My intention in teaching the ISC Environmental Science course is that when these children assume influential, decision-making positions in their life—in whatever field they choose to work in—they would take decisions that are environmentally sound. Through this two-year course, we study several environmental issues from around the world. Often, students feel disturbed by the state of the world. It is in this context that the idea of giving them first-hand experience of ground realities of communities arose. This was to also show them some of the positive environmental initiatives that are happening. 

We talk a great deal about traditional knowledge and practices of the tribal communities in the conservation of forests. We also talk about organic, natural and traditional farming techniques when we read about agriculture. They have to understand what these mean for those directly involved—the tribals and farmers, especially, the landless farm labourers. It is necessary for the students to draw a balance between the theoretical approaches and the practical difficulties. With this in mind, we planned an optional trip for the out-going class 12 students after their board examinations. Eight students accompanied by three teachers went to Gobichettipalayam, a small town in western Tamil Nadu.

Our first destination was the Bhavani Sagar dam, inaugurated in 1952. We had people from the district agricultural department, local farmers” association, and SPWD (State Public Works Department) accompanying us. The dam is one of the largest earthen structures, built from the soil dug from the reservoir and is still intact even after 60 years. Of the eight kilometre long dam, only the central sluice is built of cement and concrete. The students were spell-bound by the magnitude of the dam and the fact that such a huge dam could be constructed with just soil.

\We then travelled along the path of the lower Bhavani Canal that carried water from the dam to the fields. We saw different levels of water distribution from the main canal, through the distributary canals and finally to the small sluice gates from where it was channelized to the fields. This Canal irrigates 2.07 lakh hectares of land. Based on the availability of water, the state bodies and the farmers associations collectively decide on the distribution of water. This vast and complex network was another thing that impressed the students. It was a novel experience for them to understand the need for so many protocols and paths before water reaches the fields from the dams.

I could have explained this network through chalk and talk in the classroom, but the complexity of the process came fully alive on the field under the guidance of Murthy. Apart from agriculture, one other major economy of this area was dairy. There were co-operative milk societies in every village, which also served as the retail outlets for the local people’s needs.

Murthy comes from a Dalit community. People from the Dalit community were not allowed to enter these societies to buy milk. Ten years ago, Murthy as a young lad of seventeen, was beaten up for daring to enter the society to buy milk, claiming that the society was a public place. Though this became a huge issue, little has changed since. After two years, Murthy attempted to go there once more only to be beaten up again. Now he does not go there. Hearing this, there was a sense of shock on the students’ faces. They did not speak for a while. Then, one child asked in an apologetic tone, “You said you never go there anymore. Does that mean you are scared of being beaten up again? Don”t you want to fight it anymore? Have you accepted it as it is?”

Murthy answered with a broad smile, “Yes. I am scared. Because they not only beat me up and my family, but also others from my community. Any such incident disturbs the life of all the people in our community. On the other hand, my people are not yet ready to rise up against caste discrimination. So, my primary work is to educate them and give them the strength to protest. Only then can we fight together. Otherwise these actions by individuals will only be dramatic adventures. I am not interested in that anymore. I am looking for a more radical change in the long run.”

“But where and how did you get the strength?”

“Education was the base. Then I got introduced to Dr Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s ideologies. They helped me understand the caste society and how to work from within.”

With this Murthy took leave of us. But the discussion did not end there but continued on our way back and long after that. The students raised several questions for which there were no satisfactory answers. Next day we went to Murthy’s cheri (slum) to meet the people there. We were hoping to find answers to at least a few of our questions, but we were left with more questions. After hearing Murthy, the natural expectation was to meet more people like him, questioning the caste society. But the people we saw in the cheri were those who complied with the discrimination they were subject to, and even found some comfort and security in it. They said that being in bonded labour to a particular dominant caste family meant that they were at their service round the clock. But it also meant that the dominant caste family is bound to take care of their needs, including food, clothing and health care. Education was obviously not part of it. Murthy had to nudge them to say what kind of food, clothing and health care they were given. This meant leftover food, used clothes and health care in government hospitals which anyway provided free healthcare. It was surprising to see that the people found security even under obvious discrimination.

Students raised several issues:

“Sending young children as bonded labour in return for money—Is it not like selling one’s own child? It seems that they did not feel anything wrong about doing so.”

“It seemed for them to be a matter born out of necessity.”

“The inequity of caste system was almost invisible to them.”

“They believed that there is a reason for their misfortunes.”

“Now who is happier? These people or Murthy Anna?”

“It seems complying with the caste system is easier. Murthy Anna seems to be burdened.”

“After realizing that caste in discriminatory, he is unable to bear with it but has to live with it. Is it not more a burden? What is the solution to this?”

“I think Murthy Anna had to choose between economic freedom and social freedom and he chose the latter.”

“But is he socially free?”

“He is striving for it. One day he will.”

“Will he?”

“Or may be his next generation.”

I did not interrupt but left them to explore these questions by themselves. I have understood in this short span of my life as a teacher, that I need not answer all the questions that the students raise. Some may find answers through these conversations. Others may not. Staying with such questions is more important than trying to find readymade answers. These conversation spaces are a vital part of a learning experience. Without these conversations— listening to different viewpoints; questioning each other’s understanding; trying to unravel what they saw and heard—the experience is not complete.

Next morning, we headed towards an NGO named SUDAR for children rescued from child labour in a tribal village called Kongadai in the Burgur hills. After the long journey, our immediate need was to use a toilet. The school had a toilet outside but without any water. Natraj who runs the NGO, gave us two kudams (pots), and asked us to fetch water from the hand pump on the main road leading to the village. The trail for water took us more than an hour—a hand pump with a long line of pots but no water; a walk to a nearby stream with no water; further down to another line but no water; finally, to water oozing from between two rocks where a woman was collecting water in a small mug to pour into her pot which was covered with a thin cloth filter. It would take at least half an hour to fill one pot and there were already pots waiting. We considered peeing behind the bushes when one woman called us and let us cut the line. We quickly decided to take only half pot of water. It took almost half an hour to fill half a pot. We took turns carrying the pot uphill. We decided to use the water frugally, after all the nine of us had used the toilets. Here are some responses:

“Akka. All my romantic ideas of living in the hills have disappeared.”

“Yes Akka. Living in the hills is beautiful only when all our needs are taken care of and that is what we have seen when we go on vacation to hills.”

“Akka, when we entered the village, I saw that every house in this village had a toilet but I could see that they are left unused. I was surprised and even upset about that. Now I know why people defecate in open places.”

This was not a part of the trip plan, but it just happened. This experience is sure to stay with all of us for long. We often think, “Open defecation is not good for their health. We should raise awareness and stop it”. Similarly, we question infrastructural development without satisfying the basic needs. This experience gave us an insight into these issues.

On our way back, we stopped by a dry stream. VP Gunasekaran, a veteran tribal rights activist in this area, took us to the stream bed for a rich discussion on tribal rights and welfare, conservation, environmental degradation. The trip helped the children carry back a number of questions. As children entering into a new phase of life, these questions could help students from understanding the reality of many social and environmental problems.

I could not ask more as a teacher.