and an early visitor can make for an exquisite, intimate experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking at the exhibits, and documenting them in silence. In the album there are also interspersed pictures with children manning their exhibits, explaining their ware, and sharing each others’ projects; these were taken later. A deep gratitude for Aarooran, his camera, the photography he taught me and the photographer that he is.

Highlights of the Conference: Education for a Caring Society

After a long spell of rain during the previous night, Vidya Vanam witnessed the National Conference on Educating for a Caring Society taking off on a bright note on May 29th. With 90 delegates and 20 speakers and workshop facilitators, it was a delightfully full house.

The morning began with Swami Sarvapriyananda’s inaugural address on Vivekananda’s vision for education. Full of anecdotes and simply
understandable, his talk was a great reminder of the potential and responsibility in educators. The first paper for the day, presented by Padma Sri Dr. Shanta Sinha was titled ‘Inclusion in Schools’. With the experience of over 30 years and countless communities where she has played a role to reduce child labour, Dr.Sinha’s remarks on bringing in people from the fringes of society into the safety net of school was eye-opening. This was followed by an interesting enquiry into ‘The Role of Arts and Sports in Curbing Violence in the School, and in Society’ by noted Karnatic vocalist Vidvan T.M. Krishna.

The next session included a panel discussion with experts from various schools of thought presenting a confluence of ideas on education put forward by eminent thinkers. Dr. Uma Dasgupta, noted historian and Tagore scholar took us through the history of Shantinikethan, and through Tagore’s vision for education. Dr. Alok Mathur of Rishi Valley School spoke about Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s concerns and questions about education, and of the larger world that we live in, and briefly gave us an idea of the kind of schools that are rooted in Krishnamurthi’s philosophy. Dr. M. P. Mathai of the Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon, spelled out Gandhiji’s philosophy of education, and the importance of work and of community in this process. Finally, Dr. Ananda Reddy, President of the University of Tomorrow, Pondicherry, took us through the journey of what comprised of Integral Learning, as envisions by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

After a hearty lunch, participants and speakers alike made their way to the classrooms in the new block to hone their finer skills through different workshops. We had Neeraja Raghavan on ‘Reflective Practices in the Classroom’, Prema Surendran of Vidya Vanam on ‘Sharing and Caring in Primary Schools’, Sulabha Subramaniam on ‘The Non-Violent Classroom’ and Dr. Kunhikrishnan on  ‘Inclusion of the environment in the classroom’.

After tea and snacks, the participants joined us for a celebration of the arts in Vidya Vanam. Children of Vidya Vanam’s music group rendered simple and moving songs of national integration in many different languages, and the drama group presented an excerpt from the Tamil epic Silapathikaram in their native language and culture of Irulas. We then had the senior dance students of Vidya Vanam staged Aadu Raate, highlighting the charkha as a symbol of caring and sharing, and ended with another Bharatanatyam recital by the students of Bhakti Natya Niketan, a Coimbatore-based dance school run by Karuna Sagari who teaches Bharatanatyam in Vidya Vanam, depicting our outward and inner journeys as devotees, which ultimately finds its place in the service of others.

After dinner, delegates made their way to Coimbatore, and to the arranged accommodation in Vidya Vanam, the guesthouse at PSG Institutions and the Ashram.

The next day began on an interesting note with Dr. Sriram of Vanderbilt University and the Bhuvana Foundation speaking about biases in the classroom, and how we can use our awareness of them to dodge the damaging effects of teacher bias. This paper was followed by a presentation by Padma Sri Gowri Iswaran on how to be an innovative teacher while simultaneously satisfying curricular, testing and other requirements of mainstream schooling. Next, we had an eye-opening talk by the famed social scientist Dr. Rajan Gurrukal who spoke about citizenship, social science and the ideological nuances of the world we presently live in. Then, we had Dr. Pramod from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History who captured us with his meditations on nature and methods to include the environment in every child’s life. Giving us a brief glimpse into the importance of forests, we had Mr. Unnikrishnan from Kerala. Dr. Anish Mokashi then took the stage to talk to us about his “mind blowing” experiences of teaching science to students at Vidya Vanam through exploration and discovery.

We then had Mrs. Prema Rangachary speak of her experiences and wisdom on building relationships in the area of Anaikatti, and the importance of creating a triangle of care with the student, the parents, and the teachers. Drawing the conference to an end, we had Mr. Ashok Sajjanhar, Indian Diplomat and Secretary of National Foundation for Communal Harmony, with his encouraging remarks on the conference of ideas. There was widespread enthusiasm as he wished aloud, “I hope that this will not be a one-time event, and will continue beyond these two days.” Mr. Rajesh Barasara of Vidya Vanam and Prema Rangachary with deep gratitude presented a vote of thanks to all the participants, speakers, workshop facilitators, partners, staff, volunteers and children.

The afternoon session included the second round of workshops: Dr . Pramod on ‘Inclusion of Nature’, Dr. Ravikumar on ‘Conservation of Natural Resources’, Sulabha Subramaniam on ”, Prof Balaram of DJ Academy of Design on ‘Universal Design’, and Chintan Girish Modi on ‘Crossing Borders: Physical, Mental and Emotional’.

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from the teachers who attended the conference and the workshops, we are energised to bring forward the second edition of the National Conference on Education for a Caring Society. We would like to heartily thank everybody who made this event a success.


I wrote this formal report for Ram Uncle, but there were so many more questions and insights that came out of these two days, the overarching one being: how are we going to make humanistic and empathetic education a practical reality? Always comes back to that.