Sharmila Deo and Poornima Phadke, Kalpavriksh
Our hearts soared when a little schoolboy ran towards us with a metallic green wood-borer in his hands and displayed it proudly, taking immense care not to injure or let it fall when other boys crowded around it.
They were quick to point out its antennae and checked whether it indeed had two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs!
This was soon after we had seen a ﬁlm on insects screened in their classroom.
During discussions about various insects, some children had sheepishly admitted that they did enjoy tying strings to dragonﬂies and whirring them around. In fact, the dragonﬂy was known to them as the “Helicopter!” After learning a little more about insects, the children promised to forgo the ‘Helicopter game’ totally, as it eventually harms the insect, very often, fatally.
Though such immediate attitudinal changes are extremely rare, we like to think that this reaction was a result of a session on Insects, as part of the environment education programme that we have now been conducting for over three years in the Bhimashankar area in western Maharashtra.
Sustained intervention was needed
The idea took seed when Dr Parihar, the then Chief Conservator of Forests, expressed a need for sustained intervention in the Bhimashankar sanctuary area. He shared various issues linked to the sanctuary which included conservation, livelihoods, and education. Among the local communities, it was observed that the children are most affected and inﬂuenced by the rapid social, economic, and cultural changes the area is undergoing. The current education system has not been able to address the complex situation the children are in, that of living in forest areas, but faced with new aspirations. There is a disconnect between the local contexts and school curricula.
A holistic approach which looked at bridging this gap, along with village empowerment through awareness and capacity building resulted in two programmes, an Environment Education programme and a Conservation and Livelioods programme.
The approach and content of the environment education programme was discussed within Kalpavriksh members and since Kalpavriksh has developed and conducted locale speciﬁc environment education programmes (for Lakshadweep, BRT Hills, Karnataka and Ladakh) there was a lot of learning and experience to draw upon.
We started with an assessment of whether school principals of those areas really felt there was a need for an environment education programme. After having a discussion with them at the Tribal Department during their monthly meet where they ﬁlled up a questionnaire, there was a unanimous agreement that the children should be exposed to it.
An advisory team was formed within Kalpavriksh and we requested Poornima Phadke to join the programme. Poornima has been conducting many environmental sessions with children of Pune.
Municipal schools for over 12 years. Her teaching experience and a good hold over the local language proved useful for the programme. Permissions were sought from the Tribal department for starting the programme in the schools, and Concern India Foundation and Ruffords Small Grants supported it ﬁnancially. The programme began in 2008 with the students of Grades 7 and 8 in the schools for tribal children in Tokawade and Terungun villages.
A series of thematic workshops were planned, with a focus on awareness of the biodiversity present around their school premises, and within the sanctuary.
We started with topics most relevant to their daily lives – forests around their villages, the fauna and ﬂora present there, rivers, streams, slowly moving onto other ecosystems which are different from theirs, and how everything together makes up the environment.
We avoided the use of technical terms as far as possible, but tried to bring in the concepts through simple examples. For example, the concept of ‘sustainability’ was explained by discussions on honey extraction and how better practices of harvesting could ensure that there is least harm being caused to the bees, as compared to the practice of causing a ﬁre at the bottom of the hives. Similar interactions were held over topics of water, fuel wood, medicinal plants extraction, etc. Other than the activities and posters that we had produced, we also showed ﬁlms, slideshows, did art and craft sessions, outdoor games etc.
It took us a while to break the ice, as we realized that these children had little exposure to outsiders. There was a lot of hesitation to talk or respond as they had mainly interacted with their teachers and co-students on a daily basis, and their communities when they went home during vacations.
With time and experience we realized that not only were we ‘new’ people, but also spoke their language (Marathi) differently from theirs. The dialect, the vocabulary, was something that they were not used to.
However, after a few sessions, we began to comprehend each other and the enthusiasm in the children began to show.
These are pictures of various species of plants – trees, shrubs, herbs, creepers found in and around the sanctuary. Most cards have photos of the entire plant, and close-ups of leaves and fruits/fl owers. Some are commonly found, whereas some are rare. Some are used for their medicinal properties, other for fodder, and building. Some are ecologically important for insects, birds, etc.
The children are divided into small groups and each group is shown a card. They have to try and identify the plant without turning it around. They also share any information they might know about it.
This activity can be done with individuals too.
The objective is to familiarize children with the flora in and around their forests and villages.
Development of Teaching Material
Materials such as posters, cards, activity sheets, etc. were developed to aid various topics.
Although it is an excellent idea that the children and educators both use their innovative skills and develop material from whatever scarce resources might be available, it cannot take away from the fact that unlike in urban setups, these children really have extremely poor resources, and very little exposure outside of their areas.
The excitement and motivation that is created amongst the children whilst handling visually and content-wise interesting material makes it worth it.
A conscious decision taken for this programme from its inception was to train local youth to conduct the programme with the children. This was to ensure continuity of the programme after our intervention would cease. This was a part of our exit strategy for the programme. The educators get an honorarium for handling the workshops, thus adding to their livelihoods.
Separate trainings and ﬁeld trips are conducted to strengthen their knowledge base. A big challenge that we face is to ﬁnd and retain local educators for the programme. The ones that we inducted either had different capacities and were not enthused by the role, or had to move out eventually for further education or more lucrative job opportunities. At the time of writing this piece there are 2 persons, Chandrakant Langhiand Subhash Dolas, who have worked on the programme for over a year, and committed to at least another year.
Each workshop generally lasts for 2-3 hours, and is conducted by the local educators with support from KV members. It is a mix of activities based on some selected topic. For example, when we were discussing Birds, we did a slideshows on birds found in the area, followed by an outdoor trip conducted by an expert from Pune. The children were fascinated when he did his birdcalls, and a couple of times heard the Iora call back!
There was a quiz later on what they had seen and most of them drew the birds they had come across. They solved a crossword and played a card game called “Find my Mate”. Every workshop is eagerly looked forward to by the children as it is also a change from the monotony of classroom lectures.
When children visit homes during their vacations, they are encouraged to have dialogues with their community members on various aspects of biodiversity – be it the use and availability of medicinal plants, or local breeds of cattle, changes in cultivation patterns or any other topic which gives an idea into the pattern of an earlier lifestyle, and facilitates exchange between the traditional knowledge within the community, and the current situations on ground.
One of the biggest environmental issues in Bhimashankar is of the indiscriminate use and disposal of plastic in the sanctuary. Since one of the 12 prominent ‘jyotirlingas’ of India is located here, around the time of ‘Mahashivratri’ there is an inﬂux of pilgrims. Later, a huge amount of waste remains behind in the area.
It was around the time of the festival, that the children from Terungun and Tokawade Ashram schools wrote a letter to the District Collector and other ofﬁcials requesting them to implement the plastic ban within the sanctuary. They made paper bags and sent them along with the letters as a symbolic gesture for adopting alternatives. There was no response to their letter, nor was any action taken at the temple site.
After a few days, the Tokawade children wrote a follow-up letter to the same ofﬁcials, and demanded a response this time. The timing of the letter coincided with the ‘Shravan’month, when again pilgrims arrive in huge numbers. The children said in their letter that they would organise a ‘morcha’ if there is no response from ofﬁcials.
The Chief Conservator of Forests, MK Rao, acknowledged receiving both the letters, and has responded to them. In a meeting with Mr. Rao, he mentioned that he has already started discussions with various stakeholders in Bhimashankar like the Temple Trust, community members, shop owners etc to put a garbage disposal system in place. It was encouraging to know that the children’s consistent follow-up has resulted in some action starting off, however long the result may take.
The programme has now been extended to 2 other schools, one primary (Yelavli village), and the other secondary (Bhorgiri village).
We have started working on a simple handbook in Marathi which talks of the biodiversity and its conservation focusing on the Sahyadris, to be used by teachers, educators, and interested students.
The handbook is aimed to be used as a tool to conduct more such programmes in other schools through liaison with the Education / Tribal department, and other NGOs or institutes working with children.
For more information contact:
Kalpavriksh, Apt 5, Shree Dutta Krupa,
Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004
Ph: 020 25654239