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Learning while Teaching: Environmental Education Through Action

2002, by Kuntala LAHIRI-DUTT

Being able to teach puts us on a higher ground and practically stops all conversation between the educators and the taught. This used to be the case in classical pedagogical situations. However, Environmental Education (EE) is a two-way process that changes continually. In EE, the concept is to build an interactive and dynamic knowledge-base that complements the scientific/expert ideas with diverse local or traditional wisdom which is often not contained with the generalism of science. Here is an example of EE through action – education, not only for the taught but also the educators learning from the traditional wisdom of local communities, making it a two-way process.

Rajendra Singh started his career as a government educator in one of the desert districts in the arid state of Rajasthan in the western part of India. In 1984 he resigned his job and, along with four other friends, set out for one of the poorest and dry regions of Rajasthan to live a ‘socially useful’ life teaching the villagers how to know about their environment. The hope of the young group was to put into practice many of the lessons written in books about how to provide EE to illiterate villagers. But defining a role for themselves in the village was not easy; it took them over three years before they came to be trusted by the people in the villages they chose to make their own. Rajendra’s objective was to reach the antim jan, the last person in the economic and social hierarchy, and help provide him build means of livelihood that is adapted to the environment and is sustainable. He found that agriculture in these arid villages was in complete disarray. Even a ‘big landlord’ family owning about 250 hectares of land could not rely on agricultural income alone and was dependent on the cash earnings of three of his grandsons who plied cycle rickshaws in far away big cities. This was not an isolated case; able bodied, working age-group males of most families had emigrated too in search of jobs and cash income, leaving behind the women, children and older people at home.

Due to repeated droughts, the farmers in this part of Rajasthan had all but given up agriculture, even as a means of subsistence. Those who were left in the villages depended on animal husbandry, but even milk yields were shrinking, as the pastures also became drought affected. Communities that were once proud farmers producing an abundance of crops and milk were not being adequately rewarded for either their hard work or their insights which had developed a rich legacy of biodiversity with an incredible array of seed varieties.

Rajendra’s plans of teaching environmental protection to poor villagers received a jolt when Mangu, an old man from one of the villages, confronted him angrily about propagating ideas that are culturally alien. He said “You educated young men – you talk a lot but do no work and have no idea how to look after the nature that once gave us prosperity”. Though taken aback, Rajendra replied with humility “I don’t know what work I should do. Why don’t you tell me?” “Will you do what I tell you to?” asked Mangu. “If so, bring a phavda and gaiti (two digging implements) and I will tell you how to start”.

Rajendra admits this conversation shook him up, but he decided he would ‘give it a go’. But there was heated discussion amongst the group of him and his friends that night. Two were convinced this particular village society was sick, irrational and need help from outsiders like them, but the other two and Rajendra decided to follow whatever this samaj (community) directs them to do. This led to a split and the first two left the group. The remaining three presented themselves next morning for Mangu’s directions. He told them to desilt the dried-up village pond. The three worked on it for seven months. When they began, no-one from the village would help, but slowly, seeing their commitment, people began to lend a hand. The result was when the monsoon rains did manage to reach the area, the pond not only filled up but led to a recharge of a neighboring pond. After then the trio were trusted and taken seriously. Their labor acted as a catalyst for galvanizing the village society to take charge of their own well-being and perform greater ‘miracles’ in the years to come. From long years of disempowerment, marginalization and impoverishment villagers had become demoralized, but now they see how they had become dependent on the government to show them the way.

Mangu said: “Now you don’t need to do any more manual work to prove yourself. From now on we will do our own work. You simply help us in figuring out ways to bring the young men who have left back to their homes and join together into making a better environment here”.

Mangu then showed the way to bring back the dying rivers and raise the lowered groundwater table. Under his guidance the village community along with Rajendra and his two friends undertook the building of a series of check dams, ponds and other small-scale water harvesting structures in the area. It took a couple of years and a several successful such works before the villagers had full trust and confidence in what they were doing. Throughout, the planning, decision-making and monitoring of all the earthworks were carried out by the local people themselves. They not only voluntarily contributed their labor but also bore the cost of the materials required for the repair of the ponds and the building of the sluice systems. Gradually the young people began to return from the cities and to give greater momentum to the work. Moreover the fame of these ponds spread to nearby villages and people came to witness this transformation in their environment and began to build similar water harvesting systems in their own villages.

Today, the villages in this part of Rajasthan have turned green with vegetation cover as the groundwater was recharged, the rejuvenated rivers and nullahs (creeks) remain full of water throughout the year, and soil erosion has been checked. The quality of life of the villagers has improved immensely. These were the reasons why the pastures had dried up and the agricultural land was degraded. About 35,000 check dams have been built in the region and about 500 sq. km of land has been completely re-greened. Villages like Nimbi that used to get lashed by violent sand storms and had turned into a dead desert have now begun to market crops grown locally. The now revived village community sat together and resolved to afforest the area; codes of moral restrictions and regulations were collectively evolved to prevent lopping or pruning of green branches and leaves or causing any other damage to the trees. It also decided not to grow water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and rice, and the total available water resources in the area rather than on individual whims would determine the crop choice.

Today, Rajendra has received the top award personally from the President of India as an exemplary environmental educator, and the example he set is being emulated in other parts of the country.

The story of Rajendra Singh and how he learnt from the indigenous wisdom of water conservation in the desert state of Rajasthan are known all over India. His experiences stand for a revolution he initiated – the revolution of putting people and local knowledge first and learning from them instead of just teaching. However, the example is also relevant to us as one because Rajendra, the urban educator, learned from Mangu, the illiterate villager some essential lessons about the environment. Scientific knowledge, as propounded in formal institutions of education, was enriched by indigenous knowledge, as evident from this case.

In this experience, we find several lessons. The first is the obvious one of Environmental Education helping to develop human competencies and communicating the message from one group to another. The second, more subtle, lesson is how an environmental educator can enrich his own experience through learning from local communities.