How many schools have a herbal garden, planted and tended by the students?
Well, this one does—in the Mudumalai National Forest, the G.R.G Memorial Matriculation Higher Secondary School lies on the Masinagudi Road.
We are there on Republic Day, which is January 26—this means that the younger students have the day off, though the high school age students do not.
The students are friendly and somewhat amused by our presence—or to be strictly accurate—they are not so much amused by Mr. Kumaravelu, as they are by me, the tall American with the camera.
Some are having a break, sitting on the grass, across a couple of pathways—they wave.
Others have just emerged from their classrooms, and seeing the camera, they, predictably, form themselves into rows. They smile.
Mr. Kumaravelu knows the school well. As Field Officer for the CPR Environmental Education Centre, which is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on the East Coast of India, he has spent the past fifteen or so years traveling around the schools in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty—still in the state of Tamil Nadu, but at the western most corner of the state.
The CPREEC, working along with state governments, organizes training programs for teachers, to integrate environmental education into the curricula—not just in Tamil Nadu—but throughout ten states in all of southern India–Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and the territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
These states have a total of around 360 million people, greater than the whole U.S population, and a lot of them (around 30%) are children, so instilling in these young people the concept that the planet earth is worth protecting is going to make a gigantic difference to the future.
There are, by the way, in case you were wandering, 1,652 languages and dialects spoken in India (according to Wikipedia – Demographics of India).
Teaching the teachers is the way the program is accomplished, with the far-reaching and practical focus of the CPREEC, under the guiding hand of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Honorary Director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which she founded, along with others, in 1966 and which in turn, jointly with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, then formed the CPREEC.
It would be hard to imagine a more significant role to play than that of inspiring the young people of India to value and care for the planet and the natural world.
A number of years ago, Mr. Kumaran, the Headmaster of the School brought together ten students from tribal families living in nearby villages and began to teach them. This was a big breakthrough since often the children of tribal families did not go to school at all, and many of their parents are still illiterate.
From this beginning the school has grown to 800 students, ranging from 4 to 5 year olds all the way up through high school.
Half of the students are from tribal backgrounds, and the teachers also are either local or tribal people.
Because the Nilgiris are hills—an incredibly beautiful area extending over the borders of the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala—tribal people sought refuge in these hills over the centuries, as the populations of the town and cities continued to expand across the valleys and the flat plains below.
The Nilgiris are remarkable too because they are cool in the baking heat of the Indian spring and summer. During colonial times, the British who were definitely looking for a cool spot, took over and developed the town now known as Ooty into a resort area. As mentioned in a previous blog, they also felt no qualms about taking over one of the most sacred temples of the Toda tribe and replacing it with a Church, now St. Steven’s.
At the school, 50% of the students graduate. The students do twelve years of schooling and then the girls go on to become teachers or nurses.
The boys learn to start small businesses. Remarkable progress is being made, particularly since, around hundred years ago, no Indian girls, not even from the upper classes, went to school. This lack of schooling for girls was due to the Moslem influence, which dominated parts of India, especially in the north, for hundreds of years. Original Indian society did not discriminate against women and girls.
Both the girls and the boys will have a good future. They will have learned to respect and value their own traditions, while at the same time being able to make a living as part of the modern world—thanks to the visionary and insightful programs of both this remarkable school and the CPREEC. They will value the planet and do their best to protect it, setting an example for all of us.
Photos and Video:
Video: Sharon St. Joan
Top photo: Sharon St.Joan / Glimpse of the Nilgiri Hills
Second photo: Nikhil Gangavane / A boy from another region of India.
Third photo: Nikhil Gangavane / A young girl from another region of India