The possibilities of bamboo

Sujit Sinha and Nazrul Haque

Gandhiji’s beloved charkha was made of bamboo. This article outlines the possibility of using bamboo as one of the themes for school education in rural areas to go with Gandhi’s vision of self-sufficient, self-governing village communities.

bamboo-palm Mendha (Lekha) is a small village in Maharashtra where all community related decisions are unanimously taken by the gram sabha. This is an outstanding example where 105 families are negotiating and balancing between the two streams of ‘governance’: representative government in Delhi/Mumbai and participatory in their village. Here decisions are not taken by a majority but by consensus in the gram sabha (every adult villager is a member of the sabha and attendance is mandatory when some key decision has to be taken) and even if one villager does not agree, the sabha meets repeatedly till a consensus is reached. This working model of ‘self-governance’ is complemented by the forest resources owned by the community, a substantial portion of which is bamboo; and the villagers are managing their forest produce in a very transparent and equitable manner. They believe that they have enough to sustain everyone for now and for their future. However, village elders of Mendha are worried that the conventional system of education is not so useful for them. There must be appropriate ways to learn “how to live a good life” in the village and not only to migrate to cities. They ask: how can we teach our children to manage our resources in a better manner, thereby earning their livelihood, and also ensuring sustainability and biodiversity? How can the students do much of their school learning through productive work? These questions are not unique to Mendha alone: all over India, many teachers, parents, and communities are bothered about what should go into the school curriculum to make education more meaningful and contextual for children.

Gandhi had an answer to some of these concerns; he proposed a model in 1937 and called it nai talim or basic education. For him, nai talim, with hands-on productive work as the central pedagogy in schools, was a tool to realise an ideal society. As Krishna Kumar argues, “Basic education was an embodiment of Gandhi’s perception of an ideal society as one consisting of small, self-reliant communities. To him, Indian villages were capable of becoming such communities; indeed, he believed that Indian villages were historically self-reliant, and the great task now was to restore their autonomy and to create the conditions necessary for economic self-sufficiency and political dignity in villages.”

Would a nai talim today, for thousands of villages in India, involve school children learning through productive work around bamboo? For forest based villages like Mendha, bamboo is a major economic resource. An estimated 8.96 million ha forest area, which is approximately one third of India’s forest cover contains bamboo. It grows practically all over India and we have a rich bamboo diversity with 124 indigenous and exotic species found naturally and/or under cultivation. Although dwindling in many parts of India due to over exploitation, bamboo still plays a major role in the livelihood of many rural people.

Sujit Sinha has worked in a rural NGO in West Bengal for 20 years where some experiments were done with adolescents to see what they can do to solve their own life and livelihood issues. He is currently a faculty at Azim Premji University, teaching courses on the relevance of Gandhi and Tagore today. He can be reached at sujit.sinha@apu.edu.in.

Nazrul Haque works at Azim Premji University and is generally interested in Gandhian alternatives to development. She can be reached at nazrul.haque@apu.edu.in.

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