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Vigyan Ashram - A Hidden Rural Education Jewel

Raj Melville
03/17/2008

Three hours from Mumbai and an hour off dusty side roads from the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, lies the tiny village of Pabal. Here, twenty five years ago Dr. Shrinath S. Kalbag ventured forth to setup Vigyan Ashram an experiment in teaching rural youth through a curriculum of non-formal education. Today, Vigyan Ashram stands as a shining example of an organization that is helping revitalize the rural Indian economy through appropriate training and education.

After completing a Ph. D from the University of Illinois, Dr. Kalbag returned to India and pursued a successful research career eventually heading Hindustan Lever’s Engineering Sciences Department. In 1982, hoping to apply his scientific training to help India’s rural population, Dr. Kalbag quit his job and began to look for a place where he felt he could make a significant impact. He chose Pabal as it was a drought prone village lying in the ‘rain shadow’ of the Western Ghats. He hoped by living and working with the villagers, he would be able to understand their needs and to help them improve their livelihood. When he first moved to the area in 1983, the village consisted of a dirt road and a few farm houses. He setup Vigyan Ashram on a barren hillock on some land donated by the Government of Maharashtra.

Over the years, Vigyan Ashram has built a comprehensive, year-long, vocational curriculum targeted at rural children of high school age but who have generally dropped out of school. Around 25 to 30 children, both boys and girls, live on a spartan campus and participate in a daily routine that starts at dawn and includes classroom instruction, hands on laboratory and field work and evening sessions of idea sharing and presentation skills. The curriculum is designed to increase the student’s awareness of how scientific and technical principles might be used in a rural setting and, more importantly, to help boost the student’s self confidence and independent thinking.

Students are exposed to four basic areas – Engineering, Energy & Environment, Agriculture & Animal Husbandry, and Home & Health. All students, both boys and girls, are expected to learn all skills. This means boys learn sewing as well as food processing skills and girls are in the machine shop cutting and welding steel. The units include hands on experiments and construction. Students are encouraged to make mistakes and learn by doing. Each student is expected to raise Rs. 1000 of their tuition by various income generating activities. The Ashram has a working farm, a chicken coop and an animal shed where students learn to grow their own vegetables, to monitor and plot food intake versus animal weight and to determine the optimal time to take an animal to market. As they learn to make economic decisions regarding the best price for their produce and animals, they also gain a hands-on understanding of local economic tradeoffs; apply mathematical concepts in a practical setting and build sound business skills.  This has paid off as many of the alumni have now started successful ventures of their own. At the end of the year-long training, student dropouts, who started the program with rudimentary mathematical and non-existent technical skills, graduate with an understanding of how to apply science, technology and mathematics to real world problems. More importantly they leave with the confidence that they know how to ‘learn to solve problems’ as one of the graduating students explained.

Over the years, Vigyan Ashram’s curriculum has taken its philosophy of “Learning while doing, in a real life situation” and has built it into a program, “Introduction to Basic Technology (IBT)”, that is recognized as a formal subject by the Government of Maharashtra. The curriculum has been disseminated to 25 schools across Maharashtra and Vigyan Ashram is working with Lend-a-Hand-India to scale it to 100 more schools.

In addition, Vigyan Ashram students and instructors have taken their founder’s encouragement of intellectual curiosity to heart and are responsible for several innovative products. To address the issue of low cost housing, Vigyan Ashram has designed a geodesic dome – The Pabal Dome – that can be bolted together from a knocked-down color-coded kit. At a cost of Rs. 150/sft, the entire dome can be put up in a day and converted into a permanent structure by applying ferrocement over the wire mesh frame. In keeping with Vigyan Ashram’s aim of encouraging rural development, its alumni have setup fabrication facilities in the village to manufacture Pabal Dome kits and have filled over 1000 orders from all over India. Fifteen years ago, one of the Ashram instructors designed a low cost tractor for Rs. 150,000 when most available models went for 3 to 4 times as much. He now has set himself up in Pabal village manufacturing tractor accessories and farm implements. One of Dr. Kalbag’s first innovations at Vigyan Ashram was a low cost Earth Resistance Meter for measuring ground conductivity that is used for identifying potential sources of water. Today Ashram graduates have been trained to use it to provide neighboring villages with water prospecting services, with a highly successful 90 per cent plus hit rate.  More recently students at Vigyan Ashram have developed low-cost, LED-based, light bulbs that draw low amounts of energy and can be used instead of incandescent lights.

The success of Vigyan Ashram is apparent as we drive through Pabal village today. Ashok Kalbag, the founder’s son, points out various small businesses, fabricators and farms that line the main road where none existed before. The road is now paved and an aura of well being permeates the village atmosphere. Dr. Kalbag passed away in 2003 but he felt his most important legacy would be the success of Vigyan Ashram in his absence. Today the thriving village of Pabal and the bustling Ashram campus filled with industrious students and diligent instructors stand as testimony to his vision.



You can learn more about Vigyan Ashram from their website at
http://www.vigyanashram.com/

You can contact me with ideas, suggestions or for more information at: SELokvani@gmail.com



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