Toor de Force in Ragi Fields

By Vidya Iyengar on Dec. 13, 2017 in Food and Water
From Farm to Classroom: Every Wednesday, students of Poorna Learning Centre cut, clean and cook for the whole school

With plots of their own where they grow and harvest ragi and toor dal, these young students in North Bengaluru are learning life lessons

Arindam Sharma (11) is not in the classroom on a Wednesday morning. Not one with benches, blackboard and chalk, anyway. Arindam is at a farm, along with 39 of his classmates (grade 4, 5 and 6) from Poorna Learning Centre, an alternative school in Sathanur village.

Armed with machetes and scissors, these kids are harvesting ragi that they have grown in plots allotted class-wise (30 x 15) at what used to be a barren farmland. No, they’re not training to be farmers. Instead, they’re getting Math lessons by measuring and dividing their plots of land with their feet; Geography lessons through the understanding that multicropping – growing ragi, toor dal and marigold together— will help them get a better yield; Science lessons by composting manure; Language lessons by singing along with two Kannada theatre artists who play the tambourine while harvesting the ragi. This is the Ragi Project, which the students started working on in June this year – where they learn to grow, harvest, and cook the cereal.

Put together by Pallavi Varma Patil, a faculty member at the Azim Premji University, it is a year-long experiment that uses the indigenous ragi, often considered “a poor man’s food”, to highlight the struggles of farmers, start a dialogue on caste, class, colour and gender, in addition to teaching the children traditional academic subjects.

Back at school, which is a 10-minute ride from the farm, another group of students are busy in the kitchen. From the toor dal and ragi that they’ve harvested, they’re preparing a community lunch for over 150 people comprising ragi mudde, rice, palak saaru, payasam from toor dal, potato palya and papad. “On Tuesdays, we go to the Yelahanka market with a budget of Rs3,000 to buy the vegetables we need. If we have money left over, we get some treats like ice-cream or candy,” says 13-year-old Chinua Pailoor.

In 2015, when the video of ‘Japanese lunch hour’ at Saitama City School in Japan went viral, people across India watched in awe as 6th grade students ate mashed potatoes made from produce grown on their farm; separated and cleaned milk cartons for recycling; did an inventory of the remaining food; did a health check and made sure the food was being served in hygienic conditions; picked up and served food to their classmates. They were learning life lessons during a 45-minute lunch hour, and it seems a few lucky children in Karnataka are doing the same at Poorna Learning Centre – only, via farming.

The Genesis

Varma Patil, whose daughter also studies at the school, put together a workshop on food and childhood memories at Poorna in April, thought the Ragi Project would fit right in at the school. She has been researching on theme-based teaching and Gandhian Basic Education. “I have been looking into how food-related courses are structured in universities across the world. A colleague of mine helps with social science-based activities at the school and suggested that food can be the focus of a couple of classroom exercises,” she says. 

Since June, the students have made weekly visits to the farm to inspect the growth of the dry-land crop for which they’ve set up drip irrigation. The entire process was organic – when they decided to grow ragi, they realised that a support staff had a farmland which wasn’t being used. Although the weed-filled barren land was initially a cause for concern, they later realised that there was no need to de-weed it. Instead, mulching would do the trick and retain moisture. “Not a single parent protested that their children are farming in the sun and quite literally getting their hands dirty,” Varma says.

Since Samay R (10) has started participating in The Ragi Project, his father, Channabasavan Gowda, has noticed his son’s renewed interest in their own farm near Nelamangala. He been egging his dad to plant ragi with a drip irrigation system at their own farm, something they are now working on. “At my school, we just learnt by rote names of various crops, their soil types and amount of rainfall. But Samay understands the process from sowing a seed to harvesting the crop and cooking it,” Gowda says.

In August, the students even visited Dr Narayana Reddy’s farm in Doddabalapur where they realised that they weren’t doing many things right. “Initially, we just thought we’d harvest ragi but later we realised that mixed cropping with toor dal will help us get a better yield,” Varma says. It turned out to be a practical science lesson for grade seven students who tested the soil to understand its composition. They’ve even grown legumes, which has helped fix the nitrogen content in the soil.
“Each class has been coming to the farm once a week to see how the crops are growing,” says Panchami Sunil Kumar, a young student. “It’s all in sync with our class lessons – the students have learnt types of soil, nutrition, setting up a drip irrigation system and even figured out that planting marigold can act an insect repellent. Also, we’re trying to dispel the notion that being a farmer has no dignity,” says Vasantha Kumari, who teaches Science, Chemistry and Biology at the school.

Fruit of Hard Work

Incidentally, this project was presented in the place-based education (learning from context) in Japan on December 6, and three schools (one in Bengaluru and two in Udaipur) have shown interest in encouraging their students to do the same. Saira Banu, principal of the school, says that she wants the students to understand that not everything they eat comes from the market. “They need to understand sustainability, simplicity and, quite literally, what it is to be down to earth,” she says.

But the biggest endorsement comes from the students themselves. Inchara R (9) says that from learning to grow crops to digging the soil and cutting the final crops – the experience has been nothing short of exciting. Panchami too shares a similar thought. “I was so excited after we potted ragi at school that I even tried to grow some at home,” she says.

First published by Bangalore Mirror



Story Tags: alternative education, alternative learning, agricultural biodiversity, agriculture, learning

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