The oldest of them was 13. The rest between 10 and 12. And barring 'panel discussions' on English television channels, there are few things more boring than a school 'debate'. Typically, you get articulate English-speakers aged 14-16, figuring out if "Gandhi is still relevant." Plus strung-together clichés delivered by rote. As chief guest at one of those, you suppress a sigh and wait for it to be over.
Here, I sat on the edge of my seat. The 10-13 year-olds were debating genetically modified crops. Both sides were brilliant. Each speaker knew her or his stuff and felt strongly about the issue. The content, the quality, the passion - these had to be seen and heard to be believed. So see and hear them yourselves in the video (above). The exchanges were often sharp, sometimes polemical, always civilised. Golden Rice, vitamin deficiencies, bollworms and other pests, organic farming, Cry genes, perverse pollination and contaminated crops. You name it, they weighed it. And how.
The debate's moderator was actually moderate, and very firm. She sat there with a stopwatch and speakers broke off midway through a sentence when she called time. We pondered asking the principal of the school if TV anchors could be granted admission in a re-education camp to be run by her students.
Many of the debaters here are first-generation English speakers. Yet they argued fluently in that language. (The full transcript of the GM debate is here ).
The larger theme of 'Project Day' at the Vidya Vanam school in Tamil Nadu was rice. And I learned stuff I'd never known, from a bunch of school kids aged between eight and 13. I did not know that the word 'Toyota' – so emblematic of automobile culture – had originated in agriculture. That it was originally 'Toyoda' and meant 'fertile' or 'bountiful paddy fields'. Or that the company's pioneers had dropped the 'd' and changed it to a 't' in order to delink themselves from the humble world of farming.
Nor did I know that Honda means 'original rice paddy'. Or 'source of the rice fields'. And if you're about to claim that you knew Nakasone means 'middle root', or that Fukuda means 'rich rice field', spare me. I didn’t. The children did, though. They had posters and sketches on this in their annual exhibition on Project Day.
Tiny guides also showed us around five micro plots on which they were growing paddy. And told us of the different varieties and varying stages of cultivation these were in. No prompting, unaccompanied by teachers. Some of them are the children of marginal farmers and landless labourers.
Project Day is special. So many of the poor, sometimes illiterate parents show up to see what their children have learned at a school where there are no prescribed textbooks. Vidya Vanam means ‘Learning in the Forest’. And that’s where it happens. This school of some 350 students from the Irula tribe and Adi Dravidar and poor OBC communities is located in Anaikatti, some 30 kilometres from Coimbatore, in the hills along the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. There is a school bus, yet some students cycle or come in on foot from great distances because they live in villages that buses cannot reach. Vidya Vanam has proved so popular with the Irulas that some families have moved to villages closer to the school.
Founded by Prema Rangachary some nine years ago, the school runs from kindergarten to Class 8. It is bilingual, she says. "The children learn in both Tamil and English till they are about eight years of age. Then we focus more on English." The latter because "that was the demand from the Irula tribals when I spoke to them of setting up a school here. They felt the lack of English disadvantaged their children vis a vis students from well-off backgrounds attending expensive English-medium schools." These parents could never afford such schools. Vidya Vanam is entirely free for Adivasis (who make up over half the student body) and Dalits. The rest pay Rs.200 a month.
Rangachary, 73, is founder-principal and director of the school. The students just call her 'paati' (grandmother). A signboard on the wall of her house in the campus says simply: 'Paati Veedu' (Grandma’s House).
She had asked me to be the chief guest at the Project Day event. To speak to the students and their parents and then tour the exhibition. Some survival instinct kicking in, I insisted on seeing the exhibition first, and did. Talking to those children without a sense of how much they already knew was an invitation to make an ass of yourself.
The exhibition, which filled a large hall and had at least 15-20 different sections, rescued me. Each table, every wall, was controlled by an excited group of students eager to share the knowledge (not just information) they had acquired on their subject. At one long table, visitors were offered small samplings of rice cooked in many ways and forms. (Yes, cooked by the children).
The teachers are interesting too. The majority of them are locals and several are from the Irula community itself. There are teachers from Santiniketan in West Bengal who cover the arts classes. And there are volunteer teachers from other states, and from overseas, who spend up to a year at Vidya Vanam. All this allows the students to experience different cultures. Children who have mostly never stepped out of Coimbatore district performed songs, dances and skits from very different parts of India. For an audience of mostly impoverished parents who might have lost a day’s wages to be there on Project Day.
Crazy as it seems, this school has no official recognition. Attempts to get Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) affiliation have been stymied. Though into its ninth academic year, the institution has so far been denied a no-objection certificate from the government. Go figure. And so the school in Tamil Nadu’s forests is yet to find its way out of the state’s bureaucratic jungle.