Hitarth Pandya distributes seeds to children.

Hitarth Pandya distributes seeds to children.

Efforts are to take Nature to schools in Gujarat

Hitarth Pandya distributes seeds to children.
Most children only know about crows and pigeons and not other birds

Benjamin Franklin, the multi-faceted founding father of the world’s oldest modern democracy – the United States – aptly summed up the circle of knowledge when he said these profound words, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Hitarth Pandya, the 44-year-old founder of initiative Kids for Environmental Development Initiatives (KEDI), has experienced these words since his childhood. He began his journey on KEDI, a small pathway leading to the destination in Gujarat, relatively recently but its seeds were sown way back in 1976. That year, his parents shifted from arid Saurashtra to the sprawling green campus of state-owned Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited in Baroda.

While his father worked amidst twists and turns of steel pipes, making myriad colourful petrochemicals, Hitarth found the greener pastures within the campus to be his playground. He would spend hours watching colourful flora and fauna from close, breathe in smells of earth and its creatures, listen to the bird calls, climb atop the trees endlessly. So much so, that till class 10, he had no friends.

 “My friends were trees, birds and insects. And assuming that nobody would believe me, I would not tell them that I communicate with them!” Hitarth says.

Until – one fine day an English-speaking teacher told him that she was there to check his IQ for further career guidance. The final words that came out of her mouth were, “When you go home, tell your papa that you must do gardening.”

Today, 40 years later, he is doing exactly what she had told him. But with a little difference. With him on KEDI’s journey are a bunch of young children, who he has helped learn to identify multiple plants and trees within minutes. KEDI’s simple motto, Hitarth says, is to make students celebrate World Environment Day every day by “Bringing Nature to the School”, rather than the other way around. “I realised that simply reciting ‘sa re ga ma’ does not make you maestro in music nor learning 1 to 10 make you Ramanujan. Similarly, including environmental education in curriculum does not create environmental warriors,” he adds.

He set out his journey in environment education by carrying out a sample survey among young students. It revealed that the knowledge about ‘local environment’ was 2 on the scale of 10. “Children could not recognise trees planted on their own campus. They could not speak out 10 names of local birds. Most knew only pigeon or a crow! Soil erosion was a definition explained in words but could not explain where it happens in their own city. So, why would they think of saving something which actually does not exist for them. Responsibility on any issue comes only after you start loving it and understanding it,” says Hitarth.

He found that the conventional method was to take children to Nature, organise camps, workshops, seminars, nature trails, etc. But Hitarth chose to traverse on his small KEDI. He began putting his thoughts into action at home, with his children Dwij and Swara as his co-experimenters. “They  became kind of my guinea pigs and my small kitchen garden became my laboratory. Surrounded by the concrete jungle, my house has some 500 living plants in it. Every day, about 100 birds visit my garden. This is where the learning and understanding comes for my children. They witness the magic of Nature every day. Be it germination, soil preparation, flowering or ripening of fruit. Be it the cacophony of noisy babblers or the call of a Eurasian Golden Oriole the duo has an ear to find the difference. They have now learnt nature photography and can capture the images ‘naturally’,” Hitarth says.

This is precisely what gets translated to the bunch of over 100 students at St Kabir’s School. “True learning is not just in books but it has to have that connection and relevance with the practical life,” says the founder of the school, Radhika Tandon.

It all began on a patch of 50 metres of land of the school and in 100 days the first batch of 100 students learnt some of the most basic facts about Nature and they also grew 350 kg of vegetables! In 100 days, they learnt everything from buying seeds and saplings to selling vegetables. Germination, flowering, fruits, pests, viruses, everything came alive in those 20 plots of 20x8 feet allotted to groups of students.

Children even kept on surprising their parents by asking questions, showing what they had grown and puzzling them by showing seeds of the staple food consumed in Gujarat. The entire learning was about their surroundings and not of Antarctica or the UK or the USA. 

“When there was an unseasonal rain for a couple of days, it damaged some of the vegetables planted at the school but it turned out to be a huge learning lesson for them when they were told that if climate change can  damage their crops, it is time to think of thousands of farmers who have invested all their savings in farming,” adds Ishita Verma, Head, St Kabir Indian International School.

The entire learning process is divided into 4 years and 4 seasons, beginning with Class 4 students. The module begins in monsoon with sowing and plantation of trees and each year the student graduates in their learning about local environment.

It is not just kids that Hitarth has sought to involve in his endeavour to educate future citizens on protecting environment. He has, in fact, been involving the practitioners in practical life with his project. “I realised that environmental conservation, awareness and education is not one person or one organisation’s responsibility. At KEDI, we work with people as Jayanti Parmar, a farmer, Nikul, a class 8 dropout but with sound knowledge of agriculture or Dilip Prajapati, son of Kanti Prajapati a visually challenged potter. Even well-known theatre director from Baroda P S Chari has agreed to work with children in theatre projects aimed at raising awareness levels through theatre,” Hitarth adds.

Having made humble beginnings, he is now hoping to deepen the roots of learning among children and dreams that his teachings on environment education’ would become an integral part of school learnings across the country. Some day…

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