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Lending a Hand at Harit Farm - A Tale of Ayurveda and Education in India

(Antoinette Maclachlan is a shiatsu and thai yoga massage practitioner living in New York City. In September 2006 she was invited to Lend- a-Hand India's gala event by her friend Jen Kagen. Since Antoinette was already planning a trip to India to visit Kerala and talk to young people for her Gandhigiri project. She volunteered to visit one of the IBT training centers started by Lend a hand India. Antoinette has now returned from her 6 week adventure and below is the story of her visit to "Harit Vigyan Ashram Vocational Training Center" at Vikramgad, A village 2 hours from Mumbai.)

Antoinette at Harit Farm

Mumbai By the Way
The ride from Mumbai's southern tip out to Sadyam Raheja Complex is a long one, my black and yellow cab hurtles at breakneck speeds through the Mumbai slums. Entire city districts built on sidewalks, mile after mile of two tier shacks, roofs covered in black or blue tarp to keep out the monsoon rains. Whole communities live here, there are men shaving, women combing each others hair, inside the sound of TV's, outside laundry strung up to dry in the fumes. Old ladies lie on plastic recliners by the roadside next to tethered goats or sleeping dogs. Mothers bathe children, kids play cricket in the street. These may be the slums of Mumbai but this is also a whole bright and vibrant community of people. There are local stores, bike repair shops, barbers and tailors shops. Many families have come to the city from rural areas looking for work, and bringing their roosters with them… now strutting proudly about on the city streets, crowing at the crack of dawn.

The city is bursting at the seams, urban migration is a growing problem, and the infrastructure cannot handle the swelling population. But the real problem is unemployment, especially in rural India, which is not only home to three quarters of India's massive population but also to 75% of those living under the poverty line. The school dropout rate is high, even those with a college education often find their academic skills do not translate into gainful employment. While the cities surge ahead with their IT revolution, what of the heartland of India? Only through rural regeneration can the issues of poverty, unemployment and urban migration be addressed. Is there a solution?

The people at Lend-A-Hand India and Vigyan Ashram think so, and statistics seem to confirm their belief. As is so often the case, education is the key, more specifically, the right approaches to education. Since their IBT (Introduction to Basic Technology) program started in the Pabal high school 10 years ago and in a 5-year pilot program in 20 schools, about 800 graduates have started businesses, 95% in their own villages. Now with the help of Lend-a-hand-India, "Project Plan 100" aims to take this program to 100 schools all over rural India by 2008. But the latest addition to this program is not a school; it is a farm, an organic ayurvedic farm to be precise. I am on my way to visit this farm and find out why.

Ayurveda at Camp Harit
After a number of death defying U-turns and hurried Hindi consultations with fellow cab drivers we finally arrive at Block 1B Sadyam Raheja a quiet complex on the outskirts of town with a view of the cityscape. Mr. Vinod Haritval is there to meet me. He is in the process of interviewing blind masseurs for the new Ayurvedic Center he is setting up here. I wait in the small but neat treatment room, examining the various bags of ayurvedic herbs and gazing at the miniature gold statue of Laxmi. At last we set off for the further hour or so drive out of Mumbai, it is a perfect opportunity to chat and learn more about the farm, and its connection with Lend-a-Hand.

Sita sorting herbs at Harit Farm

Mr. Vinod explains that the Ayurvedic Center and the farm are his after work projects. He grew up around herbs, (his father, grandfather and great grandfather were all Ayurvedic doctors) the organic herbs grown on his farm are for export as well as local consumption. Due to its cost effective and preventive nature, Ayurveda was always the medicine of choice in India, that is until the British popularized allopathic medicine. Now it is rising in popularity again, not only among foreigners seeking long term treatment for chronic diseases but also among more educated and affluent Indians wanting a more natural approach to medicine. Even the FDA is beginning to recognize Ayurveda as a medical science, it has just registered 286 medicines based on herbs, and 2 dozen of them are ayurvedic. In addition to growing the herbs Mr.Vinod also decided to open the farm to nature starved city dwellers, particularly children, with the idea of exposing them to nature and organic cultivation as well as the local tribal culture and traditions of the indigenous 'Warli' people. His three day package was such a success that 'Camp Harit' was born, with a facility to accommodate 40 people, an outside dining verandah, and fun on the farm for the whole family.

Ayurvedic Herbs growing up in Harit Farm

Enter Lend-a-Hand-India
Mr. Vinod has known Raj and Sunanda, the founders of Lend-A-Hand India for some time and been involved in promoting life-skill education opportunities for the rural poor along with other like-minded corporate executives such as Vik Atal, CEO, CitiCards. In one brainstorming session they came up with a brilliant idea. The limitations of setting up the IBT (Introduction to Basic Technology) training program in schools are that the facilities are only utilized 1 or 2 days in a week, the rest of the time they lie idle. Also the equipment is only available to children of that school and not to other groups who wish to study (like the whole generation of kids who drop out before 10th grade) By setting up a facility independent of the school, not only could there be multiple schools using it, but also courses for school dropouts or " refresher" courses. Since Harit farm is close to 3 schools it seemed like a perfect location, Mr.Vinod offered to provide the initial infrastructure and hardware if Vigyan Ashram and LAHI talked to the schools.

Girls sowing table top

Now the farm has been fully equipped and teachers trained they are able to offer all the modules that other centers run. So 2 ½ months ago the Harit Farm IBT facility came into being. To date one school from the neighborhood sends 2 classes, a total of about 160 children in all, 2 other schools in the vicinity are interested and it seems like another private school is being built right next to the farm. By bringing the children to the farm they get real life experience in the field! The idea is that the children can practice their new found skill with whatever work needs doing at the farm, whether it be agricultural or electrical wiring, carpentry or construction, it seems like a win win situation.

Carpentry Class

Arrival at Harit Farm
The traffic becomes scarce after turning off the main road down a dark country lane. There's no street lighting and more bright eyed dogs caught in the headlights than people. At last we reach the red painted gate to the farm and as we proceed down the dirt track a sprightly looking mutt appears running in front of the car, it's Mr. Vinod's dog Kalou, he's very excited to see us! Mr. Tiwari, the farm manager helps us unload in the fresh country air, we inspect the new 'guest house' that has just been built, and get settled. Under the light of the full moon I see the murals on the side of the farm buildings…. spiraling white triangular figures jumping out of an earthy red background. They're done by a local Warli artist, Mr.Vinod explains the next morning as he shows me around the farm buildings.

Warli Painting - Spiral Dance

From the 2nd floor rooftop verandah of the main building we survey the patchwork of fields bordered by the river, around 165 herbs grow indigenous to the area. At sunrise a mist still hangs over the dark fields, the sun's rays gradually warm the earth and the dark umber background of the murals come alive, bringing the whirling white figures into focus. The Warli paint using only 2 colors, the background, made from a mixture of mud, charcoal and cow dung, not only stains the buildings red but also acts as a kind of disinfectant, keeping out insects and vermin. The white figures are applied with a twig from a mixture of rice paste and tree-gum. The dancing triangular figures display all manner of village life, planting seeds, bullock carts ploughing fields, fishing in the river, round thatch-roofed villages and people dancing in a spiral to the music of their amazing 2 meter long pipe-like instrument. The paintings give the buildings a cheerful appearance; they become even more cheerful later in the morning when a row of children's chapelles appears outside.

Warli Painting - Peacock

By this time Mr.Vinod has returned to the city for work, car laden with herbs and medicines. While waiting for my translator Archana to arrive from Pune, I sit on the verandah sipping my "special' ayurvedic chai prepared by Mr. Tiwari using local herbs, with my new companion Kalou curled up at my feet watching the young people arrive. These are the 8th graders from Vikramgad High School; they travel from far and wide to get here. By 11 am they are all assembled and they stand, hands folded in namaste as class starts with a devotional prayer. There are 70 children in all, boys with close cropped hair, clean white shirts and beige pants, girls in royal blue or turquoise and white salwar kameez, red ribbons in their braided black hair. The morning starts with some theory, the children sit notebooks open, on the floor of the main building with its bamboo window shades and spectacular 'Warli' painting on the back wall.

About the IBT program and Plan 100
The IBT program was originally developed at Vigyan Ashram in the 1980's by Dr. Kalbag. Convinced that the bright eyed street kids he encountered were actually very smart, he wondered why there was a 90% school dropout rate by 10th standard. He noticed when these children worked in farms or factories with practical experience they learnt very quickly. He decided to start an educational experiment, and developed a basic training program based on a 'natural system of learning' for school dropouts in Pabal, a very ordinary Indian village where the dropout rate was high. The IBT vocational program proved such a success that it has received international acclaim, and MIT has selected Vigyan Ashram as one of 6 centers around the world to promote technology for rural development. The IBT program was replicated in 20 different rural high schools as a weekly class over a three year period from 8th - 10th standard, resulting in much higher standards and rate of employment, reduced drop out rate and 95% of graduates settling in their own villages.

Electrical Motor Demonstration

In June 2005 Sunanda visited India to identify successful and sustainable programs created by grass roots non-profit organizations. Recognizing the need to reach India's large population with workable solutions, it is Lend a Hand India's conscious approach to assist existing non-profit organizations amplify their successfully proven programs.
Vigyan Ashram's IBT model was selected for replication nationwide through project Plan 100. With this project Lend a hand India and Vigyan Ashram plan to start IBT centers in `100 high schools by 2008, training approximately 20,000 children with job and life skills.

Children watering the herbs

The IBT vocational program consists of 4 main divisions of study, Engineering, Energy and Environment, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, and Home and Health. Carpentry, construction, electrical wiring, plumbing, crops and cultivation, sanitation, disease control, cooking and domestic sciences are some of the areas covered. By giving the children a broad base in practical skills that relate to their environment not only does it increase their chances of employment, but also gives them preferential admission to courses of higher education. The 'learning by doing' method also increases confidence and creativity to the point that many students have gone on to start their own enterprises and invent or develop new technologies. When I met with the director of Vigyan Ashram, Yogesh Kulkani, he pointed out that India has a much bigger 'service sector' and repairs industry than we do in the west, items are repaired many times before they are discarded for new ones.

Kids at Work
After a lunch break in the open air dining verandah and time to wander in the fields, the children are put to work. They are divided into smaller groups, some work with Mr. Tiwari watering the herbs and checking their progress. Others are constructing a table, the girls measure and cut the chipboard while the engineering instructor shows the boys how to weld the frame.

Bloodgroup testing

As I speak to Mr. Rajendra Bhagat, the program co-coordinator he tells me that as part of Home and Health the children learn about vaccination and how to test blood groups. Did I want mine tested?? Sure, why not! One of the students is summoned, a tall pretty young girl called Sanajana Chitte. They sit me down and gather around. The girls fetch all the necessary lancets, 'Detol' and little bottles of chemicals and Sanajana expertly pricks one of my fingers to draw a drop of blood, which is carefully divided into 3 and mixed with different chemicals, until the result is obtained…. A+ she proudly announces, yes, I think so! Thanking her, I ask if she enjoys the Friday IBT classes, yes, she says with a big smile, they all like coming to the farm.

9th grade girls with Antoinette

Although the children seem happily engaged in their farm duties, they are all quite shy when it comes to talking, they are not used to a foreigner in their midst. But later in the evening when the children are gone Archana and I have dinner with 2 of the instructors, Ravindra Vajara and Vasant Kurkurte, they are both graduates of the Pabal program and are now teaching. So, how is the program going? It is early days, the program was only started in November 2006, but they think it is going well, although they admit there is a lot of material to get through and the children don't have as much practice time as they had at Pabal, which was a residential program. Still at least they gain a familiarity with the ideas. It remains to be seen after 3 years of IBT classes what a difference the program will make for these children, but if Pabal and the other schools are anything to go by it could give them that extra leg up on the ladder to employment that will mean the difference between being paid a living wage or being a farm or day laborer living under the poverty line. It may mean the difference between them staying in their own villages and finding jobs in the surrounding area instead of moving to the city slums in search of work.

Riding high...

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Here Vaibhav and Bhargav learn the art of heavy metal welding. Vaibhav failed his 9th grade exams in school. He never liked sitting in classrooms and listening to theoretical lectures but loves the focus on practical skills.


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