Category Archives: travelogue

Why slick steps are not enough

Was in a great place called Auroville attending their first Tango festival, and had a fantastic time. Good dancers, eager beginners, good and bad natured people, all had their representatives in the mix of people present there. I had already written something about the dance itself some time ago. What the festival afforded me was an insight into the psychological aspects surrounding Tango, which go beyond the dance floor and into daily life as well.

The ultimate aim of any dance is to merge with the music completely and express what emotions the music evokes through your self. Couple dances add the complication that it is not only one person that has to do this, but two people at the same time. Tango, being completely improvised, adds yet another dimension of having to be in complete sync with what your partner is doing at any particular moment. If you learn the steps in advance, then only the music matters. Being in synchrony with your partner means letting her inside your head, and vice versa, and this can be quite unnerving. Though it is possible to dance a perfectly good tango without this psychological surrender, the experience is not quite the same.

It was not uncommon in the dances I attended in the evenings to see men exhibiting fantastic steps and good control over the dance. However, it was also common to see that the steps had nothing to do with what music was playing. One could see couples moving at 150 km/hour for a 30 km/hour song, violating the ‘ultimate aim’ of any dance. There were others who were musically inclined, but the necessity to show off still made them do smart steps in time to the music. One look at their partners and you could see them frowning all the time, trying desperately to keep in step with their ‘smart’ leaders and the music was completely secondary to them, which is a terrible thing to happen to a dancer. The dance looked attractive from the outside, but speaking to some of them afterward, it was clear that it was not very enjoyable from the inside.

Chemistry away from the dance floor seems to contribute something intangible but omnipresent in the dance. Those who are friendly, affectionate towards your off the dance floor tend to be excellent people to dance with, regardless of their technical capabilities. Having danced with a few people who were more interested about what was happening elsewhere rather than paying complete attention to the dance, Tango then becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. On the other hand, dancing with someone who is interested you as a person and not only as a dancer makes it possible to create something deep and intense with steps you learn in the first week of your Tango lessons. That tango allows you to create an instant connection even while dancing with a complete stranger is an added bonus, and something special about it. It is said (probably exaggerated) that women in Argentina won’t marry anyone unless they have danced a tango with him first. Looking back at Auroville, it is not hard to understand why.

So, how does this translate to real life? Tango is about being present in that moment, with that note playing, with this person you are dancing with, trying to make the moment as wonderful as possible for both. There is no ultimate aim. This is the reason that those who dance with some motive in mind, like impressing women or trying to find a soul mate, end up being unpleasant people to dance with. The only way to impress your partner or find your soul mate is to not try consciously. The awareness that you have found something/someone special comes to you only after the song is over. All you are doing by giving your 100% to this particular moment is painting an honest picture of yourself, which you can reflect upon and gain a better understanding of yourself.

Selco’s Lab, Ujire

Where it happens...

Finally had a chance to make it to the Selco Incubation Lab housed at SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire. It is a small place, with 2 full time employees (one of them a graduate of IISc). It is managed by a person named Anand Narayan, who is now a farmer (his previous profession being in the wireless industry in the US).

Anand (left) and the principal of SDMIT at Anand's farm

The main focus here is to bridge the technology gap at the ‘last mile’, as Anand puts it — Working with farmers, artisans, vendors to find out needs and coordinating with companies/institutions to get the technology part done. They do some in-house work, but have too few people and underfunded to do many things on their own. Since SELCO is a famous name throughout the world, they get numerous interns from places like Cambridge and MIT (Through the Engineers without Borders and such programs) who spend the summer developing interesting technologies, like cookstoves with thermoelectric generators which can be used to charge mobile phones and animal repulsion systems for coconut trees.

They also spend quite some effort field testing equipment like stoves and lighting and giving valuable feedback to the manufacturers. For example, they deployed LED lighting in barber shops, vegetable stores and found out the reasons why they are not preferred. A design student then tried to address the issues and came up with multiple innovative lamp designs to suit their needs.

Another area is water quality testing, and they do such tests for samples submitted from nearby areas (including from Veerendra Hegde’s home!). Some interesting things I spotted there:

Different cook stoves being tested -- no 'one size fits all' policy!
View of the lab...
Some of the people and stuff they worked on here...
Combined Solar/Biomass based dessicator -- used for local food processing, especially bananas
Rice dehusker

The commitment to make a difference in the lives of potentially thousands of people is quite inspiring, and to see people who worked on ‘high’ technology doing things that would be looked down upon as low-tech is a useful exemplar for all.

The good part is the strong focus on immediate deployment rather than to focus as a museum, and attempts to encourage local entrepreneurs to disseminate the products, which is far more sustainable than a donor-based approach.

It was an interesting experience, and hope to see more and more interesting things coming out of this place.

Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!

Birders!
Botanists!

They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!

Bahuguna in Melkote

Was pleasantly surprised by the news that Bahuguna was passing by Mysore and will be in Hosajeevana daari in Melkote (look in the map next to this post). An informal meeting was arranged and a few of us from Mysore were there.

The Bahugunas with Surendra Kaulagi

Bahuguna spoke for sometime and then there was a discussion with  the people, with questions ranging from the serious like his advice for the handling of the people’s movement in Chamalapura (the power plant nearby Mysore that was recently shelved) to the idiotic like ‘have you been threatened’, ‘why do you wear a turban’.

Sunderlal Bahuguna

One thing that immediately strikes you is how peaceful the man seems to be. The intensity and fire of a man who led what is probably the largest peoples movement in the Himalayas are not immediately seen in his calm, composed demeanour. He seems slow to irritation, considering how patiently and properly he handled even the most idiotic of questions. Vimla Ben, though she did not speak (atleast not into the mike) always had something to say to Sunderlal which he relayed to us. This in some ways confirms a long standing hunch, that activism that is grounded in inner strength, non-violence and compassion seems to be the only sustainable way to go about things as opposed to action based on anger, fear or insecurity which is the current, heavily glorified trend.

He understandably has no faith in the Government, which like every institution is primarily concerned with its own survival and hence favors the status quo. Thus, change can only be brought about by a concerted peoples movement along with ‘Eternal vigilance, the price of liberty’ (to paraphrase Bahuguna). He also made an interesting point about ‘replacing high learning with good behavior’, which I think should ring true for anyone who has observed the ‘well educated’ engineers and kind in Bangalore. Education, rather than acting as a liberating force, simply increases divisiveness and parochialism as people get more confident (arrongant?) due to academic and professional success, something that IISc has shown me since I joined.

Vimla Ben

He is never sarcastic during his speaking, something that I admire about most Gandhian leaders. Sarcasm seems to be a very useful device to show your intellect and attract attention and one can see plenty of this in Dawkins’ `The God Delusion’, which irritated me to no end. There seems to be some intrinsic problem with differentiating things as right or wrong with logic and condescension (which to me is what sarcasm is all about), as opposed to a the peaceful alternative of holding something as the Truth, backed by strong personal conviction and action. People like Bahuguna and Vimla Ben seem to be driven by a strong sense of Truth rather than a simplistic true/false logic. Truth, backed with a very strong ethical system derived from Gandhi can be a very strong force indeed as this couple has shown.

Contrary to the angst that postmodern thinkers seem to display when they worry about cultural relativism and ‘many Truths’, Bahuguna is supremely confident in his understanding of the same, of which there is only one to him. The Indian notion ‘One Truth with many faces’ seems to be a far more effective platform on which to build discussion and mutual understanding and action. Activism driven by Satya and Ahimsa seem to me to be the only kind in which there is no ‘collateral damage’.

Overall, it was a great learning experience and an inspirational one too. Below are some photographs taken along the way.

Fields along the way
Tree in Memory
View along the way
Random tree in full bloom
End of an interesting Day!

Timbaktu again

After nearly 5 months of postponement and conflicting schedules, managed to make my visit to Timbaktu last week. This was again with regards to the demo of my (ever!) prototype lighting system, which has somewhat matured now. As always, the takeback from Timbaktu is more than what one expects.

I was accompanied by Arun from the company I work with on this lighting project. He and I share common interests in education, especially at the primary levels and there are few places in the world where one can learn better about this than Timbaktu. This trip had two main takeaways: one in education and another in technology.

A view from the top
A view from the top

EDUCATION:

The Timbaktu school takes in only those children who are from an underprivileged background and those that the Government school rejects as failures. These children, from what I saw manage to do pretty well, atleast getting their 7th standard certificates which is definitely better than having none at all. Subba Raju, who has been in charge of the school program for more than a decade enumerates the following guidelines for providing children with a happy childhood:

  • Good Nutrition is something he seems completely convinced about. On analysis, this seems obvious, but I have not seen many educators speak as passionately about it as Subba Raju.
  • No-fear environment is another stress here. The children are rarely chided or restricted to things that they want to. It is usually difficult to find teachers in the classroom since they are with the children on the floor ! The children easily approach strangers like us and speak to us with what little English they have picked up (The medium of instruction is Telugu). It embarasses me sometimes to notice that small children have picked up English while I have not been able to learn any rudimentary Telugu. Their curiosity levels are extremely high and they will buzz around like bees if you are carrying any interesting looking gadget. Girls play cricket with the boys and are not ridiculed but treated with patience uncharacteristic of children their age. We witnessed a practice for a play which was written by the kids themselves with a little help, complete with songs set to popular tunes. They had been practicing it for 5 days, and one cannot but develop an inferiority complex looking at their proficiency within such a short span of time. Such observations strengthen my belief in the futility of externally imposed discipline and the power of autonomous learning. Remember, these are kids in the age 5-15!
  • Non competitive learning is another interesting feature of this place. One may balk at the idea, but at then end of the day, it is similar to eating wholesome food, whereas competitive learning is like a body-builder’s diet supplement. Picking a few ‘desirable’ traits and encouraging only these is doing a great injustice to our posterity. Such practices are sometimes supported by simple-minded appeals to evolution, but are undoubtedly harmful given our lack of understanding of a phenomenon as complex as human development. One can ask how such children do in the outside world, and unsurprisingly, given their fearless attitude they adapt extremely well. Contrary to conventional wisdom, non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to. Children are given ample choices to occupy themselves with, and choice available to individuals (not only economic) is increasingly being accepted as a metric of how developed a society is. Timbaktu no doubt qualifies as an extremely developed community.

The Timbaktu school is a must-visit pilgrimage for those interested in education of children and also for those who think starting their children on a IIT coaching class in 10th std is the best thing they can do.

TECHNOLOGY:

My association with Timbaktu and Ashok Rao’s lectures have gradually moulded my perspective on technology and its purpose. Technology is undoubtedly shaped by the cultural milieu it is surrounded by, and this is apparent if you listen to technical proposals from different cultural universes. IITB’s business plan competition awarded a 1 crore prize to a group which came up with an idea to make a more realistic simulator for automotive video games. The people in Timbaktu are more enthusiastic about a system that will help detect wild boar intrusions into fields. Like I had mentioned in a previous post,  Liberal thought left purpose for individuals to define for themselves. This sounds good in theory, but ground realities makes social purpose identical to what those with the most money think it should be. Which is why a video game simulator is more valuable than a boar detection system. Since technology has a high correlation to social purpose, it is hardly surprising that HDTVs, iPods, Mobile phones (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) generate a lot more interest, since the reigning social purpose is to pander to consumer preferences. Like a friend puts it “One rupee, one vote”.

With technological virtuosity being the order of the day, it is natural to think of villages as a primitive society where nothing ‘happens’. However, if one cosiders a hypothetical society where conserving the environment or promoting an equitable society was considered good, many of the technological artifacts that we consider as ‘cool’ turn out to be exactly the opposite. Timbaktu may be considered a ‘poor’ place, but will be exemplary in this hypothetical society. Technological development will take place in such a society, but in a direction that does not make too much sense in our present culture. It is my hope to further the technological boundaries of such a society.

Melkote: again!

We had been to Melkote again, but on a different mission, to discuss ways and means to rejuvenate Hosa Jeevana Dhari. For a brief introduction of the place and its people, see here. HJD had been embroiled in some internal issues and had reduced its activities to a minimal level. Now, the Koulagi family is back at the helm, and hope to do interesting things here again.

The meet was attended by around 10 people, all very experienced and focused to make life more tolerable for those that society ignores or worse, no longer tolerates. The agenda was this: HJD, started in the ’70s with a firm commitment to Sarvodaya, is now facing far stronger historical and social forces that define development and progress today. What can be its role in such a situation ?

The opening statements by everyone were concerned with issues of quantitative vs. qualitative work. Should the scale of the solution be large, or is it important to do something small, but in a more focused way was an issue which was grappled with, and a consensus was reached on the latter, given both the dominance of the present mainstream thinking as well as logistical difficulties. Considering that there are crises in all aspects of society – education, healthcare, agriculture, governance, equity, so on – Hosa Jeevana Dhari should literally try and show a hosa jeevana dhari (new way of life).

Another issue that concerned most present was the lack of examples for the younger generation to follow. If anyone reading this points toward Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata, please kill him (on rare occasions, her) on my behalf. Lack of role models both at home and outside at school/anywhere is making the idiot box more influential than it should be. A lack of a world view in children seems to be resulting in adults who are taught to pander their own whims without viewing their behavior from a broader perspective. For example, a liberal society today essentially means one with an unfettered market, without any qualifications or justifications. It is, therefore it is good. The moral implications are largely ignored. This is usually the case with philosophies which are administered by a clique of ‘high priests’, with a great incentive to keep people uncritical and ignorant.

HJD has had a long association with (organic) farming, and the agrarian crisis, reasons and experiences on the ground were discussed. Since it is well known that ideas have a greater chance of percolating when there is great change in society,  the participants saw the present situation as a premonition to times where alternatives will be actively sought for. Therefore, exemplars in HJD for a way of life that rests on principles radically different from the present modernity will serve the society well. All agreed that at present, intervention at a large scale is not possible, but ‘keeping the flame alive’ is what is essential. If someone comes looking for solutions, how confidently can HJD propose alternatives ? The answer lies in conviction and commitment to do the necessary groundwork to be able to propose realisitic, replicable and extant solutions, rather than just normative proposals with no material existence. The Gandhian allusion to ‘oceanic circles’ was used here (who used it in a different way), to visualise an exemplary HJD influencing melkote, and so on like ripples in the water.

Active propagation of the message of a sustainable life – one that is equitable, gender sensitive, harmonious with nature – was another aspect of the discussion. Many suggestions, including weekend workshops for urbanites, especially children and youth, Audio/Video material, books were put forward. Ideas about awareness campaigns among farmers were also thrown about. Many related their own experiences in the field, relating the difficulties they faced, and the opinion of the farmer or the urbanite which makes the present situation both difficult to change and difficult to sustain. People change their ways if they see a need for it and it helps them better their life.

Summarizing, one cannot but admit there is a crisis: people have been reduced to ‘essentially greedy’ individuals by our present system of economic organization, nature has become ‘capital’, life has boiled down to a chase for satisfying wants without any other purpose. Like one of the participants mentioned, until the European enlightenment, all civilizations had some purpose to life. Afterward, Evolution tells us that we are the product of years of random mutations of genes with no actual purpose, Bertrand Russell calls us bunch of atoms. Neither has ever been able to explain humans in their entirety, and the ‘high priest’ syndrome makes the people accept doctrines such as these uncritically.

Undoubtedly, there is a better way of looking at life. To know who we are and where we should go, we should always know where we came from. One can do worse than look at the thoughts of Gandhi and Kumarappa towards this end. Western notions of progress has lead to the highest rates of divorce and suicide in the so-called developed nations, and probably the highest density of god(con?)-men. Somehow, satisfying material wants ad infinitum does not seem to work. People somehow seem to want meaning/purpose, which modernity is not gracious with. To understand and translate and preserve for posterity alternative visions of what a civilization should be like is what HJD aims to do. To essentially create mentors and be one to society in a time when it is needed most. One wishes good luck and godspeed.

Melkote: Reflections – 2

Onto more people.

The scary-looking person in the photo is Dr. Deepak Malghan, who is currently writing an intellectual biography of J. C. Kumarappa, and was another speaker in the workshop. He isn’t as scary in real life, though his English is. Deepak’s specialty is giving a clear picture of things from a theoretical context, and he does it very well.

Deepak Malghan

The talk was called ‘Science, State, Market, Society and Ecology’ or something like that. His focus was on two main things: what science and technology in India is doing, and problems of linked to a poor definition of progress and development. The first part was more interesting, will elaborate.

Modern India can be said to stand on three pillars: State, Market and Society. The problem with science and technology in India seems to be that their main focus is either the State or the Market. The State angle is pretty clear: our former President has published only two scientific papers in his entire career, and the people praise him as a scientist. This is due to his being the head of DRDO, trying to make India self sufficient in methods to kill people (a deterrent, of course). One way progress is measured is by the amount of advanced weaponry a country has, which is directly a State interest.

The market angle is even more apparent: our best minds working to solve problems which will make sharper videos, clearer sound, ubiquitous connectivity, long lasting mobile phones etc., etc., Most of these are things are bought and sold in Western countries, and many proudly admit that their product ‘will touch the Indian market in only another 3-4 years’. A market trend may be indicative of people’s choice, but the crucial point is that it is the people’s choice weighed by the amount of money they have. Thus, more people work on making mobile phones into computers than making computers into catalysts for development. You will find almost 24-hour electricity in Bangalore where the big people have generators anyways than in a village during crucial examination times simply because Bangalore pays more rupees per kilowatt.

This is the centenary year of IISc and apparently there was a committee that was setup to research the Institute’s history and find the technologies that it had delivered to the Indian people. The result: zero (or very close to it). Being a publicly funded institution, this is not only shameful, but immoral. Deepak went to state that US universities are accountable to the societies that they are in, and actually solve problems faced in the society, unlike our boys in the IISc or IITs (less the mention of IIMs, the better). No audited reports of IISc are ever published, (unlike say, UC Berkeley) and insiders know what a farce auditing is. Now, if the premier institutions funded by taxpayer’s money cannot help solve problems that we face, then who are they accountable to ?

An extempore in the evening was by Prakash, an activist from Dakshina Kannada who happened to drop by. He looked at the issue from the lowest empirical view, saying that he was unable to see how the present trends of development can be stopped or even wether they should be stopped. His view that media is generating desires in a phenomenally large amount of people which aggregatively generate a tremendous force pushing development. Castes, Classes and Genders who were suppressed have suddenly found liberalization to work in their advantage. His question was: Once you give freedom to a people, how can you tell them not to do things ? How can you tell a girl kept down by athoritative parents not to elope ? How can you tell a Dalit boy not to wear fake Adidas and Ray-Bans ? How can you tell farmers not to buy fridges, bikes and other things they see on TV ? To Prakash, all critiques of development which do not take into consideration such issues are of little relevance.

I countered this thesis by raising the question of duties. All the points that he had raised were about rights, duties never figured even once anywhere. Forget about duties, what about consequences ? DDT may kill malaria bearing mosquitoes, but does a farmer know what it does to his environment and eventually to himself ? Would a person who has such knowledge use DDT ? As I have always maintained, India started on the development path without ever providing its citizens with the cultural skills to benefit most. As a result, most have suffered at the hands of a few. However one may criticize the development paradigm that the West put forth, it is a fact that the average life expectancy, income, social security there is far superior to anything here. The West had an advantage of a smaller population. If to reach similar Quality of Life as in the West we have to consume as much as they do, we will need a few more earths. Prakash’s views showed how dangerous it can be if one does not stop and look at the bigger picture once in a while.

Hosa Jeevana Dhari

This is the place where we stayed, and we got to see quite a few beautiful birds, including the rare to sight and beautiful Scarlet Minivet , Paradise Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher among others. Nice place to sit and reflect, and has been quite and experience.

Melkote: Reflections – 1

The students of our course in ICT4D and others from the MSW(Master’s in Social Work) had been for a 1.5 day workshop on Development in Melkote, near Mysore. An extremely beautiful place, we were situated in a place called Hosa Jeevana Dhari, which is one of the last remaining places where the ‘Sarvodaya‘ principle of Gandhi is being kept alive. It was run by a Gandhian named Surendra Kaulagi, and now by his son Santhosh Kaulagi. Surendra was a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan and one of few surviving people who has actually interacted with J. C. Kumarappa.

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Surendra Kaulagi and Ashok Rao

Ashok Rao (to the right) is the professor and head of the ICT4D program we study in. The program started with Ashok Rao introducing the issue, which is the need to deliberate on the much maligned word called ‘development’ which causes chills to run down the spines of tribals and the underprivileged classes, and discuss alternate sustainable paths. Unlike the IIM workshop, this one actually managed to answer some of the questions posed on the first day.

The starting talk, which Kaulagi delivered, talked about the two paradigms which are in front of us today: one is Manmohanomics and the other Kumarappa’s view of the same subject. No one disagrees with the fact that mainstream development which is represented by Manmohan Singh today is unsustainable, if nothing atleast because it is over-reliant on natural resources (there is also the issue of what individuals contribute to this, but that is for later). Nature is seen as something to be exploited for human welfare. Kumarappa proposed a radically different view, which placed nature at the centre of all development, and which allowed people who were closest to nature (agriculturists and the like) to live in dignity without having to bow down to the dictates of an insensitive market.

Kumarappa’s and Gandhi’s vision were ridiculed and eventually replaced by Western ideologies like socialism and liberalism, but Kaulagi mentioned that neither Gandhi nor Kumarappa were shakeable in their vision, and always maintained until the end that this was the correct way to get things done. The main take-away for me from this talk was the answer to the following question: why did Gandhi and Kumarappa hold so firm to what they believed in ? Did not J. S. Mill state that we don’t know the entire truth, and therefore should not impose our beliefs elsewhere? Kaulagi mentioned that this steadfastness comes from an intimate understanding of the empirical facts: Gandhi and Kumarappa had spent many a year roaming about India to understand it from a ‘earthworm view’, so to speak. Kaulagi is a living example of such a breed, and holds those views with clarity that a professor from Columbia had to make clear for the academic world, that too from India: Be an example while holding on steadfastly to your principles.

But if you notice, there is hardly any part of our academia or education which stresses the importance of this perspective. Professors of development would never have spent years understanding people by interacting with them, nor does our education make us understand things by making us do things with our hands. Development occurs with people stating facts and figures and surveys, not stating what the people who are the eventual ‘beneficiaries’ think or know or care about. In fact, there is an entire legion of academicians who think that they can athoritatively speak about subjects, especially those as sensitive as development without ever being close to their objects of study, and interacting with them only as statistics (Planning Commission and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, anyone ?).

This kind of ‘study’ can be justified when we look at people in terms of compartments: material and normative. The material well-being can hardly have much correlation with the normative space. However, if we are convinced that development in material well-being (however that may happen) is most important and forget that people also require a certain set of values (especially considering that we are social in nature) to live a good life, then we can do Manmohanomics without much ado. If we are to widen our epistemic scope, then things look different. If we say that human welfare is intimately related to money and more of it means better, then Bangalore is a shining example of perfect development. If we say that people need more than material well-being to lead a good life, then Timbaktu is a better example.

The values that economics holds is still the utilitarian type, which is extremely different from what other people hold. Therefore, when the fundamental reasons for material well-being ( fulfillment of higher needs) are different, it can hardly be the case that one can hold with conviction to his/her values when all initiatives seem to mysteriously not work as planned. It is like teaching programming to someone who wants to learn MS-Office because you are a passionate programmer. All your efforts at making your students excellent programmers will fail, and you begin to wonder whether programming is for everyone. If you had bothered to spend some time with your students, then you would have understood that they hold music and dance or something else more dear than learning C and C++.

People in academia shape policy by their grandiose pronouncements on society and individuals. Therefore, it is imperative that they spend enough time in the right places to gain the conviction that their approach and views are correct, rather than vacillating knowing that the only thing you know are numbers.

Travelogue – The Timbaktu Collective

Like I had mentioned in the previous post, am just back from a visit to a place close to Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh, called the Timbaktu Collective. It’s beginnings and philisophy are best read about on the website itself, will just narrate my experiences there.

After 2 hours by train to Bangalore and 5 hours of navigating somewhat substandard roads to Chennekothapalli, was picked up and packed off for some lunch at the school run by the Collective here.

The school has an interesting philosophy of no competition and no extracurriculars. No competition would mean no grading and exams and rankings, student progress is monitored via worksheets that they fill up regularly. No extracurriculars simply means that everything is in curriculum! They have daily crafts, singing and other arts, sports and studies which mainly focus on language and math. Their idea is that if a student masters a language well, then learning knowledge in that language will be facilitated. Most of the students here are from socially and economically backward backgrounds, and some with a history of family violence and others who have been rejected as failures in the local government school.

This is the only school that I have seen that actually encourages making paper rockets in class! The picture alongside is the classroom, The students being engaged in their song and dance practice.
Close by is a children’s learning centre, with a well furnished library, computers, tailoring machines, physics and chemistry labs, woodworking tools which the children not only of their own school, but the local government school as well can use. The only restriction is that there is no teaching here, if the students have doubts, they ask the elders present, else they essentially freak out in what which way they like.

The photo alongside is the students learning centre.
Timbaktu is slightly outside the village, and the person you see with the vehicle in the children’s learning centre, Mr. Subba Raju was my official guide and contact. A member of the Collective almost since its inception, he is a PhD in Power Systems from IIT Powai, and takes care of the educational initiatives here.

Playground, with a scenic view.

The reason I had visited Timbaktu was to demo a motion sensor based lighting system, like what is available commercially nowadays. They have installed LED based pathway lighting, which is left on the whole night. Considering that they run the whole Collective on solar power, anything that can cut consumption is welcome, and hence my proposal.

This is Subba Raju’s house in Timbaktu. Like everything else in Timbaktu, appropriate to the social, economic and environmental conditions found in this area, which boasts of being one of the driest places in Andhra Pradesh, with annual rainfall of 300mm. We reached at around 5 PM, and spent the rest of the evening demoing the system, as well as discussing LED lighting. After a great dinner which was well suited to my tastes (salty, not too spicy), talked a bit about how civilization is progressing and other miscellaneous heavy matters, and dropped off by round 10 PM to rest.

Another incredible initiative of the Collective has been the protection and regeneration of the forests around. The forests have been severely degraded due to forest fires, over grazing and wood-cutting. 15 years of protection have allowed Nature to regenerate the forests, unlike Forest Dept initiatives to bring in fast growing varieties from nurseries and plant them in foreign conditions. The contrast can be seen in the following photos. One is of a hill which is not protected and the other which is. Timbaktu takes care of an area of about 100 acres of forest, and supported an initiative of joint village ownership of forests on revenue wastelands which spans a mind-boggling 10,000 hectares. These forests have made streams perennial, revitalized the economy of artisans and forest produce harvesters as well as providing the local animals with shelter.

I left back for the other kind of reality the next day morning. On the whole, a very refreshing experience, with the added bonus of a kilo of really tasty chutney powder which was made that morning. Timbaktu is an interesting experiment to seek alternate forms of social organisation which are not necessarily parasitic upon the surrounding ecology. Though it will remain an experiment for atleast a few more decades, time will come when the lessons learnt here will be taken seriously by ‘advanced’ civilizations such as ours. Their entire outlook can be summarised by the next photo. As you might have guessed, this is the same stone that says ‘Welcome to Timbaktu’. You will see this on the way back.