Nestled in the lush embrace of nature, Assam, a state from the north-eastern part of India, boasts of a rich and vibrant biodiversity. However its landscape and social fabric is threatened by the annual occurrence of violent floods, ravaging the lives of many. The torrential rains during the monsoon, the volatile nature of the Brahmaputra river owing to excessive siltation over the years and its bank erosion, the opening of dams from the neighbouring Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh contributes to the brutal floods in the state, leaving many low lying areas inundated and waterlogged for several months. This has crippled many communities, further compounding their poverty.
DISPECS (Disaster Prepared Community Spaces), in its quest to build resilience for the most vulnerable against the wrath of natural disasters and the climate crisis, has selected the state of Assam to pilot their intervention. Therefore, the team embarked on a three week expedition in the months of July and August to understand the nature of the annual occurrence of the floods and the impact on its landscape and people. The team also met and engaged with several grassroots organisations within the state who DISPECS could potentially partner with to deploy the project within vulnerable communities who annually battle the forces of the floods. The team met with several communities from Morigaon, Majuli and Nalbari districts who bear the heaviest brunt of the floods. Several focus group discussions were conducted to explore the complex challenges and resilience factors to the recurring disaster and the dire need for sustainable solutions.
While fatalities may no longer serve as a pressing concern today, the unprecedented floods bring forth catastrophic consequences that impact myriad aspects of people’s lives. Because floods are such a frequent occurrence, communities have informal early warning systems in place, leading them to evacuate and set up camp in the highways and embankments during the period of inundation. With little to no government assistance, makeshift shelters using tin roofs of their houses become their refuge for months. With hand pumps submerged and food supply being cut off, access to basic necessities like nutritious food and clean water becomes a pressing dilemma. This leads to rationing of food by reducing their consumption to once a day and boiling the contaminated flood water for drinking purposes. The contaminated water is also used for other daily uses like bathing, washing of hands, clothes and utensils. Open defecation on the murky waters becomes the need of the hour as latrines are submerged. This leads to a host of diseases and health issues like flu, diarrhoea, cholera and rashes. Mobility is restricted in these trying times with boats being the sole mode of transportation. These boats are used to travel far and wide to hospitals for addressing their health concerns.
Being a traditionally agrarian community, the annual occurrence of floods has proven to be a bane for paddy cultivation, leaving local communities in precarity to make a living and earn scraps through wage labour and migration to metropolitan cities. With the floods jeopardising agricultural production, local farmers learnt to adapt to it by harvesting the Ahu paddy (autumn rice) by May, wherein it is traditionally harvested much later by the month of July. Similarly, there is an increase in the production of boro paddy (summer rice) which is sown in November and harvested by May. However, the erratic patterns of rainfall have prolonged the period of flooding with floods arriving as early as May. This has left people helpless, upending their lives and livelihoods.
Despite floods being a cyclical issue, the measures taken by the government to address it have remained largely insufficient. The solutions deployed are makeshift, akin to applying band aid to a wound. While infrastructural efforts like building of embankments, usage of geo bags and porcupines for preventing river bank erosion, and building raised latrines and tubewells, are notable, it is still not enough to address the gravity of the problem. These initiatives firstly, are not universally implemented throughout the state and secondly, they fall short in terms of their efficacy in providing a long term solution. Due to the inadequacy of preparedness strategies, there is an urgent demand for relief with the most vulnerable being entirely dependent on it. However, even relief is subpar and miniscule, with many communities located in remote areas not receiving it at all.
While the local communities have developed their own resilience over time, the resilience, while notable, functions at a bare minimum level of basic and meagre survival. Resilience must cater to building self-sufficiency and agency and this resilience should transcend basic survival where communities are able to withstand, and adapt in the adversity of floods. Therefore, a multifaceted and sustainable approach is the need of the hour where the affected communities first must possess the power and the capacity to become the first responders to the disasters they habitually experience.
DISPECS takes a unique approach to disaster preparedness where preparedness exceeds basic training and addresses multiple areas of breakdown of a disaster. Here, communities embrace disaster preparedness and response as a fundamental aspect of their behaviour by integrating into their daily routine and habits. This is done by introducing incentives that possess economic, cultural and/or social value for the community, during the peacetime (period of no disaster) which encourage the adoption of the behaviour and thus making it sustainable. Through these practices, communities acquire the skills, knowledge and capacity that aid them in responding to natural calamities.
Rife with stories of loss, sorrows, hope, and resilience, this expedition has been a deeply eye opening and enriching experience. Humbled, the DISPECS team looks forward to piloting the intervention in Assam, working together with the most vulnerable communities, to build lasting resilience to the perilous floods.
Author – Kareena Bordoloi
Edited by – Aagam Shah
The educational landscape in itself is a vast terrain and necessitates contextual variation in our understanding of ‘what works’ to ‘fix’ education. While there is recognition of an educational crisis, in much of the ‘Global South’, conversations around solutions typically invoke images of all children having equal access to school and receiving grade-appropriate instruction. Beyond broadening access, the pursuit of ‘quality education’ includes comprehension of curriculum, which then serves as a base for progression in schools and achieving desired outcomes of education, with preparedness for the workforce receiving priority.
The linkage between schooling and employment has become so dominant that it has taken the form of what French Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, famously termed ‘doxa’ or “unchallenged, taken-for granted assumptions” (Gaventa, 2003) that are prevalent in society. To clarify, we do not disagree that education is a powerful equalizer or that one of the pathways of education is employment. The concern, rather, is an ‘unchallenged’ understanding of the outcomes of a ‘good’ education and the dominance of a singular truth – i.e. that educational systems are only efficient when they ultimately produce employable individuals.
Challenging doxa is no easy task. It requires a fundamental shift in understanding the plurality of educational pathways and outcomes that have existed long before institutionalized education. Alternatives do exist. However, the dominance of Montessoris, Sudburys, and Summerhills within alternate education has created a perception that seeking these pathways is accessible to a privileged few, predominantly located in affluent nations. To date, examples of alternate education in developing nations are scarce. But it is precisely where more imagination and experimentation is needed to challenge the growing pace of ecological breakdown, democratic backsliding and fragmentation of society.
Six years ago, Project DEFY, an India-based non-profit, began showing that alternate visions of education can flourish in under-resourced environments and create a form of learning that responds to many of these challenges by re-centring local and contextual knowledge. Through alternate learning spaces called ‘Nooks’, individuals of all age groups, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds, work together to build a community of learners that traverse a journey of collective learning and social consciousness. At a Nook, a learner is free to choose their area of interest and explore it deeply using resources ranging from the internet to technology, equipment, and knowledge of people around them. In societies where barriers to learning emerge from one’s birthplace and limit the ‘capacity to aspire’ towards futures that are unfamiliar, the Nook serves as a powerful enabler to expand and challenge these predefined trajectories. Exposure to diverse areas of learning have led learners to identify their own goals – many set up businesses to enhance livelihoods, some engaged in learning that helped solve community challenges, and others discovered their passion for a skill-set that they never knew existed before.
Natasha, a 21-year-old learner from the Nook in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, began her learning journey with carpentry, an area that is considered “a man’s job, and not meant for females” in her community. She went on to explore other areas and made shoes from locally sourced materials, created healthy smoothie recipes and shot a documentary on teenage pregnancies. In a conversation with DEFY, she explained why she worked on this documentary. “During Covid-19 lockdowns, many teenagers were sitting idle and there were a large number of teenage pregnancies. My teammate and I thought we should create a documentary to raise awareness and consulted the community members first, who thought this was a great idea. We interviewed several people including mothers who had become pregnant. They shared the challenges they faced at home and in the community. They told me that the negative perception really affected their mental health, some fell into depression, and no one was there for them. We found that some parents did not want to support their children because they felt humiliated. Our documentary wanted to show these challenges and was meant for teenagers, but also parents so that they can understand how to support their children in such situations.” Natasha mentioned that she picked up videography, how to speak confidently in front of the camera, and use editing software for the first time during this process. She aspires to refine her filmmaking skills further and take this on professionally in the future.
Often, NGO interventions and programs aimed at ‘solving’ the education crisis take on a deficit view of communities and assume the role of saviors. Natasha’s own discovery of her passion is an exemplary illustration of how being an enabler and providing access to resources, space and an unrestricted learning environment builds agency rather than an imbalanced equation of dependency. Moreover, her journey resonates with our understanding of what transforming education looks like – of learning being much larger than individual achievement, or a quest for degrees that lead to employment. Tackling problems of tomorrow require individuals to engage in educational experiences that emphasize social consciousness and are rooted in the contextual challenges communities face. We are currently on a journey to take this vision to more parts of the world.
 There are currently 31 Nooks running across India, Bangladesh, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda.
Gaventa, J. (2003). Power after Lukes: An Overview of Theories of Power since Lukes and Their Application to Development. Brighton: Participation Group, Institute of Development Studies.
Author : Anoushka Gupta
As I celebrated my 32nd birthday, I completed almost 8 years of harping about our mis-conceptualisation of education. A large part of the last two decades has been hijacked by an educational agenda which only gleans at the surface of a deep rooted problem. The broken record that we are not skilling our children, and that they are not ready for the industry, is a rather painful tune that I try my best to ignore. But every now and then, it permeates and gives me sleepless nights. The problem, really, isn’t that we are not skilling our children. The problem is that that is all we are doing at schools, and it is all we aspire for.
The Intertwining of Economy, Education and Development
My understanding is that while this tune was not entirely uncommon in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Aspiring Minds National Employability Report really sealed the deal in 2010. It said that 80% of Indian Engineers were not hireable. This shocked the system. It was a strong criticism against the education system, and it was loud. In the decade that followed, we started seeing new words like 21st century skills, future-ready education and so on. And we started looking for ways in which our education system could churn out better employees.
This is not surprising. Any country or society that measures its development based on economic progress alone is predisposed to see education as a means for economic development as well, and when that education cannot provide the skills required to get a job then it must is a great failure of the economic machine. Mind you, in the same breath we have also found massive levels of depression and increasing suicides among school children (see Figure 1 below), and yet these have not raised eyebrows in the same way.
This goes to show in a capitalist society, the “well-educated” struggle to prioritize human wellbeing and welfare over capital gain.
Here’s the catch. Wellbeing is an important factor, not just for the social fabric of people, but also for the economic aspirations of a nation. One may pick any aspiring country, and it is easy to see the correlation between the well-being experienced by people and true economic progress. Certainly, there are countries with incredible wealth and yet marking extremely low on the social scale. Wealthy nations where freedom is limited and several challenges exist, seemingly countering the theory of such correlation. And yet they are not exceptions, but instead further evidence to the truth of the theory. While such nations are wealthy, in the absence of a strong social fabric, this wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few. In the absence of social growth, one can still make economic progress, but in a severely skewed manner creating environmental collapse, military-industrial complexes and extreme wealth divide .
In summary, we believe skills are important, because that makes people hirable, and if they are hireable then we make economic progress. Yet, we do not make true economic progress when we ignore wellbeing and focus only on skills, making that the ultimate educational outcome.
The Training of Ignorance
The problem with Education is not skills.
The problem with Education is, well, Education.
We have a self-propagating education system which ensures that its values are passed onto the next generation of parents, teachers, bureaucrats, researchers and politicians. Most mainstream education formats openly accept that they are preparing children for the future workforce. These systems ingrain in us that life is a strugglesome competition, and that in order to succeed we must learn to defeat our friends and colleagues, sometimes simultaneously reflecting and reinforcing hierarchies that exist in society. The lives of children are turned into comparative metrics that are usually entirely made up ways of assessing learning, unrelated to even our most basic understanding of the human brain and biology. 
As we work our way through schooling and then university, we increasingly internalize that success is all about ourselves. That a great job, a high income and a wealthy lifestyle, which our neighbors can be jealous of, are the best indicators of success. And indeed they are in a capitalist framework. We are increasingly inclined to believe that the suffering of others is not our concern (and maybe their own fault), and our role in others’ lives is not much more than offering charity once a year. That our wealth insulates us from global problems, and we deserve this since we worked really hard for it, and it is not our place or responsibility to ask questions or make things better for the rest of the planet. After all, we are but small cogs in a large machine.
An incompetent education system thus creates an ignorant human adult. Disempowered and self-centered, he is nothing more than a machine part in the economic system and a consumer with never ending wants.
And is he happy? He tries to remind himself that he is, everyday. And when it becomes difficult, happiness may come in the form of a new perfume or new shoes or an expensive car. He waits for weekends to find happiness in short holidays and evening soirees, or a once-in-five-years vacation that he secretly hopes would never end. For there is no joy in the everyday, and he must contrast the boredom and listlessness with a once-a-while instagrammable smile.
We were wrong
We made a mistake. We did not see the monster.
We have been blind to the failing of the education system as a whole. We have not questioned it and challenged its existence. And the true malice of education systems around the world is in its rather clever tactic of passing off the blame to students and terming them as , and .
But, it is wrong. And we must first acknowledge that. We cannot continue living in denial and constantly finding new ways to justify the system, thinking that it requires only a few minor fixes and iterations. The education systems we call mainstream today are perfect – perfectly evil; designed to disempower. We have to find imagination and courage to dream new education models, ones that truly empower and enhance the most beautiful aspects of humanity. Our learning spaces must be spaces where trust and love is experienced daily. Where learners slowly build confidence in themselves, and are not scared to ask the hard questions. Where what they do is an outcome of who they are and who they wish to be, and not the other way around.
This is hard because we are all already infected. We must escape our programming and be prepared to be surprised. We have to go back to the whiteboard, and ask the questions – what do we want? What will make this world a better place? What will make us happy? What will ensure that we thrive as a society? And we cannot be distracted again by the lurking thought of economic progress. This will come anyway, and in a much better way than we would find by making it our sole goal.
I believe there must be some truth to what Gary Vaynerchuk said about money –
“People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.”
We must stop chasing money and defining our success entirely in terms of economic progress. Let’s start with education.
Author : Abhijit Sinha
Edit : Anoushka Gupta
The last few weeks have been a wonderful reminder of the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller. Moving across the ancient and sacred land of Egypt, I have been a traveller. Travelling is not really in seeing and doing, but instead in being, and as such a rare opportunity that requires the right people to come together at the right time. To truly be a traveller, one must be ready in body and in mind, willing to open up to the land, its people and its experiences; and then the land and its people must open their hearts to you. It’s a strange chemical reaction, a spiritual drama that allows for an unpredictable story. The Ecoversities Gathering and the Yatra (travel) afterwards has been such a story.
The Ecoversities Gathering brings together each year some of the most daring and imaginative educators from around the world. Educators who are attempting to redefine the very word I have just used to refer to us; trying with all our might, and with a smile, to imagine a new society and ecology that has a chance to survive the neoliberal onslaught. For the six days of the gathering we live in such a society of shared values of liberation and love. It is not inundated in meaningless speeches and dress codes and business cards, but rather engages through a sharing of stories, practices and emotions. Life is slow, and the learning is fast. There is not enough time, and yet there is always more time. The 2022 Gathering hosted by Sara, Samy, Yousef and the HajMoulein Farm Community in the deserts of Siwa has been an experience that is very hard to talk about or write about. It is a lived experience, and I can only do a poor job of using words to express them. I apologize in advance.
The Gathering received educators and learners (both embodied in all of us) from all over Asia, Africa, the Americas and parts of Europe. Many languages were spoken, many translations happened. The principle at heart is inclusion, and not simply as a checkbox that corporations have to use, but as an intent that we share together. The responsibility of the gathering was shared by all the gatherers, and this includes the cooking, doing dishes, cleaning toilets, organising the space, taking care of the animals and making the environment that we wish to share with ourselves and others. Volunteers were called to sign up for tasks each morning and many times, I saw more hands than the requirement. How amazing this is! A counterculture of the economic world where we usually dislike doing things for others or even for common good. This little world in the desert was different, and did not carry the burdens of the transactional world.
Anyone is welcome to tell a story or host a session. Want to be buried in the sand? Want to discuss feminism? Want to understand your anger? Sure! All kinds of explorations were possible and happened. We heard war stories, love stories, stories of death, of birth and rebirth of a new world emerging slowly under the sands of time. There’s hugs if you need them. Or a Namaste if you do not like touch. A pat on your back if you have always wanted one. There’s honour and respect, not for the position you hold or the work you do, but for the sacredness of the humanity that resides within you. There is love for your presence and appreciation for your thoughts. There is space for all, the young, the old, the child, and however you imagine your outer and inner beings to be.
After a soulful and emotional six days of the gathering, and the tremendous beauty that Siwa has to offer through its hot springs, salt lakes, old temples and structures, we started off the Learning Journey or Yatra. Aptly named El-Rehla (the Journey), 22 of us started traversing the country. We of course had big plans of things to see and do, and projects to visit. But we were also committed to ensure space and time for ourselves to slowly connect with each other (and sometimes disconnect with our usual realities back home). In Marsa Matrouh, our first stop, we shared stories in pairs walking along the Ageeba Beach that eases into the Mediterranean Sea with bright turquoise waters. We moved on then to the busy Corniche of Alexandria staying in a very old and charming Greek apartment overlooking the shores. The sunset at the El-Max village is something out of a dream. The colossal library is hard to miss. The city is really fast, but we were on a different timezone altogether. After Alexandria we stopped in Cairo, visiting Ci-las, a wonderful project started by my newfound brother and friend Karim. It is heartening to see the role of liberal studies in liberation and the on-going struggle as a human society. The final part of the Yatra took us to Fayoum where we stayed in the astonishing Tunis Village (again, a place made of dreams). A swim in the lake in the middle of the desert was the perfect ending to the Yatra. The fact that the lake cannot be seen unless you really get close was the summary message of our journey in Egypt. In order to get a glimpse of the country, you must really get close. And is it not true for every place, and every person we meet?
I have told you the places. It is impossible to recount or describe the conversations. I don’t think I even remember everything. Memory, in the conventional sense, I think, was not the most important aspect of this journey. We must look at memory differently, maybe in the way the sands look at time – in infiniteness and abundance. The conversations, the visits and the interactions, you may not remember them, but they certainly change you. They affect you in the smallest and yet the biggest ways, in part and as a whole. I return physically tired, but mentally recharged, with a myriad of connections not defined by transactional partnerships but instead bound in the fine and strong strings of love.
If you are reading this, and are feeling that you missed out something, you really don’t have to worry. Yatras happen many times in a year, and many local gatherings too. May not be the same place, or the same people, but I can assure you that it will be magic. Gift yourself a learning journey the next time you see one, and keep an eye on the Indian Multiversities Alliance and the Ecoversities Alliance pages
If a child is unable to sleep,then their parents often use the threat “sleep at once or masterji (teacher) will come”. This shows how ingrained education, schooling, teaching, etc are in the minds of the parents. From the day a child is born, the parents start thinking about their future and where and what they will study. Going to a traditional school is ofcourse the first thought.It is indeed ironic because children have to be literally dragged out of their beds to school. In fact many parents take loans, some face financial distress in funding school/college education of their children. They think that the child will learn something worthwhile and lead a happy-successful life, but after 14-15 years of education they find the child has not developed any real-world life skills. I spent 14-15 years in utter boredom by attending various classes of uninteresting subjects through school and colleges. The period of my life where the neurons of mind had to be developed, I had to develop the muscles of my hand by taking notes in those boring classes. A couple of days ago I was talking to a 7th standard student and in his words “We are totally fed up with our teachers in the school. They never let us have any fun and make us write notes all day long. We go to school to just write and write and write. On top of that, if we don’t write the same thing in the exam, word by word, we will fail the exam.”
The existing education system has propagated the values of memory and recalling systems of the human brain the most. The other requirements like thinking and social abilities, creativity, curiosity etc are almost non-existent. The very things which will help the children
to survive and thrive in the world are not developed. The classroom model of education was developed in the 19th century when the industrial revolution started. The factories needed workers and clerks who would just follow orders and do their repetitive tasks without any
questions. The 21st century is no longer the same. World has changed a lot in these 200 years. But our education system remains the same.
We now live in an interconnected world. Information is available to everyone at a click of a button. Hence, we require a new education system in this changed world. Following are the requirements of the new system which should be fulfilled.
- Exclusive focus to be given to individuals.
- The learners should have the choice to decide what, how and how much they want to learn.
- Empathy with fellow human beings, living beings and the environment should be at core of it.
- The learning process should be engaging, experiential and fun filled.
- There should be hands-on activities for almost all the things to be learnt.
- The learning and its usefulness in the real world should be made clear to the learners.
There can be various ways of fulfilling the above requirements for a new education system. One can go to an alternative education model. Others could get home schooled. Some may want to restructure the existing schools. We just need to make sure the learners learn to think, learn by themselves, ask questions and find answers and connect with the community. The problem posed by the current education system is widespread across the world. Innumerable number of people have identified these problems and attempted to solve them. Some noteworthy solutions one can find are Shikshantar, Auroville, Shantiniketan, Project DEFY, Summerhill School and so on. These organisations are working to provide a proper
learning environment to the people from marginalised communities. Even though we set a new system we must be careful enough to not make it rigid. There should be enough flexibility to accommodate the changes which come from time to time. Bringing an overhaul in the education system has to start with overhauling of our minds. We have to unlearn first and then move on to learn again.
About The author
Nishant Kumar is a computer engineer by degree and a maker enthusiast and community builder by heart. He can be seen learning and helping others learn new things anytime. He has been facilitating learning sessions for tech and design topics. If not working, he can be seen enjoying music or roaming in nature.
Kriti Gupta is a social entrepreneur, who aims to leverage her significant experience across livelihood generation and social entrepreneurship to design the Community Savings segment under DISPECS. She currently works with KPMG as a consultant and is the co-founder of Tales and Treasures, a social enterprise that aims to create unique rural experiences with the help of communities.
David Monday is a Ugandan Transformation Life Coach and a social Innovator with a bias in environmental conservation. He is a Director and Co-founder Upcycle Africa limited, a company well known for constructing Plastic bottle houses in Uganda and Africa. David transforms the waste crisis in Africa into employment opportunities for marginalized groups of people, training them creative skills of turning waste into products for sale to improve their livelihood.
He is a certified Employment Intensive infrastructure contractor by International Labour Organization (ILO) with 7 years’ experience working with the youth and women in communities and refugee camps. He has worked and offered consultancy with NGOs/ Innovation Centers in Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. He is knowledgeable in youth skills development, creativity and team building.
Michael Vivian Ekka is an architect, urban designer and musician based in Espoo, Helsinki. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Architecture at Aalto University.
He is an enthusiast delving under many creative and diverse fields with an infinite palette of creativity. Michael has always been keen to be part of an environment amalgamating and exploring innovative, ingenious and visionary linkages between the many creative fields (art, architecture, ideation, drama, fashion, literature, music, electronics, design, research and development, sports, to name a few). He is an experienced researcher, team leader and graphic designer, an involved explorer in many fields culminating into an individual with uniquely extraordinary inputs and a diversely vast skill-set.
Teh Francis Yai is founder and director of Goodness and Mercy Missions, Cameroon. He founded the organization in 2007 to help rural the poor, providing tools and means to the underprivileged for a sustainable livelihood. While training at Kanthari in 2016, he developed the Enkindle Cameroon Project, a flagship program of Goodness and Mercy Missions. This new approach empowers people in rural communities through hands-on business training which discovers and ignites their passions.
His organization has helped more than a 1000 women break free from generational cycles of poverty to have independence and leadership in their own destinies. Hundreds of underprivileged children have had access to a hassle-free education. Awards and Recognitions include The World Bank Cameroon Development Market Place Award, and most recently, the African Change Makers Initiative Courage Award, Top Ten Finalists at the Donors For Africa Foundation Bootcamp 2021, and Grand Prize Winner at Citizenship Entrepreneurship Campus, Germany, under the Best Project Category 2021.
Nitesh Bhardwaj is a development professional and a social entrepreneur with a master’s degree in Communications. Nitesh has experience working with both Government and Non-Government organizations. With his project “Aadiwasi Janjagruti,” Nitesh is working extensively on bridging the gap between the government and the people by using hyperlocal communications in India. He has been an Acumen Fellow, SBI Youth For India Fellow and has got National and International recognition because of his work on Development communications in India.