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

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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.


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.

The future depends on what we do in the present

I am “Designing the Future” in association with & INK talks.

“I’m so crazy I don’t know this isn’t possible!”, said Daffy, while riding an invisible bike.

The “Porky & Daffy” cartoons were my favorites when I was 6 years old. Not knowing that something might be impossible was an old idea that has stuck with me even today, just like that invisible bike. Since I did not know that it was “not” possible, I voluntarily dropped out of school, as I believed I could learn better outside it. And I clung on to a bag full of these old childhood ideas, pulling them out one at a time and playing around with them. My latest muse is Gandhigiri. Old, rusted, washed clean on every 2nd October and then thrown back into the bag. But I decided to take it to the streets and waited to see if it would get swept off!! Well it did not!!

The idea of designing the future brings a million possibilities in my mind – from Wow, to super high-tech to Utopian. But unconsciously there is an attack of these visions of the future, where I see a dwindled number of humans dressed in steel – and no trace of green on our land.

My major concerns today are global warming, going far away from our Indian roots, and an increasing gap between the haves and have nots. These dark thoughts are clouding my vision of the future.

But suddenly there’s a ray of sunshine!

“No matter who you are, some scholar can show you the great idea you had was had by someone before you.” ~Albert Einstein.

We often tend to find ourselves trying to be different, and then complicating that which could be simple. The design of my future is to be as simple and basic as it can be to create a breeding ground for a change, a change that can be scalable and easy for a child as it is for an adult. I believe that quite simply,  execution of the most profoundly discovered ideas can change our future. Not each one ought to be intellectually driven and satisfied to enable it: what is needed is only awareness of the impact a small change of actions can make. I have taken inspiration from one of the most eminent persons in the last century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

I took up an experiment, just like Gandhiji did, to take responsibility with a few other people. A group I organized outlined five broad causes and worked on them for a week. Read the Manifesto of Mission Gandhigiri, and then read  the results, what actually happened.

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Hello all,

Here’s how we the Youth of Coimbatore can and will drive change in Coimbatore for this week. Activities under five broad causes are going to be executed in different places in the city, with a thrust on R.S Puram and Kovaipudur. Read on!

# For the environment: Planting AND adopting trees and working on responsible waste disposal through people and shops we are in contact with.

# Hope for our public spaces: “Saying that Indian are dirty and we are like that only is cute, but doesn’t do anything to solve the problem. Meet The Ugly Indians! < >  become one, and change Coimbatore’s public spaces (almost) overnight. Open dumps, cigarette littering, paan stains, public urination… it’s absolutely cleanable.

# Celebrating India: A few years down the line Indians are going to be indistinguishable from the increasing mass of Global Village citizen. Becoming “modern” isn’t a bad thing but the word is a bit misused in the context of progress. Modernizing is not about aping Americanism and Westernism, but about how we can bring riches from our past in a present-day context.  It’s about Kalamkari, Karma and Kozhukottai, and you’d better be ashamed if you don’t know what these are. Bring on the Art and Culture – in dress, speech, thought, expression… In association with Bhakti Natya Niketan and Prastara we present to you, BHARAT.

# Serving the lesser privileged: Shanti Ashram from Coimbatore has been doing dedicated service for 26 years in many villages of the city. Under their auspices, we take part in programmes aimed at poverty alleviation and “Sarvodaya” in the 40 villages they have adopted.

Anybody can volunteer, call Aditi at 09787581258 for details.

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What resulted:

For the Environment:
One school and one college agreed to adopt saplings until they they could take care of themselves. We planted 10 saplings in Govt Music College and Govt Corporation School for Girls.

For our Public Spaces:
Volunteers and bakery owners adopted innovatively designed cigarette bins to curb the menacing problem of cigarette litter that no drainage/waste system is designed to handle. One small stretch of pavement in prime commercial area was ‘spot-fixed’! The ground saw sunlight, litter found its place and the walls got a fresh coat of paint. Plastic litter scattered around a favourite sports ground was cleared.








Service to the Underprivileged:
We attended a workshop at Shanti Ashram and became the first volunteers for their newly launched Poverty Solutions programme with easy, effective solutions. Sixty of us took home “undiyals” (traditional piggy banks) to save money and distribute after four months in the following ways: ⅓ for our own progress, ⅓ for our family and ⅓ as contribution to Poverty Solutions.

Celebrating India:
A series of lecture-demonstrations on the highly overlooked question of why we must stay close to our Indian roots (and still branch out into the world!) struck a chord. The sixty young people in attendance were those at that crucial part of life when they wonder, “Who are we, really?” This talk was accompanied by a dance performance and tour around the venue – the magnificent 7th century temple at Perur.

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This was the execution of an experiment of my design for the future. And what I found in the last few days was startling:
* The area of pavements cleaned or amount of garbage picked up was a measly figure, but those 60 people will never litter their roads or public spaces again.
* Countries and their cultures are dying, but these sixty people care and make efforts, however small, to know, revive and preserve that which is important to them.
* 43% poverty hasn’t been reduced to 3% overnight , but sixty people are taking their role in poverty alleviation seriously, having contributed time, money and efforts.

Coimbatore has hardly changed in the last one week, but can and will see something beautiful in the coming years because these sixty people who took part have experienced inner transformation – they are BECOMING THE CHANGE. This complex idea executed itself to manifest solutions so effortlessly and quickly that it’s quite surprising. As the experiment goes on, 60 could turn into the 16 lakh people of the city, and we’d be looking at a revolution in sensitivity, change and action. Permeating Coimbatore, right through to the world.

My Design for the Future? Being the change, sixty people at a time.

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See more about Gandhigiri at

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Mission Gandhigiri ’12 featured in the Deccan Chronicle! See the article here.

Experiment: Gandhigiri ’12

I’m halfway through Gandhiji’s My Experiments with Truth. It’s had an impact on me in no small measure. The man who always felt so big and chaste was an experimenter. Very, very human. Before reached this pedestal of truth, his journey was littered with cigarettes, meat, Westernism, dancing (!) and a lot of court cases. He made mistakes, turned them into stepping stones and became a source of light for so many people. Not surprisingly, his quotes are used, overused and abused. Most noteworthy in this category being “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

But there’s a reason for its overwhelming relevance. In very simple terms this one sentence solves the complex relationship between problems, responsibility and solutions. And so the last few weeks I’ve been dreaming, thinking and acting.. and with Ashutosh, I came up with the plan for what might turn out to be the largest youth movement in Coimbatore.

                                        Experiment: Gandhigiri ’12

Hello all,

Here’s how we’re going to drive change in Coimbatore, on one day. There are activities under five broad causes and we’re going to execute them in different places in the city. Read on, speak up, do your bit.

For the environment: In association with an NGO, planting trees and cleaning the tanks in the city.

Hope for our public spaces: “Saying that Indian are dirty and we are like that only is cute, but doesn’t do anything to solve the problem. Meet The Ugly Indians!  become one, and change Coimbatore’s public spaces (almost) overnight. Open dumps, cigarette littering, paan stains, public urination… it’s absolutely cleanable.

Vegetarianism drive: Apart from abstaining from meat ourselves, lets make an effort to request hotels, homes, broilers and butchers to help reduce meat consumption on this day. Not impossible. And if you’re wondering why non-vegetarianism is such bad deal, read this: Top 10 reasons not to eat meat.

Celebrating India: A few years down the line Indians are going to be indistinguishable from the Westerners – progress isn’t a bad thing but the word is a bit misused in this context. It isn’t about aping the West but about how we can bring riches form our past in a present-day context.  It’s about Kalamkari, Kalari and Kozhukottai, and you’d better be ashamed if you don’t know what these are. Bring on the Art and Culture – in dress, speech, thought, expression…

Serving the lesser privileged: Collecting blankets for night shelters, cleaning up the places where they stay, getting food and medicines, crowd-sourcing funds etc. In a country like India, there’s no dearth of opportunities to serve people who were born less fortunate than us (sunny side of widespread poverty 🙂 )

ANYBODY in Coimbatore can join this. While there are no restrictions on age, this one’s aimed at youth (and, like the oldies like to say, for “the young at heart”!)  School goers, unschoolers , colleges or working people… if you are ready to give in selfless service for just one day (it happens to be a holiday too, YAY! 😀 ) then it matters not. This movement is starting with one person, and can accomodate hundreds – no amount of service is too small or, too big.

Pick your area of interest and message me/write on my wall, and soon we will create an open group to keep you posted on all the details such as location, time, course of action etc!

On Gandhiji:

He was more than a freedom fighter and is a lot more than the face on our currency. Truth and God went deep with this man, and applied to almost every area of thought. This year we celebrate some things that he believed in, which are more relevant today than ever: vegetarianism, environmentalism, service, simplicity, and his beloved motherland – Bharat.

Bapu said, Be the change you want to see in the world. Abused as this quote is, it hasn’t lost the relevance with the relationship of problems > solutions > changing.

We take responsibility for our Coimbatore on his birthday this year, and he’s going to smile a lovely smile when he sees! 🙂

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I posted this as a note on Facebook a few hours ago and the response has been fantastic. Which goes on to say, to all the stinking pessimists, that there are good people who want to serve and make a difference. I’ve spoken to some NGO’s and big social workers, including Siruthuli and Shanti Ashram, and the next two weeks seem to be promising. I only hope Bapu is watching. 🙂

TEDx@Coimbatore and the aftermath

The last month has been an amazing ride, and I’m still reeling from excitement. I think my head is still in the right place but I can’t be too sure 😛

The first week saw the run-up to the TEDx@Coimbatore, where I was chosen as one of the three idiots as part of the Youth Icon contest.


Getting up till there was fun –  I submitted a video, had an interview and multiple chances to to ‘elevate your pitch’. There were rehearsals and I was struggling to fit my talk as headstrong-unschooler-beginner in the meagre 2 minute slot. If you’re aware of unschooling and its huge challenge towards the prevailing culture and beliefs, you’d know that there is A.LOT.TO.SAY.

The big day arrived and went on well. I loved every bit of the stage and the showlights;the extra minute that no one could stop me from taking, and the attention of 300 people whose basic beliefs about education were being challenged. But what I enjoyed most were the conversations with people I had afterward. A surprising number of “successful” people agreed with and congratulated me – but I had a fair share of skeptics raining down on me. Most questions echoed with the ring of ‘What more is there to life after quitting school?’ In my opinion life in a sense starts AFTER school.

The talk also had two journalists interested in this Phenomenon of Unschooling. The result was Unschooling her way to happiness by Gautam from Deccan Chronicle (Thank you!) and It can be cool to unschool by Vaibhav (Thank you so much!). I wasn’t as happy about having my pictures in the papers as I was about the acceptability of my decision that this gave me. The newspaper is a credible platform and surely this unschooling thing can’t be that bad – I’m sure these thoughts prevented a large number of people from shooting questions (without the slightest intention of listening to what I had to say about my life and education) and giving me their opinion of what education should be. Anyway, a lot remains to be explained – which I plan to do by doing. Wish me Besto!