Published: 07th March 2018
Meenakshi Umesh's school teaches the one lesson no other school will teach — Survival
Meenakshi Umesh, Founder of Puvidham — Education for Sustainable Living and Rural Development talks about how she set up this one-of-a-kind school
When Meenakshi Umesh was studying in school, she was asked to write an essay on the topic 'My School', but she didn't write about her school. Instead, she wrote about the school she imagined she could study in — one without a rigid curriculum, classes, strict teachers or exams. And as you can expect, her teacher was not pleased and tore up her essay.
Years later, Meenakshi set up the school of her dreams, the Puvidham Learning Centre in Dharmapuri. The sole aim of the school is to make a child happy and it does a brilliant job of that. The school caters to the children of farmers and migrant labourers and teaches children how to value farming, the planet and life. But why did a woman from Mumbai set up a school in Dharmapuri?
The move Meenakshi grew up in Mumbai and from a very young age, she was affected by the poverty that she saw around her. When she was taken to the Dharavi slums as part of her degree course in architecture, she decided that she couldn't stand by and watch this widening disparity between the rich and the poor. "I couldn't believe that one could see the richest of people in one part of the city and the poorest of people in another. I couldn't understand why there was so much inequality in our way of living," says Meenakshi.
In her search to find more meaning in life, Meenakshi worked for many organisations; it was during one of these experiences that she met her husband Umesh, who was also in search of the same thing. She soon realised that the only way for her to be happy was to move back to the rural areas, far away from the rat race. So, she and her husband decided to buy some land in Dharmapuri — one of the driest parts of South India. "I felt that living in the city contributed to inequality and I did not want to be a part of that unfairness. I wanted to prove that it was possible to go back to your roots, go back to living in the rural areas. When people in villages see that city dweller can also choose to live in rural areas, they also realise that living in the city does not always mean that life gets better. It was a sort of reverse migration that we were trying," she explains.
We give a lot of priority to farming, so the students learn how to grow their own food, they are taught to value farming. They learn about being environment-friendly and they do fun things like singing and storytelling as well. The school functions with the due consent of the student unlike in regular schools, where they are often bullied into studying
Meenakshi Umesh, founder of Puvidham Learning Centre
The couple then got involved in developing farming techniques, encouraging farmers to take up organic farming and water harvesting. They grew dry crops on their two acres of land and also bought ten acres of a hill slope in order to regenerate a forest. Over the years they've had flourishing crops as well as crops that have completely failed due to excess rain or the lack of it. But in the last two decades, they've tried to develop new ways to make the land more fertile and have also educated the other farmers on these methods.
How Puvidham began
People usually say that a lot of their major life decisions have often happened by accident, but an accidental school? That has to be a first! Like previously mentioned, Meenakshi didn't really have a great schooling experience, so when she had her own children, she decided to homeschool them and on subjects that actually mattered. "I decided that there wouldn't be any rigorous curriculum, jam-packed classes or exams. There would be a big library of books, trees to climb and a lot of storytelling. We would learn languages in the morning and some Math and Science later in the afternoon. Sometimes, if they needed to take a nap, they could," explains Meenakshi.
One day, two boys with their grazing sheep were wandering close by and they happened to stumble upon Meenakshi's ‘school’. Intrigued by what she told them about the school, the two children arrived the next day with their parents asking if they could also join. So, along with her children, she began to teach seven other children. Soon, more and more parents landed on her doorstep, wanting their children to learn.
Started in 2000, the school now has a 100 students. "We give a lot of priority to farming, so the students learn how to grow their own food, they are taught to value farming. They learn about being environment-friendly and they do fun things like singing and storytelling as well. The school functions with the due consent of the student unlike in regular schools, where they are often bullied into studying," explains Meenakshi. "Basically, we want children to learn how to live in a place that lacks water, soil and financial resources," she adds. Since the number of students increased, Meenakshi also had to hire more teachers — the school now has ten teachers, all hailing from Dharmapuri.
Rooting out inequality
Since most of the children's parents move away to the cities to work because of droughts, Meenakshi also set up a hostel for some of the students. “It was eight children at first and now we have 30, so we've set up a small hostel. The students study here till the eighth standard and then move to a government school,” she says. Most of the children's parents are migrant workers or farmers, so the families don't make much money. Therefore, the fee charged depends on the income of the family. "We charge only one day’s worth of their salary," she says, humbly.
Dharmapuri is not unaccustomed to caste issues and Meenakshi and her husband take the effort to educate their neighbours on these issues as well, among other social issues. "We have made it very clear that children from all castes will study shoulder-to-shoulder in our classrooms and if anyone has a problem with that, we tell those parents that we cannot admit their child. We don't encourage any kind of discrimination here,” states Meenakshi, boldly.
It is true that many people yearn to go back to rural areas, go back to nature, but not many have the guts to do so especially since no one wants to part ways with comfort. Meenakshi must have faced at least a little difficulty with the move, right? Wrong, she says, "Difficulty is relative. I found it more difficult to look at poverty every day in the city. I am more comfortable here, enjoying every bit of my living. That's what we want to teach people too; we want to give people the power to look after themselves. We want to make people realise that they have the power to take care of themselves and they don't need to depend on material things to truly enjoy living."