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Auroville Experience


December 2008

 

The work of Auroville in Nadukuppam

- Alan

Aurovilians have been working 25 miles away in Nadukuppam High School and village. Why? What has been achieved?

 

“We became involved with Nadukuppam some years ago,” explains Lourdes, who coordinates the Pitchandikulam education programmes in the area. “We had been looking for an opportunity to try out in rural Tamil Nadu what we have been doing in Auroville regarding environmental awareness, new approaches to education and alternative technology. The main reason we decided to work here was because we had the strong support of the local people. Without this, we could not have succeeded.”

 

The school

And succeeded they have. “Six years ago Nadukuppam High School had no water, no toilets, no shade. It was hot and dusty everywhere,” says Mr.V.M.Shankar, the government teacher who teaches maths at the school. “We had two classrooms, three teachers for 550 students and the worst academic record in the whole of Tamil Nadu. Now we have water and toilets. It is so green and clean it's a pleasure to come here every day. There are more classrooms, more teachers, we're learning new ways of teaching and our pass rate at Tenth Standard has improved dramatically. In fact, we've become a model of what can be achieved with the support of local villagers, the Education Department and the project team.”

Nadukuppam School 's Environmental Education Centre is set in an organic orchard. Solar panels power its wastewater recycling plant which provides clean water to irrigate the garden.


The environmental programme has been running five years now. All students, except those in the 10th Standard, receive weekly environmental classes where they learn about the local flora and fauna and the basic principles of ecology. 2,500 trees have been planted on the campus, there is a vegetable garden and medicinal garden with explanatory texts, as well as a recycling plant which organically cleans grey water from the toilets.


An environmental education class at Nadukuppam High School

The credit for this transformation goes to the students and teachers, along with the Pitchandikulam coordinators and the many other Aurovilians who have given their energy and inspiration to this project.

“The changes in the external environment are evident,” says Lourdes , “but the most important change is in their thinking. Now they are very clear about what ecology is, and what they should and should not do regarding the environment.”

Mr. Kannappan, presently Joint-Director of SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abiyan, ‘Education for All') and former Chief Education Officer Villupuram district, became interested in what was happening in the school. He sanctioned new classrooms and additional teachers. Later the State Government donated computers, so now the students have computer lessons. Teachers, students and women's group members are mapping the local area. A GIS (Geographic Information Systems) team was formed to get data about the village, such as water levels, population statistics, crop patterns, local healers etc. Students, farmers, villagers and women's groups will use this information for their development. At the same time, an educational loans programme and nutrition programme for poorer students has been instituted.

The transformation, according to Lourdes , has been remarkable. “I've observed all the children over the last six years and I see how they have changed. When we first came here, many had no footwear and they were unhealthy. Now you can feel their presence – their eyes are bright and they have the confidence to say what they think.”

Evidence of this is provided by the neighbourhood ‘Children's Parliament'.

Alan in discussion with young ministers










Alan in discussion with young ministers of the
Childrens' Parliament

This concept, which originated in Kerala 15 years ago, is intended to make children aware of their rights. Every Friday in a small hut in Nadukuppam village the young ‘ministers', who are elected by their peers, meet to discuss any problems brought to them.
The Education Minister, for example, may have received a complaint from another child about a teacher. The minister will go to the accused party and ask them to change. If they refuse, the minister will draw up a petition or letter of complaint and, with the support of the panchayat president, send it to a higher authority. “When the higher authorities receive the children's letters they immediately take action,” says Lourdes .
On their own initiative, this Children's Parliament also repaired a derelict hut for an old man who had no one to take care of him, contributing their own money as part of a fundraising initiative. “This shows their willingness to take care of their elders,” says Lourdes . Children in other neighbourhoods plan to start their own Children's Parliaments.
A small group of bright young ministers cluster round. What do they want to be? The answers tumble out. A computer engineer, a doctor, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, a maths teacher…. Does nobody want to teach environmental studies or be an ecologist? Lourdes explains: “They are the first in their families to have an education and for first-generation learners the economic motive – getting a high-status, well-paying job – is paramount.”
Lourdes is very satisfied with the progress of the school. “However, this was just the beginning. To provide a model of integral environmental education we needed to look beyond the 550 students of Nadukuppam High School .”
The first step was to send environmental teachers into other schools: at present, the outreach environmental programme takes in 21 schools in the bioregion. The next step was to work in the local villages.

 

Women's Groups


A woman learns the Tamil alphabet in the
literacy programmes

“We'd noticed in the school,” says Lourdes , “that the girls were always the first to get involved in new projects. So it was logical to start in the village with the women.” So far, 24 self-help women's groups have been set up in four local villages. There is also a Federation of women's groups, coordinated by Balamurugan and Parvathy. Each group sends two representatives to the Federation. Indrani, the Federation President, explains. “The self-help groups are a means of saving and providing loans. The Federation petitions the higher authorities when there is a problem. At present, for example, we are petitioning the Deputy Superintendent of Police to stop the alcohol supply in the village. For the future, we would like to plant more trees around the village and help the older people to get pensions. And we need to improve women's economic status by providing training and opportunities to start their own businesses.”


A gathering of the women's Self-Help Groups

“In the self-help group we get various trainings,” says Jayalakshmi, the Federation treasurer. “We receive AIDS-awareness and gender-awareness classes. We've just begun a literacy project as half the women in these groups cannot read or write. But the main thing I've gained is confidence. Before, I was almost afraid to leave my house. I would never have dreamed of visiting the police station or a bank, only the men did this. But now we women go to all these places; we even met the Collector.”

Does she get support from her husband? Jayalakshmi pauses. “In the beginning, no. But when I received a loan from the group, he understood the economic benefit and he changed. Now he fully supports what I am doing.”

Moving from the school to the village brought a whole new set of challenges. “Suddenly,” said Lourdes , “we were having to deal with caste and power issues, as well as traditional village psychology. We find, for example, that when we bring something new to a village, 40% of the people immediately give support, 30% will sit on the fence and 30% will oppose it, mainly because they are afraid of losing power and influence. In our project, the 30% who were neutral joined us within one year, while the 30% who oppose us do not try to block us as their children and their wives are benefiting.

“The main thing we learned, however, was not to allow anybody to feel excluded. While the people who welcomed us to the village were higher caste, we do not neglect the lower castes and we have started women's groups in their areas. We have also begun groups for the men, as they were asking why only their wives were benefiting.”

 

Farmers' Associations

The men's groups are called Farmers' Associations. These were initiated by Balamurugan, the project's community organizer. 150 men have joined, Madhavan among them. “Auroville gives trainings about new types of cultivation, including a system of rice intensification which uses less water and gives a better yield. Many of us switched to this. They also taught us about organic farming. I've been fully organic for two years.”


Young members of the eco-club planting a vegetable garden in their school grounds

 

Why did he change? “When you use chemicals, the soil becomes polluted. Good soil is a great benefit for the future.” And how many other local farmers have gone organic? “About 20% so far, but slowly they are changing because they see how well I am doing.”

“Actually the local Collector was so impressed by what's happening here he's announced this is a model village for paddy cultivation and organic agriculture,” explains the farmers' education extension man. “Now villagers come from far and wide to see what is happening in these fields.”

A few years ago, additional land was bought next to Nadukuppam High School . Here Kanniyappan and his team have established organic farming demonstration plots and an area of Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest . “We can talk about these things, but the farmers need to see them with their own eyes,” says Lourdes . The new land also hosts two enterprises that may point the way to future prosperity for the region: a spirulina project run by a women's self-help group and a compressed earth block (CEB) production unit.

The CEB programme is led by Padmanabhan and Kanniyappan. “CEBs are new to this area,” says Lourdes . “The villagers were unsure about them at first, so we took them to Auroville and we showed them many compressed earth buildings. When they requested a new community hall, they agreed it should be constructed using CEBs. Actually this magnificent new hall, which has generated much interest among the higher authorities and in other villages, is a model of collaboration. To construct it, we first had to create the Nadukuppam Village Development Council. Auroville's Centre for Scientific Research and Building Centre are providing the expertise while the funding was provided by the government Block Development Office, a local MP's fund, Pitchandikulam and the villagers themselves.”

“I'm very proud that we have such a good school and village hall and I'm happy that so many changes are happening in this village,” says Mr. Somu Gounder, the traditional head man.

Somu Gounder, Nadukuppam's traditional head man and President of the Parents-Teachers Association

He is also President of the Parent-Teachers Association and a main source of support for the project in the village. What changes has he noticed over the past six years? “There's so much. I see it in the cleanliness of the houses, in the new community hall, in the greenery in the streets.”

He was one of the first villagers to welcome the Aurovilians to Nadukuppam. He also donated three acres of his own land to the school. Why did he do that? “We old people didn't go to school. I didn't want our children to suffer in the same way.”

Auroville's success in developing this village has led to the government asking it to be a Nodal Agency in the area. “This means that if they want to implement any new schemes in education or social welfare they will do it through us,” explains Lourdes . What new projects would he like to see? “I'd like to see a Knowledge Centre in the village open to everybody. There would be GPS so farmers, for example, could find the best place to site their new borewell and internet would allow children to do distance learning.”

So has it all been an unmitigated success? Lourdes pauses. “We have had many successes and they could not have been achieved without the vision of Pitchandikulam and its dedication to integrated, ecologically-sound village development. I could also feel the Mother's Force working behind the entire project. At the same time, we've had our failures, but these have helped us learn a lot. This includes the need to articulate our vision and incorporate the villagers' own ideas from the very beginning; to have clear-cut village management systems where everybody knows their roles and responsibilities; and to do the social mobilisation part before we begin the programmes – we did it the other way round, which makes it take much longer.”

Sustainable?

But how sustainable is all this? What would happen if the Aurovilians withdrew? “This project is still fragile,” admits Lourdes . “Our funding is running out and, at any time, the senior government officials who have so much supported us can be replaced by less sympathetic ones. At the same time, it was never our intention to be here for ever.”

Lourdes is confident that changes initiated in the High School won't be reversed as the school has such a high profile now. “As to the village activities, we should strengthen the existing groups – the women's groups, men's groups, the village Development Council and the Children's Parliament – so that they can monitor and run the existing programmes. Meanwhile the government could provide financial support. That way our effort is reduced and we would have more of a back-up role. This is how it should be. We are giving the villagers the tools to make their own decisions.”

Lourdes admits his real ambition is to do the same for the villages around Auroville. “But Nadukuppam has been a marvellous experience. For now I know that Auroville has the ability and knowledge to transform the whole school system, and much more.”

All photos: courtesy Pitchandikulam

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