In 2019-20, I was a Sustainable Living fellow at Bhoomi College in Bangalore. As the fellowship neared completion, for the first time in my life, I felt I did not want the learning to stop. As the fellows put together their year-end presentations, I wondered why I had enjoyed this experience so much more than any of my previous educational experiences. Why did this learning feel so complete?
As I reminisced about everything that we had done during the fellowship, I realized what a beautifully designed curriculum it had been! A truly holistic approach that made learning such an enjoyable process. The word holistic, in its simplest terms, is to ‘look at the whole and not in parts’. Or to give your attention to an entire process, not just focus on the end result. We are awakening to the need to adopt this holistic approach in many fields: medicine, management, lifestyle and especially education.
Today, most of our mainstream education focus on students’ mental abilities, reading and writing skills. There is a rigid curriculum that needs to be completed, a certain pressure when it comes to excelling at examinations and assignments. While this system has been efficient at creating educated people with a set of desired proficiencies, the teaching methods have not paid adequate attention to recognizing and promoting the diversity of talents of every individual. To impart holistic education, the curriculum in educational spaces needs to encompass the mind, body and the emotional well-being of the individual.
At Bhoomi College, diversity was not only accepted but celebrated. Each of us was recognized as an individual with unique talents and gifts. Time was invested on activities that led to strengthening of relationships with each other, which in turn built a strong sense of community within the group of fellows. Learning happened primarily through conversations and exchange of ideas rather than a lecturer doing all the talking. Learning was also collaborative rather than competitive. Everyone got a chance to shine, as each did what s/he was best at. In addition to classroom teaching, our learnings were always paired with hands-on work and field visits.
We had an extensive food and farming module as food forms the backbone of sustainability. Nearly 15 – 20 farmers came in as facilitators to share their experience of what it is to grow food. We went on 3-day visit to a 20-acre farm and actually tilled the land and learnt farming techniques with an organic farmer. When you experience a subject up close you start seeing the processes that are involved in it. And when you feel, you do. You care enough to make an effort. Then it is no longer just an intellectual act. Armed with this awareness, we are more likely to respond to the plight of the farmers and also value the food that is on the plate. As consumers, we will make choices that will not deprive farmers of their livelihoods. Inspired by the first-hand experience, many of us from the batch have started growing food in our terraces and balconies!
This pattern of learning was consistent throughout the fellowship. Be it water, waste, textiles, soil, energy or even communication/journalism. It was primarily making connections, joining the dots and experiencing things ourselves. We were not thinking of grades or exams or who was going to top the class. It’s difficult to top anyone if you sit in a circle and not in rows. There was a lot of rigor required but most of it came from within. Fellows immersed themselves in to aspects of the curriculum that they well felt driven to pursue. Nobody felt inadequate as there was acceptance of our differences and value for our individual abilities.
Isn’t this how education should be, I thought to myself. Should we not focus on creating individuals who are part of the process but in a way that they do not jeopardize the delicate balance of the system? Holistic education from an early age will make us holistic thinkers in all that we do. To think holistically, there needs to be a degree of awareness, curiosity and ingrained compassion. Moulded by this philosophy, it would become a natural state of mind for a person to evaluate the implications of one’s choices in everything that s/he does.
A holistic thinker thinks not only of personal growth, but also on one’s personal relations, on society, on the weakest link in the chain, on the environment, on the present and on the future.
Seeing Beyond the Visible
We are surrounded by things. Take a minute and mentally go through all the things - instruments, utensils, cosmetics, furniture - that you have used since the morning. A minute won’t be enough! We take the presence of things in our life for granted. Need water? Here’s a bottle. Hungry? Buy one of the thousands of immediately consumable products - just open and eat. Need a new dress? Go online and you can order not just clothes but almost anything under the sun. Everything is so attainable, so easily delivered at your doorstep, provided you can afford it of course. This convenience has certainly made our lives easier but it has also made us very reckless with how we treat those very things.
When we look at a piece of furniture, let’s say a chair, we are more likely to see the colour of the cushions on it, the shine of the wood polish, the pillows on the back and the angles of the joints. Now look at a chair in your house and try to see the tree that it came from, the axe that dealt a fatal blow to it, the carpenter who crafted that wood into the chair, the cotton in the soft cushioning of the chair, the field it has come from, the hands that plucked it, and wove it into thread, the loom that made the pretty texture you find oh so comfy, the colours that dyed the textile into the one you see in front of you (perhaps a little faded from use). See the labour and hours that have gone into putting all this together across so many parts of the county, maybe even the world, so that you have a chair to sit on. Do you think you will ever be able to see that chair the same way again? As just an object, one of a set of 2 or 4 or 6?
Photo Courtesy : Farm 2 Static (flicr)
This is the difference between just looking at something and perceiving an object versus seeing beyond the visible at the processes that have gone into the making of the object. You can take this exercise a step further and think about what happens to the chair after it becomes old and rickety or goes out of fashion or you simply decide it’s time for some new furniture. It goes out with the trash. Maybe a kabadiwala* takes it home, maybe the garbage truck does. It sits in a landfill now. A few decades later it’s still there, the polish on the wood and the dye on the cushions leaching toxic chemicals into the soil, the wood never having a chance to decompose as more and more garbage is added to the pile, the cotton of the cushioning salvaged long ago by waste pickers to get a nominal price for it. Will you still throw it in the trash? Will you now use it for as long as you can, show the rickety joints some love and care and make them sturdy again? Will you at least donate it so that someone less fortunate than you can add some furniture to their little home?
We forget so easily how the things we use and take for granted that the product need labour of dozens of people and was made from raw materials that have taken nature eons to grow. Today, it is more likely that the chair came from a plantation and a machine instead of a forest and a carpenter’s handiwork. This is part of the reason why it is so easy to disconnect ourselves from our things, because everything is mass produced and nothing is special. This makes me wonder about people though, how we see each other. We are all products of a factory-like education system, conditioned to strive to one ideal. Just like our chairs, we have forgotten that we can be special and maybe that’s why it is so easy to not smile at strangers, to not be affected by the cruelty in the world nor be moved by tales of love and joy.
Take a minute and stand before a mirror. Look into your eyes. What would life be like if you were able to see, really see the history, the struggles, the highs and the lows that have gone into making the beautiful human being that stands in front of you?
*kabaadiwalas are people who go door to door with little hand-drawn carts to collect reusable or recyclable items. This is how they make their living, although they are now becoming a rare sight in urban India.
Walking the Talk
My aim of interning with SWMRT (Solid Waste Management Round Table) was to understand sustainable decentralized solid waste management practices in residential communities. As part of the internship I had the opportunity to visit multiple waste processing centres to learn and observe the processes implemented there and the challenges faced in sustaining them. For all the visits I was the only team member there which not only made me solely responsible for documentation and research but also allowed me to explore freely at my own pace and on my own terms. During this journey I interacted with multiple stakeholders; from the ones ideating waste management models to the ones working on the ground in implementing them. It was quite inspiring to know their stories and the persistence required to continue with the projects. The interactions helped me to engage with my fear of conversing with new set of people and pushed me out of my comfort zone while trying to set the ground for establishing connect within limited time. It was encouraging and heartening to observe that with every visit I could be at ease a little more. Over time, the questions I asked and the observations I made evolved which helped me to assimilate information provided in a more wholesome manner.
This exposure and experience has been rewarding not just in terms of the technical know-how of the topic at hand but also helped me grow personally. There was a heightened sense of conscience and empathy by the end of the internship journey for me. Through my interactions with the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) workers, I realized that a sizeable proportion of them were migrants. Most of them were into agriculture back home but due to lack of rains and other realities of modern day agriculture, they had ended up in Bangalore, primarily in search of opportunities that could provide them with some income. It was disheartening to see the conditions in which they had to work and how little gratitude was extended to them given the pivotal role they play in keeping our city clean. Sometimes at the cost of their health. All these first-hand experiences made me cognizant of my privilege and how be more mindful of the consumption choices that I make.
I believe that sustainable waste management does not feature highly in our government’s priorities. The hope therefore is the citizens’ groups I encountered during my visits take up the responsibility of coming up with solutions to tackle waste in their communities, implement them in collaboration with BBMP and monitor regularly to sustain them. They should also work with the government to take necessary action and hold them accountable.
Having seen the current state of affairs and the scope of work required in the waste management sector, my drive to create awareness and work has been reinforced and renewed. I was glad that I could bring in the idea of ‘slowing down’ during this internship into my work while being conscious about not compromising on meeting deadlines and commitments. Overall, the internship for a fruitful and positive experience that I would recommend to others interested in waste management.