The hills are alive with the songs of change

By Mugdha TrifaleyonMar. 06, 2024in Energy

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

How Sahyadri School KFI is nourishing alternatives in education to revive students’ connections to the land 

Image: The tree outside the Shivneri dorm

As I walk up the school’s main slope to reach the centre, I see the first tree ever planted on this then-arid grazing land, now flourishing expansively. And, beside this historic tree, is a rope-swing. Every single swing on campus is tied to an overarching branch of a flowering tree, the leafy canopies enveloping in shade and serenity. These swings are freedom, companionship, a place of conversing in safety, and a space of growth and learning. They are social and introspective all at once. And my own connection, with my special tree outside my former dormitory, is still thriving as these trees grow ever larger.

We learn so much from the spaces that surround us, growing up; these are our contexts, our places of being. And Sahyadri School KFI is trying, in many different ways, to inculcate an emphatic sense of belonging in its students by grounding them within its biodiversity. The students of this school are an inherent part of this land, this space, as I have been across my life. This sense of belonging is manifested in many ways. Facilitated both by the teachers and the administration, its inclusion in the curriculum is a formalising of the same bonds that have been passed down through many grades and ages. But where do the practicalities come in? How do we understand this abstraction, the loaded words ‘sense of belonging’, and ensure this abstraction is deeply nurtured within the experiences of the students? What does its on-the-ground manifestation look like?  

The space for this grounding and the location of this article, Sahyadri School KFI (Krishnamurti Foundation India) was started in 1995. Nestled within the Sahyadri ranges, this school has been thriving and becoming a part of this landscape and surrounding communities since its 15+ years of existence. 

Tiwai Hill, its location, was not forested before the school was established here. It was an uphill struggle re-seeding the land devastated by continual grazing; Mr Dhananjay Gogate, Ex-Forest Officer, the person who started nurturing the campus’ current form, tells me that he first started planting with the trees Babool (Vachellia Nilotica), Amaltas (Cassia Fistula) and Sheesham (Dalbergia Sissoo), among others to then prepare the land for more diverse seeds such as Jaamun (Syzygium Cumini), Chikoo (Manilkara Zapota), Mango (Mangifera Indica), and Guava.

Mr Gogate standing beneath the first tree planted in the school

Its founding philosophy, based on Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings, is 

“giving the child the opportunity to flower in goodness so that he or she is rightly related to people, things and ideas, to the whole of life. To live is to be related.” 

This philosophy has taken many forms since the school’s establishment, including the following initiatives: 

  1. The LandCare group, a collective of teachers who have gathered every week to tie together the different initiatives being undertaken at various levels across campus. Started just before the Covid-19 lockdowns, the teachers’ prolonged presence at the campus renewed their own connections to the school, as well as gave them ideas for integrating these initiatives within the students’ curriculum These initiatives included the waste segregation stations set up across campus, and the electricity readings of each dormitory being mapped by the student residents over a given term (4 months), among others. 
  2. The Rural Outreach program was one such long-running project. Having already been chronicled in this Vikalp Sangam documentary, this program aims to equip the surrounding villages with natural farming methods through heritage seeds conservation programs on the school campus. They have multiple collaborations, with local Zilla Parishad schools in educational endeavours, awareness on rural health through medical camps, and the protection of forests along with the forest department.
  3. Socially Useful Productive Work, a requirement for the ICSE and ISC curricula, has a set number of hours to be utilised for integrating campus resources with the curriculum and skill building as part of project based learning. It has previously taken form in  middle school grades teaching pre-primary students English and craft skills such as hand-weaving. The students have also been learning about farming, water conservation, waste management, and energy conservation, among other practices on the school campus.  

The latest of these programmes is  the “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) program, steered by a group of educators interested in facilitating different initiatives around the school and fostering connections between the land, the ecosystem and the students for students of classes 9 and 11. Under ESD, these educators have initiated the following themes based on available resources on campus: 

  1.  Integrating the school’s biodiversity within the curriculum, through farming, mapping out plant diversity and similar projects
  2. The Campus Resource group exploring aspects of energy, water, food wastage, and natural construction on campus
  3. The Regenerative design group, which understands regenerative designs in nature aligning with human activities
  4. The Social Equity and Justice group, initiated by Prachi, which explores intangible heritage passed down through wisdom holders 
  5. The Heritage Seed conservation and Farming group, emerging from the Rural Outreach program 
  6. Herbal product making on campus, which has been anchored by Reena and Pradnya
  7. Examining case studies that link to their own curriculum, in more in-depth analyses of participatory democracy and ecology, for example. 
Grain planted in one of the school’s farms

The Education for Sustainable Development Club centrally integrated the Sustainable Development Goals, which the United Nations set themselves to achieve by 2030. By starting the ESD club in 2022, the LandCare group tested out their ideas and gauged what would interest the students; they realised that instilling this understanding  within the curriculum would take more than just a workshop, or something similar in short duration. Today, the 9th and 11th grade students (between ages 14-16) are in the midst of a second term with the newly formed ESD block, a mandated 2 hour space integrated into the curriculum, as a response to these shortcomings. 

The classes are suited to the age groups; centering on a hands-on approach, the Class 9th has been split into four groups, namely Biodiversity (planting and nurturing the varied groves created in and around the campus, such as the constellation grove), Resource Management (mapping the resources used by the campus community in daily needs such as water conservation and recycling, energy consumption, food waste, and natural building techniques), Herbal Medicine (using ingredients from the surrounding biodiversity and creating herbal skincare like kohls, chyawanprash and balms, inspired by Ayurveda), and READ (Regenerative and Ecological Approach in Designing, with projects such as hydroponic systems, energy generation through solar and cycling etc.). 

Class 11 has been conducting surveys across the nearby villages around lifestyle and issues around health and wellbeing (including the Covid-19 crisis and its after-effects). They are learning how to create questionnaires, collect data and subsequently present that data to reach a conclusion; a student tells me, 

“When we asked about Covid’s effects, we didn’t expect the answers to be so anticlimactic! We thought the pandemic would have affected everyone hugely, but to these communities, the only obvious change was having their kids home from school, but it did change how they prioritised their spending. It’s been a bit tiring to gather this data about healthcare and social issues, but I see the gaps that need to be filled, so I’m curious to see what sort of solutions we can give.” 

Specifically, the curricula try to promote interconnections between biodiversity, social equity, aspects of justice, and intangible heritage, along with the many small details of the campus surrounding these children. While this space is very nascent (having only started this year), there is potential in it bringing out more reciprocal relationships between the students and the surrounding communities.

As one of the environmental studies and biology teachers says: 

“If we as teachers and our students build this space consistently, we can effectively rebuild our personal relationships with the land surrounding us. And through this foundation of our renewal with nature, we could use this space for reflection and growth, extending into combating mental ill-health and rising anxiety regarding the mainstream. The city influence and the draw of the mainstream is very strong, especially seen through the frequent use of technology which often undermines these relationships, so this program is especially important at this juncture.” 

The children de-husking varieties of millets

Attending a class on seed biodiversity for the 9th grade students was a highlight of my visit. The children were excited to be out of the classroom, sharing with me what they had learned in their last class; they told me how they had been to the school farms and planted new seeds in the warm early morning sun. One chatty girl, straightening her crooked glasses, even expressed how “cow dung felt disgusting, but once you get past the smell, it’s really fun to see how it fertilises the plants!” They were now curious about the methods of harvesting these seeds and how the seeds were a part of their diet. 

The facilitator demonstrated de-husking many varieties of rice and millets, explaining the micro-level of a single seed being harvested to then expanding to the macro-level of global climate change, illuminating how millets are considered to be the most stable seeds in the coming years. When identifying the seeds, one boy was so excited to tell us what he knew that he often tripped over his answers when responding, even before Akka (an endearment translating to ‘elder sister)’ finished asking her questions! 

A hands-on demonstration of Akka blowing away the husk off a finger millet seed certainly seems to have paved the way for these children to be more interested in how grains and seeds impact the larger ecological context of the world we live in. Like the 11th graders’ class structure, this class has the potential to foster relationships between the students and their campus in a different way, understanding grounded traditions and knowledge of seeds and farming, combined with the larger effects of climate change.When coming to the campus biodiversity study curriculum, the question being addressed is: ‘how do we go beyond the utilities of trees as giving us food, oxygen and shelter, and look at their spaces within the larger ecosystem?’. Learning from the extensive ecological experiences of knowledgeable experts, the school has created a number of groves, including Bamboo, Mango, and Banana, among other fruits. The school has also planted a Sacred Grove, locally called Devrai (dev translating to God, and rai translating to forest), located in the centre of the campus on a hilltop. Traditionally, this is a grove conserved by local communities, since they consider it ‘sacred’. This idea is manifested in Sahyadri School to nurture biodiversity in alternative ways. Now, the school has the Nakshatravan (Constellation Grove), planted to reflect the constellations with each constellation represented by a particular plant, and has plans to create similar themed groves to proliferate this biodiversity through specific themes.

Different saplings planted in plots surrounding the campus

In a similar vein, the fruit and food grove nurtured by the farming team on  the banks of the river Bhima is a space for experimentation and encouraging seeding indigenous varieties of herbs, fruit and flowers (including Holy Basil, Ocimum Tenuiflorum, and Piper Betel, Piperaceae). These mimic the diversity that is found in forests rather than monoculture spaces, prioritising regenerative capabilities. 

Apart from the mainstays of the curriculum, the students also participate in extracurricular sessions. While there, we attended a few sessions out of a week-long workshop on birding, meant to explore the biodiversity of the campus in fuller detail.

The groves have begun to attract a variety of birds to the school campus for instance; they allow the children to examine the many different stages of cultivation, encouraging that same sense of belonging instilled through farm work, mapping social equity, bird-watching and seed de-husking. The Outreach program connects with this space in a very close way as well, interlinking with social equity and demonstrating regenerative livelihoods. 

However, the question that keeps coming to my mind is about the possibilities of more. The Education for Sustainable Development program has a solid foundation, of course; but can there be more space made for inclusivity? While the Outreach space has a marked capacity to include the surrounding villages, and the 11th grade’s interaction with the communities across the Bhima river has the possibilities of confronting diverse realities, there is the potential to make a concerted effort in expanding the program to be more radical and transformative on the ground. While the students have the potential to develop strong democratic processes, and a say in their curricula and topics of study, the ESD program can actually be the space to build this democratic process further as well. 

As an administrative officer of the school tells me: 

“What we are exploring is our relationship with nature and self. At a young age exploration and awareness of oneself in relation with daily experiences of natural elements such as light, water, energy, earth and fresh air in a collaborative learning environment (peers and curriculum) in a safe, secured and sensitive atmosphere lends itself to the possibility of touching something deeper.  Being attentive to such a learning environment has potential to touch upon something that is immeasurable and sacred. Knowledge and its acquisition is measurable, but can one explore ‘Learning without Teaching in the sense of doing away with Do’s and Don’t, Reward and Punishment etc ’, ‘Developing skills without Grading’, working at individual speeds and not against finishing deadlines, and learn to understand and map the sacredness of life itself?”  

For now, the focus is on encouraging free exploration: perhaps some initiatives will not be able to thrive, but whichever experiences are imparted, they matter, and will matter for the residents of this campus (just as that swing outside the dormitory was an integral part of my own connection to this land). This is a space for comprehension without judgement, facilitated by a sense of belonging, and forged through intimate connections with the land in part through recognising our part in the larger ecosystem and biodiversity. 

Students bird-watching

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