Igatpuri was a major railway junction in days gone by, but is hardly visited nowadays. It is a sleepy and charming little town. Thankfully, it hasn't been touched by urbanisation, so no malls, multiplexes and parking problems. It's midway between Mumbai and Nashik. It is well-known for one thing, the famous Buddhist Vipassana Centre.
An NGO, Aseema, that is based in Mumbai has been working in the area for some years now. Aseema works for the education of under-privileged children, and now educates children in 3 municipal schools in Mumbai. Their rural school is 5 kms away from Igatpuri, near the village of Awalkheda. Though only around 3 hours from Mumbai, this area is one of many in India that has been forgotten. There are 5 villages near one another. Roads were recently constructed here, and though there is plentiful rain in the monsoon, there is no water harvesting. As a result, people (women and children) walk miles each day to get water from one common well. Though the land is fertile, the lack of water means there is very little farming. Many youngsters leave in frustration and migrate to Mumbai to do menial labour for a pittance. Most people here eat one proper meal every two days.
Aseema has been working in the villages around Igatpuri for some years now, and I had been with them on their initial forays into the area, when they were looking for land. It is a challenge to buy rural land in India, as a lot of it is owned by tribals, adivasis, and strict laws govern sale of such land. Families also tend to keep splitting the land between their sons, so each successive generation gets progressively smaller plots. All land deals are in Marathi, often illegible, and the local government is often reluctant to cooperate unless the appropriate palms are greased. On paper the boundary of a certain plot maybe at a certain place, but in reality it might be very different. Despite all hardships, Aseema did succeed in acquiring land after years of perseverance.
Against this backdrop, Aseema first started helping the local Balwadi (kindergarten). The Government provides a mid-day meal, but the food is often bad, spoilt, or inedible, and gets wasted. One can't expect children to learn on an empty stomach. Aseema provides the daily meal, trains the local teacher, and provides teaching aids. Most parents are happy to send their children here because they get to eat one meal a day. Education for much of our country needs to be so much more beyond books and exams. People have to be fed first. Development that is getting you the latest mobile phone, while ignoring the hungry millions is one-sided.
Training the local teacher is crucial, as she understands the local context, is from the area, and knows how to deal with things. Transplanting the average city teacher there would provide its own challenges. On the flip side, most local teachers employed by the Government are class 6 or 7 drop-outs, and may not even be perfect at spelling themselves.
After a few years, and a struggle to acquire funds, Aseema has built a wonderful school at a beautiful location. This is a primary school, and the oldest children are not more than age 4. I was lucky to be there for the simple yet moving inauguration. There was a performance by the children, and lunch for the villagers. Almost 700 villagers came for the occasion. There was a tree-planting in the school courtyard. It filled one with a feeling of hope, joy, and anything being possible.
The school has a well on the premises. The appropriate use of the landscape as well as the construction of a series of bunds has already increased the water table in the area. This ensures the well has water even through the summer when the common well run dry. Now many women from the nearby villages have to walk one tenth the distance, as they can use this well. And this is in just one year. World economies run on petrol, but water is the real liquid gold. It's the life blood of our planet, our communities, our lives. Water can transform areas of acute poverty to sustainable agriculture, water can change poor communities to well-fed ones. Water can prevent frustrated people from leaving their villages to enter the cities.
Primary education is the most important part of education, yet the most ignored. Millions are pumped into higher institutes of learning, but the crucial years of one's life are the initial ones. At that age, education can inculcate good habits, better understanding, and so much more than chemical equations. Aseema uses the Montessori system of education, which is a fascinating and holistic way to teach. It is a way of overall human development. It is amazing to see how children truly want to learn. In Montessori, the teacher is more of a guide, just watching the students and nudging them if needed, never force-feeding them information, or making then write endless lines of senseless alphabets in the quest for 'good handwriting'. Children automatically go to what they need to learn that day, and learn by self-initiated activities. Conventional education kills this love for learning. We need to urgently re-think and question the entire concept of school education, as it exists right now.
There is huge scope for designers to make a difference to rural India. But design education being what it is, and design being perceived as styling, the shift is not going to happen soon or easily. Heavy student loans make it impossible for a lot of students to even consider doing socially responsible design work, which can't pay as much as your average corporate job.
There is only one thing that can propel India into the 'developed' category. And it's not 3G technology, Audi cars, multiplexes, malls, consumerism, and it's not design either. It's good, solid, holistic school education and sustainable community development.
Inauguration of Aseema's School was on 26th March 2011
Photographs: Armeen Kapadia