Thursday, 5 May 2016

Interviews: Education can be free and fun and more relevant - with Ms. Meenakshi of Puvidham rural school

An Interview with Social Activist cum Educationalist Meenakshi Umesh by Dr.Padmavathy

It has been quiet a while since SLI had a guest faculty but after attending Mrs. Meenakshi Umesh's interesting-interactive session on need of Organic farming and her ideas on education -the institute filled with joy and fun on 28 April, 2016,it felt like the wait was worthy . It was a great privilege for all of us in SLI to have the opportunity to interact with a social educationist, who has truly dedicated herself to child education, organic farming and society’s welfare. 

A Brief Introduction about Our Guest Faculty

"Education has to be fun not burdensome", based on this simple and effective concept, works a registered organization -Puvidham Rural Development Trust. The organisation works on developing effective organic farming techniques and has successfully created a humane and child-centered education environment for children in the Nagarkoodal area of Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, India. Headed by a kind soul and a down to earth person, Meenakshi Umesh…. Born in U.P and studied in Mumbai. Meenakshi turned into a social activist in her early twenties while opposing child labour . Professionally Meenakshi is an architect and her partner -Mr. Umesh, an engineer from IIT-Madras. They met during their stint in Auroville near Puducherry, and later, decided to pursue their interests together and bought a land in Nagarkoodal in 1992- a dry and discouraging area but now turned into a flourishing forest/organic farming fields, which was possible only due to the hard work of Meenakshi and her family along with local communities. During this process, the couple while working with the community saw the compelling need for a good school in the area, and so Meenakshi started working towards a dream school- where there would be no teachers, no punishments and no examinations.. A School with lot of fun… finally her dream came true in the form of Puvidham Nursery and Primary School and the Puvidham Learning Centre (upto 8th standard), a new version of education working towards the vision of learning along/ via nature… 

1. According to you, where does the traditional farming practices stand today, do you think that the importance of traditional knowledge in farming is being lost from our culture?

Yes, it is. Even the farmers at the age of 60’s blindly believe and say that farming can’t be successful and profitable without urea and chemical fertilizers. This is mainly due to various government schemes cum policies, modern science and technologies that is reflecting in the farmer's mind. Unfortunately they have been successful in making the farmers believe in Chemical farming. The modern technology based thought indoctrinates them to believe that without the applications of the chemicals there can be no farming, no food, no income and no livelihood. They have more or less forgotten the concept of sustainability and sustainable livelihood. But still there seems to be some hope, as when we sit and slowly start digging out or refresh the old memories of the farmers, they talk about the organic farming practices which they practiced in the past. For instance, the idea of intercropping - muthukottai (castor) + Thuvari (pulses)+ Kaaramani (beans) + Solam (corn) + Saamai and multi-cropping ( Ragi+Avarai/onion/chilly in bunds) or Groundnuts + onion+ cluster beans etc., they cherish these methods as these methods helped them in getting continuous income and yield throughout the year, their fields always remained green starting from March to January. 

The traditional farming practices isn’t totally eradicated or lost from our culture but due to lack of proper recognition and encouragement it is degrading at an alarming rate…. So we must catch hold of it before we completely lose it.

2. How can we teach Organic Agriculture/farming to school children?

First, we must understand one thing -we should not push the children to learn the things that they don’t want to. We must let the kids decide whether they really want and are interested in farming. After confirming that, we can teach those who have legitimate interest in organic farming; but it shouldn’t be in a form of formal class room or via systematic curriculum based academic mode of teaching. We must teach them in a very simple, logical and easily understandable way; there is a need of modification in the educational systems- like if a kid wants to know about wheat, we can start telling from where and how it is cultivated, how does it grow, its nutritional value, its role in environmental balance etc., in a story form! When we do this teaching in the form of interaction and conversation method, the children get more information and it builds up their interest and thus they learn the concepts quickly. It need not be as a single subject(agriculture), but as a balanced multidimensional study involving science, art, statistics etc., simply everything under one roof..

3. What will be the top most 5 drawbacks in present academic institutes and their curriculum?

1. Physical activities/movements of the kids in school are totally arrested. They are forced to sit in the classroom throughout the day and listen to teachers talk, which totally ceases mental and physical activity of the children which is unhealthy for a growing child and for their future.

2. Class room seating arrangement- this itself creates discrimination and differentiation among the children. The seating arrangements must be in circular manner and teaching has to be more or less like conversation, group discussion or interaction section taking place in a natural environment.

3. We must ask and let the children decide what they really want to learn and are interested in and then teach that in an interesting mode of education like via singing, drawing, dancing, storytelling etc., so the children are able to grasp the basic core of subjects in an easy/understandable way, this more effective and creative form of education.

4. Subject based academic curriculum has to be changed. At least till 6-8th standard there shouldn’t be any formal subject based systematic curriculum way of teaching. They must learn it from their own environment and field experiences through field exposure visits. This way we can develop self-motivation, self capacity building, equality, unity and honesty among the children.

5. Conducting exams must be stopped, instead of that we might have self-evaluation method for assessment. This will be more appropriate and useful for the student’s future. 

4. What do you think of Right to education act? According to you what are its positive and negative values?

The most positive aspect is it’s opened a way to various Social, Vedic and Cultural oriented studies, the major drawback is that they are primarily focused and are encouraging systematic-academic way of teaching. They doesn’t support and encourage innovative, spontaneous creative schools, although these kind of schools are the breeding ground of new innovative/feasible ideas. Creation such schools needs encouragement and social recognition and acceptability by the society, especially by the government.

In this modern world, concept of advanced systematic mode of teaching and curriculum is widely accepted /followed and meanwhile people are gradually losing their cultural and traditional values. This is how the people miss out the importance of already existing indigenous traditional effective, eco-friendly and scientifically advanced form and way of living - surviving in nature, which is being practiced for a very long time by our ancestors. For example, sustainable livelihood which has come up very recently as a trend has been practiced by the Tribal communities for a long period of time; they have been co-existing along with the natural environment for over decades. But neither the government nor the society recognize them and encourage their way of living, instead they are destroying their livelihood. These kind of already existing sustainable livelihood systems need to be saved and protected and learn from them: their way of living, understanding the basic concept of Sustainable livelihood – a way of conflict free co-existence.

5. What do you think of SLI?

As far as my observation, I strongly believe SLI and its programme has the full potential in establishing and building the concept of sustainability in the society in the nearing future. I was able to feel immense positive energy and vibration in this institute. MY HEARTY WISHES TO THEM….

More about the work of Social Activist & Educationalist Meenakshi Umesh -Puvidham Rural Development Trust: