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.

Reduce Crackers Campaign — Edition # 3

The Reduce Crackers campaign, in its third year as a personal expression and effort, has become a way to deal with my restlessness before Diwali. My restlessness to DO SOMETHING at something wrong and unnecessary happening. The first year we made these travelling posters (they travelled across three apartment complexes and six schools in Coimbatore), and took down pledges and names. The year after that I just used a lot of pathos in my Facebook statuses and Whatsapp messages. I don’t know about the impact of it all, but the restlessness to reduce crackers is back again. And I need to deal with it.

Social media is obviously my first outlet to realise this restlessness. But the problem with social media campaigns and causes is that it is particularly suited to preaching to the choir. The filters you can apply to your news feed and friend lists can work very easily and very well as echo chambers. Where, then, is the space for transformation? One way to it is definitely by expressing solidarity with those that work with you. The voices need to seem louder and more cohesive.
Another way is to, like Guy Kawasaki said on his blog, reach out to those that are sitting on the fence rather than those that are holding tightly to the opposite pole.
A third way might be found in the hope that we all have at least some friends and acquaintances who do not share similar environments (socially or on social media). Our voice, then, carries a new message for them that they might not have heard otherwise.

But all in all, there really is only so much that social media can do. The sooner we realise that change is to be made on the streets rather than on screens, the better we rid ourselves of illusions of having made a difference. And if I may say so, getting used to validation through the language of social media, makes it doubly hard to get out there and make conversation with someone who does not share your backgrounds and preferences. Doubly hard, but doubly important too.

What am I going to do? How am I going to act on these realisations?
1. Speak to my family *cringe cringe* and the kids in whose good books I am — but without the tone of a moralistically nagging aunty. (Because if I were to take that stand, there’s no end to which I can be criticised on my hypocrisies. Lets please not talk about that?)

2. Posters in colleges? I don’t know, the boards are already crowded with uninteresting things that bleed their uninterestingness onto each other. Besides, attention-grabbing, behaviour-changing graphic design isn’t my strongest point. We still made this. But I might try harder — we have a Fine Arts society in AUD called FAGS. 😀

3. The idea with the strongest potential, though, is to call on the entire #SwachhBharat machine — the government, celebrities, commentators, and advocates —  to see how simply the action of reducing crackers works with their campaign! As far as simplicity, ease, and effectiveness go, this is the best action we have to reach a cleaner India (or to prevent a dirty India). Working on this idea in Delhi, a city new and too big to me, seems daunting… but we’ll have to find the courage and an executable strategy.

* * *

These were just some random thoughts on social media, Diwali, and my existential crisis. If something struck a chord with you, or found a shared node on some previous mental path you took, I’d really be glad to know. Leave a comment, and I hope you have a Happy Diwali. 🙂

Hello world! (again)

I really need to stop being a closet writer/thinker on education. 
Firstly. Tyler Durden is absolutely right — I need to stop believing that I am a special, beautiful unique snowflake. Thousands of student activists and thinkers are making an impact on education, and so what if I happen to be, say, the only person from [insert combination of past school, current pin code and any frivolous past accomplishment] to do it. We need the numbers, thank god I’m not the only one doing it.
Secondly, pretty much every idea on education has been thought about, scrutinised and practised somewhere, sometime. What we’re doing as education thinkers for the most part, is just stringing them in different combinations. There’s nothing personal about this. The potency of the idea trumps originality hands down. And it’s more important that the work gets done, rather than who did it, and why they did it. Big deal if education turns out not to be my Passion/Purpose in life — it’s inconsequential to whether or how much good work I do in education.
Education, before action, is about conversation. Hell, Nikhil Goyal’s first book has praise+disagreement in the same sentence from some of the biggest names in education. And he’s not scared to bring out a second book. His ideas are going to offend somebody, his advice may not be for everybody but he’s still standing up boldly for what he believes. And that is bloody remarkable. 
There are so many ways to get things done, so many factors involved, so many other fields you have to understand before you can even touch education but that only means that we have a bigger canvas to work with. We can, today, work in education with the maker-mindset — with strong competencies, a vision for the future, and a willingness to live with the best we can, and keep improving — rather than with the, idk, disillusioned moralist — with strong beliefs and no permission to change them, with ONE vision for the future and a desperate search for THE right answer (which doesn’t exist, of course). 
This is really exciting, why did I need to stress myself so much to get here! 


The power of Open Schooling

Aditi at National Institute of Open Schooling's 25th Anniversary celebrations, Chennai
Aditi at National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations, Chennai

This is a transcript of my speech given at the National Institute of Open Schooling’s 25th Anniversary celebrations at Chennai, where I was recognised as the all-India topper for the Senior Secondary April 2013 exams.

Each time I open an NIOS textbook, I am greeted with the words – “Congratulations! You have accepted the challenge to be a self-learner. NIOS is with you at every step…”

I am happy because here in my hand is a powerful tool to follow my dreams.

My story is not an unusual one. I do not have any exceptional sporting talent — like Vandana here — and nor is mine a tale of academic rags-to-riches. But like any other person of my age, I have some interests that I wished to explore, not after ‘settling down in life’ (does this ‘settling down’ ever get completed?) but right now, as a child. NIOS helped me to pursue these interests in two ways: one, by studying the subjects of my choice – Economics, History, Accounts and Psychology. Secondly, by allowing me to study at my own pace, I was able to pursue interests that were non-academic but equally important to me.

Normal schooling would not have allowed me to pursue this self-directed experiment in education. And it is for this reason that NIOS plays a very important role in education and society. It gives us children leverage over our lives.

On one hand, NIOS has helped young prodigies to work towards their pursuits without missing out on formal academic education. On the other hand it has helped learners with difficulties in reaching their academic goals. But in between the ends of this spectrum there are so many children like you and me who do not wish to stay in the school system — not because we cannot cope with it, but because we do not want to. We believe and aspire for an education outside the four walls of authority and convention.

There are so many people like us who do not thrive in the conventional system, but do not know that they have another option. And it is for this reason that each of us must become personal ambassadors of NIOS. Whenever I explain the concept of NIOS to anybody, more often than not, they say, ”Wow, I didn’t even know that such a great framework exists!”

We have to spread the word about the power of open schooling!

As we all know, many innovative and informal learning models have been set up in the country. They are being built in the metro’s slums and in the minority communities. They are being set up by people who teach simply out of the love to teach. These models are not striving to be schools, and are educating people successfully just the same. If we could hand over the tool of open schooling to these people, I have no doubt that their effectiveness will increase manifold.

It is no small achievement to be the largest open schooling system in the world. But we still have a long way to go; fortunately for us, the road ahead is well-defined. We need to strengthen our contact and information centres. As we heard today about NIOS being taken to minority groups, unskilled workers, rural learners, we understand that it can be integrated it into people’s larger needs of learning, career and life in so many different ways. We need to spread the word, NOW, never knowing who is going to benefit from it!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr.Ravi, Chennai Regional Director, NIOS, all our chief guests, and NIOS at the Centre. Most of all, I’d like to thank my wonderful family for letting me fly.


Also published on Swashikshan: The Indian Homeschoolers’ Association’s website:

Taking off

From my newly-started travel blog 😀

As if it was that easy to jump on a plane and just take off

Traveling, unless it’s at the nomadic stage, means leaving behind a life to return to and taking enough to sustain life till then. It means winding up life here and packing for the trip.

The shelves have been cleaned and clothes stacked again neatly, food finished in a flurry: lots of generosity to the dustbins. You can reason and estimate and wind up this part of life. But when you get to the music that sustained you through sad times, newspapers and notes that captured your dreams, and all sizes and colours of paper that hold frozen thoughts, reason is useless. Emotional attachment is wholly another transaction, governed by laws we still struggle to find. 

But the distraction of (the possibility of) college life and a great trip ahead me bind the thoughts and memories of my last 2 years into a dreary looking carton box labelled in neat, impersonal letters: ACADEMIC YEARS 2011-2013. My logical justification for storing this emotional paraphernalia? The fervent hope that I will grow up to be that adult in the family/neighbourhood/Internet who all the teens and kids share their dreams and fears with, simply because she hasn’t lost touch with what it meant to be a happy teenager. Because she has not grown out of the optimistic, well-supported and (mostly) peaceful 16 year old that she once was. I have so much to say about the year I was 16, but that’s for another time. 

Clearing out stuff (and memories) also gives you an idea of the stuff (and experiences) that you want next. Not looking into your cupboards or your old diaries pushes up chances of getting stuck in wrong patterns again: but now I better idea of what are the clothes that I’ll buy but never wear, and the decisions that’ll see me end up with loneliness and a box of tissues. Anyway. So much for my promises about staying in the present. 

Right now, I’m packing off to Europe. 😀  

But like I said, you can’t just get on to the plane and just take off. I won’t get started about passports and visas (except that the UK visa office in Chennai is so beautifully done up, as against Indian visa offices that assume that their boring name plates alone attract tourists). There’s lots of woolen wear in bright colours, but I do hope the purpose of our visit doesn’t limit itself to just keeping warm. There’s lots of food — I’m sorry, but Marwadis are Marwadis, trains or planes, Jodhpur or Jungfrao. 

But Papa’s question rings across all the baggage: How less can you do with? With all of the forces acting on the trip, I’d say it’s trying to be the lightest shade of a backpacking trip. We’ve packed expectations and an itinerary, with generous space to allow our free spirits to be pulled by whatever catches their fancy. 

Wait — their fancy? There is no us and them! 

We are the free spirits. 



What we want to inherit from you

We wrote this for a talk to trigger tonight’s panel discussion on Individual Responsibility towards Coimbatore, organized by CATS (Coimbatore Arts and Theatrical Society). Do you agree with this, youth of Coimbatore?

Rajendra Chozha was one of the greatest conquerors of India. Under him, the Chola influence reached up to the Ganges, in Bengal and right across the ocean to Singapore and Indonesia. Although his achievements were many, they were still built on the empire that his father Raja Raja Chozha had built from scratch. Motilal Nehru’s idea of modern education shaped Jawaharlal Nehru, and I daresay we attribute our freedom to that man. Shekhar’s idea of introducing technology to the music industry came to us through Dileep Kumar, better known as A R Rahman.

What’s beautiful is that all through history, one generation had the determination to rise, and the following generations only went forward. As I stand here representing all of us eager youth, I hope you’ll be the generation — and I quote Al Gore here — “the generation about which, a thousand years from now, philharmonic orchestras and poets and singers will celebrate by saying, they were the ones that found it within themselves to solve this crisis…”

Now the crisis Al Gore is talking of is not just the ice caps that are melting — the crisis is the power shortage and water shortage in Coimbatore. We don’t expect a sparkling green city when we grow up – but we want you to begin the process of undoing the harm. We’re eager to be a part of this action, now! – take us with you to the clean the lake and let’s take a nice walk instead of driving to some place. Talk to us about our rights, and together let’s proactively fulfil our duties. Inform us, involve us, inspire us. You need to be models for us dear adults, because we’re so good at imitating! The values that parents want to teach pass down so effortlessly when they practice what they preach. We want your values – to build our dreams. Our own dreams.

And the dreams might not be engineering and medicine. 70% of the people who take these courses don’t become engineers because they find their calling somewhere else. Why then, do they take so many years to start working on their dreams? Because there are not enough choices in school, and not enough freedom to make their own choices. I say, bring into school the opportunity to pursue all the things that we pursue in the real world. Academics, entrepreneurship, arts, community service… You say “Why…it’s all going fine only…” and I say WHY NOT? Two things are very clear: First, that each child comes with unique interests and energies. And second, that the world has opened up immensely. There are professions and activities and movements that you wouldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

Let’s bring schools out of isolation and create a an environment where students engage with this exciting world. They’ll pick up things before you can figure how to use a touch screen phone. They’ll astound you with the way they sell things, build things, find solutions, improve lives and build a better world. And to guide them and facilitate their journey, let’s create  empowered teachers. Teachers who are eager to share their knowledge. Teachers who will  begin to take pride in their jobs and themselves. In the current system, there is a certain lack of self-respect – in teachers as well as students. And this is simply because not everybody can score centums! Just imagine the low self esteem of children who are just NOT built for the system – the teachers who spend all their energy trying to make it happen. Epic fail, from the start.

If we could draw on the immense power of schools, and turn even a small part of the collective energy into making Coimbatore a better place – we’d see nothing short of a miracle. Come on, make *us* a part of building *our* future. The process of inheritance begins now. I urge one school to use their power to start such a social drive – with kids and teachers and parents – and I guarantee that we’ll meet our targets with ease.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. There are tens of thousands of dreamers in this city, raring to go and eager to do. They are this optimistic city’s children. Catch them while they’re young and hot!

Thank you.