You have dropped off the Pune - Ahmednagar highway near Shikrapur, and are approaching the village of Pabal. You ask for Vigyan Ashram run by Dr.Kalbag. They point to an attractive hillock. You are seduced by what you see. It is indeed a stark beauty promising of pure air and wild fragrances. But as you drive up, steel yourself: its a hard place, with little water or shade. A place that will make a younger man beat a quick retreat. Yet this is where 74 year old Srinath Kalbag has spent the last twenty years. Here, he has lived and worked to inspire kids that the conventional educational system dismisses. He has been leading them to science, skills, hope and enterprise. And his wife, Mira Kalbag has striven alongside him.
A tinkering family:
Srinath grew up in what was in the 1920's the wilds beyond the city of Bombay. "My father Seshagiri Narayan Kalbag had moved from Karnataka in search of a job. He had not even passed the matriculation. He managed to get into Killick Nixon as a clerk and in 1926, the only place he could afford to live was Ville Parle!," muses Srinath Kalbag.
Kalbag Sr. built a small house and had to provide water, sewage and power services himself. That made him and his two sons, inventive tinkerers. "My childhood memories are of being surrounded by tools and being part of home-improvement projects," says Srinath. Later, when he was rising in the corporate ladder, his annual holidays were devoted to stripping down and rebuilding cars!
By the time Srinath was a boy, the family fortunes had brightened: father owned the successful Popular Pharmacy on Lamington Road. Across the road was Popular Bookshop, with a number of do-it-yourself magazines from overseas. Srinath and his brother set up a laboratory at home to work on the projects they read. That their father was also the distributor for Bengal Chemicals helped getting the reagents easily.
"That's when I realised how odd our education system was. I easily scored high marks and yet was not required to do anything with my hands nor was I taught anything that my home-lab was teaching me. There I was, 'a bright student' who loved his class-work less and his home-experiments more," he says. His interest in 'hands-on' education began then.
A resolve at 27:
Expectedly Srinath Kalbag went on to achieve academic excellence. After B.Tech and M.Tech in Bombay he went to the University of Illinois for his doctorate in Food Chemistry. By then readings from Swami Vivekananda had begun a slow fire of passion within him: give something back to India.
Soon after marriage to Mira, he began his career at Hindusthan Lever, but the couple resolved that their 'material' life running a household was to be for a precise 27 years. Srinath was 27 then. They were when he was 54, to follow the classical Indian prescription of 'vanaprastharam' and begin to offer teaching and mentoring services.
His career at Lever's was after his own heart. He developed technologies, built special purpose machines and evaluated ideas. He rose to head the Engineering Sciences division. So, when on turning 54 he met Chairman Thomas and told him of his plan to retire early, the latter was aghast! A job at Lever's is juicy and most are sad to retire in full-time and here was a profitable asset wanting to quit early. Srinath was asked to reconsider, ponder shifting to other divisions or start something of his own within Lever's. Finally, reluctantly they let him go in 1983. Srinath and Mira were ready to keep their date with their commitment.
"It'd have been pointless to settle down in an affluent part of the countryside. I wanted to live somewhere where simple technical skills can solve long-standing problems and enthuse youngsters to learn them and gain from providing them as services," says Srinath.
He looked at many villages but drought prone Pabal in Pune District, with rain-fed agriculture and practically no cash income activities fitted the bill. He began to work on two fronts. He had been impressed by the mission of J P and Chitra Naik to universalise primary education in Maharashtra. Kalbag worked under them to redraw the public school system's syllabus to include hands-on education. 23 schools have now formally adopted his syllabus.
Simultaneously, Srinath Kalbag was struck by how school drop-outs were in fact clever kids. "The abiding myth is that kids stay off schools to help parents. The truth is they are leaving in droves because 'education' there is boring!" says Kalbag. "Teach them things to do and explain the potential of the idea as a career or a business, they won't leave you alone until you taught them all. They work long and hard at that sort of learning."
Thus was born Vigyan Ashram, a place where drop-outs live with their tinkerer Guru. They earn money as they help him with his projects. They also learn a basket of skills to take away after an year at the Ashram. The entire 5 acre campus of the Ashram was built by students working under master masons and other tradesmen. They learn from them and earn a wage. This 'earning' part is important as it motivates them and they begin to look at the world around them as a place full of opportunities. By contrast, most school children in India sit on a belt that moves with its sagging load of bored, hopefuls.
Learning by doing:
"Working with hands stimulates the mind," says Kalbag. "Look at all the structures in the campus, the labs, the dorm, the kitchen and others. They are admittedly slap-dash and amateurish. That is because they are results of students exploring usable technologies: ferro-cement, geodesic domes, welded window and door frames etc. They did the wiring, the plumbing and the painting. They earned the money that would have gone to contractors."
Kalbag and the Ashramites take an expensive product of great use in the countryside and reverse-engineer it. For example, a portable ground water locator kit costs Rs.25,000. This detects water resources by measuring earth resistance. Both the price and technology was beyond most kids. So Kalbag bought one, stripped it and remade a similar one for Rs.5000. The Ashram also teaches how easy it is to use. Many students buy one to take away at the end of their course and earn upto Rs.100,000 per year offering water location services. So far 52 pieces have been sold.
Or check this one out: a jeep is usually on top of the shopping list of most activity groups. Vigyan Ashram on the other hand, built its own using cast off jeep parts. It's a four wheel drive and cost Rs.60,000 and still runs errands for the campus. Students learn to maintain it and enhance it. Over the years it has evolved into a well proven product, christened MechBull. Vigyan Ashram sells detailed drawings to anyone wanting to make them. Farmers in Pune district haven't missed the price-value proposition of MechBull. Shantaram Shindade an ex-Ashramite has set up a work-shop in nearby Kanersar and has so far built 10 of these on order.
There are more success stories. Kasam Inamdar learnt to make geodesic domes here and has set up a business supplying them from Ladakh to Kanyakumari. Sindhu Borhade had dropped out of school after the 5th standard. After she got married, she came along with her husband to learn poultry keeping: today their business has a revenue of Rs.110,000 per month. Many students have learnt to assemble PCs on order. "They know where to buy all the components, assemble them, format the hard drive and install the operating system. Many of them may not have gone past the 8th standard in schools," says Kalbag. The youngest looking fellow in the photograph [bottom right of the four] is Sadhu Wagire, all of four and a half foot high. "He is a natural entrepreneur. He claims to be seventeen but I suspect he is far younger. He spent some time in the food processing section and got going. With my permission he has set up a soft drinks distribution business right here. He is a whole-seller. Every morning kids arrive at our gates to collect his branded drink, packed in pouches and off they go to sell them in the countryside. He takes cash. He says he's working on a new product: three spoon-fuls of ice cream in a micro-cup for Rs.2 ," marvels Kalbag.
Students also spend time in the class room, learning maths, communication, business, costing, management etc. They all learn to use computers to express themselves. Each student is expected to submit a presentation: it can be verbal or visual or both.
Old man on the peak:
Ashram life is frugal. Everyone eats the simple meals together, the Kalbags included. Water is scarce and comes in a trickle from the taps. Power is erratic. But life can be beautiful. Kalbag has written elsewhere: "The air is so much purer than that of Pune or Bombay. You get fragrances of neem flowers hundred meters away. The fragrance of the citrus trees in bloom is also striking. Somebody smoking several meters away can be felt. Such pure air, the pleasant night, the beautiful night sky and nice scenery, all around, particularly after the first few showers, the beautiful sunsets and the full moon are all pleasures that few people can enjoy in an urban area."
But it's a harsh, hot day today. Srinath Kalbag is on to the next project: a wireless information network for the district. Yes, Vigyan Ashram will be an Internet ISP with value added services! He puts on his cap and steps out to inspect the transmission tower being erected. "Mark my words: villagers will take to the Internet with aplomb and pay for the services if you can prove it helps their lives," he declares.
Later, when he has drunk in another glorious sunset and shared a simple meal with the staff and his wards, he will retire with his wife Mira --as he has done these twenty years-- to the 240 square feet self built, box cabin. To rise again tomorrow to fill knowledge and hope in the hearts of young Indians.
...You can suggest the year long course at Vigyan Ashram to the confused parents of kids who refuse to go school. It presently costs Rs.4000 per annum but students earn a minimum of Rs.1200 [ - and often more than that ] for the work they do there. Fee includes boarding and lodging but hostel accommodation is limited to 10 at the moment. There is no selection process as Dr.Kalbag believes everyone is 'teachable'. Having dropped-out would however be an added qualification!
...Typical of the man! Dr.Srinath Kalbag has comprehensively documented his experiences at Pabal and set out his thoughts on education for India's development. You can click here to read them.
...Dr. Srinath Kalbag received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1996 for services to the rural community.
Getting there: Pabal is 54kM from Pune. Go up to Shikrapur on the highway to Ahmednagar and turn left into the countryside. Pabal is 18kM away.
Dr. Srinath and Mira Kalbag
Pune District, Maharashtra
Phones: 020-5424580; 02138-52326 [mobile]
Contact in Pune: Yogesh Kulkarni: 98231- 25247