Gaining knowledge through a field trip to rural India

In my association with Adianta School of Leadership I had the pleasure to join students on a field trip to Rajasthan, India.

The Objective

Our objective for the field study was to understand ‘how do we know’, ‘how can we be certain about something’, ‘how do we gain knowledge’. Hinduism identifies six pramanas as correct means of accurate knowledge and to truths, and we were introduced by Adianta’s founder, Aditya Dev Sood, to four of them:

  1. Pratyakṣa: means direct perception / the knowledge gained by means of the senses
  2. Anumāṇa: means inference or guess work/ the knowledge gained by means of inference
  3. Upamāṇa: means comparison and analogy / having knowledge of something by comparative evidence
  4. Śabda: means word, testimony / the verbal or testimonial evidence of past or present reliable experts
Villager in Rajasthan

During our trip to a village it was on us to observe, collect data and information to later convert them into useful knowledge. I believe practical experiments like field trips are a the best way to learn about our world and to understand it better.

A tale of two Indias: urban & rural areas

If you haven’t been to India or only briefly know about the country, I’ve to bring things a bit into perspective before jumping directly to my field trip experience.

India has two faces: the fast growing urban areas and the underdeveloped rural areas.

Indian cities are bustling with commerce and and middle class Indians are experiencing rise in wages in all sectors. The vast Indian middle class is becoming one of the fastest, and largest growing consumer societies and marketplaces coveted by much of the developed world’s marketers. Indian cities are experiencing a construction boom with new western-style skyscrapers, shopping malls, entertainment complexes and upscale restaurants — all thronging with eager shoppers. Plus, I would say there is an air of optimism and confidence in today’s India which one can feel living like me in New Delhi.

Then there is the other side of India — rural India. Despite the developments in urban areas, India still lags far behind in the sphere of human development. India’s population, which is around 1.2 billion, is expected to surpass China’s by the year 2030. The 2014 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) gives India a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.586, which places it in the 135th position among 187 countries. It is clear that the physical and social infrastructure required for enabling a higher quality of living and development has not kept pace with the country’s economic growth. While cities and urban areas have benefited from the economic growth, vast tracts of rural India are still largely underdeveloped and untouched by technology developments in urban areas. According to statistics the World Bank around 68% of Indias population lives in rural areas. Those areas don’t yet have basic services such as electricity, sanitation and water, and much less knowledge-enhancing technologies such as telecommunication services.

Field visit & observations

The village life

We did visit a village that is a 2 1/2 hours drive away from Jaipur, the capital city of the state Rajasthan in Northern India. It’s very close to the village Tilonia, which is the home of the Barefoot College. Since, 1972, the College has worked to improve the lives of the rural poor by giving them vocational training on water harvesting, solar power, housing, healthcare, education and income.

Vocational training for women at Barefoot College

It claims that women from more than 60 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been trained by the College so far to solar electrify their own communities.

The road to the village winds a few kilometres through dusty plains with fields on the right and left. Villagers walk along them, balancing on their heads bundles of wheat — some of the size of a desk. I’m surprised by the basic living that you see in villages that are far away from national or state highways. The lifestyle really is rudimentary.

The village near Tilonia, Rajasthan

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood and families in this area grow crops. Further villagers herd goats or cows of their own. The average income of a family is Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 7,000 ($76 to $107) in this area. Motorcycles cross our way as well and seem the only way of motorised transport for the people here besides a few farming vehicles. The whole area has plain land, which generally gets water only in the rainy season.

Village in Rajasthan, Northern India

The village that we reach is free from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s calm and quite out here and the air seems fresh. The houses follow a very plain and simple design without specific aesthetic. They have courtyards attached with cooking places and goats that are nosing around in them. For this village electricity is not absent as meters are installed at the houses. I guess that the village has 50 houses and around 700 people must be living here. The village has a small shop which sells rice, cooking oil, lentils and some sweets.

Balwadi (pre-school)

We reached our destination, a Balwadi, where we would spend the day and learn more about pre-education in rural India. A Balwadi is an Indian pre-school run for economically weaker sections of the society, either by government or NGOs.

Panorama view of the Balwadi’s veranda, it’s the “class room” where teachers and children sit together
The entrance to the Balwadi

The Balwadi is located in a small building which has a veranda, that I would call the ‘class room’ and is used for the children as play and learning ground, a storage room and a small courtyard. I guess the total size of the whole space is something around 200 square feet. At the time of our visit 15 children between 1 and 5 years where supervised by two teachers. The teachers are with the Balwaadi since 15 years. As the Balwadi is run by Barefoot College, they have no permanent school building and over the period of time had to relocate the Balwadi a few times. The teachers told us that the previous building was a bit better in terms of facilities and interior.

A Balwadi teacher with kids during a learning session

The women of the village leave their children at 8 o’clock at the Balwadi and go for farming work to the fields. The teachers follow a time schedule and first clean the children, give them breakfast and then have activities like the teaching of basic numbers and alphabets, colours etc. and painting followed by lunch. Storytelling and singing plays an important part in the education. Kids are taught nursery rhymes, which build their vocabulary in Hindi and the local language that they speak. They also learn shapes and colours through songs, and pictures.

A day at Balwadi: the pre-school’s time schedule on the top left; kids learning about different forms of transportation from a poster; a teacher comforting a child to sleep; on the right image art education can be seen, e.g. thread painting)
Storage room at the Balwadi

The teachers themselves have an education until class 5. Both are very loving and dedicated towards the children and they made us feel their enthusiasm. Once a month food is delivered to the Balwadi. For cooking the Barefoot College did provide the Balwadi a solar cooker which is fully functional as we get a demonstration of it. The solar cooker was dusty and didn’t look like it was in use. The teachers seem to prefer to use the kerosene cooker that’s in the storage room. For smaller infants their mothers leave milk for them with the teachers to fed them. Kids are wearing basic clothes and some of them have only upper wear. There are no toys or books available for them.

Kids at Balwadi

A nurse comes once a month to the Balwadi from a distant hospital. She leaves medication with the teachers— each medicine is labeled with a number, e.g. medicine number five is for fever. She taught the teachers which medicine number they have to give to the children in various scenarios. Unfortunately the teacher aren’t taught anything about the substance of the medicine that is given to a child. Also hygiene is an issue, though the teachers seem to manage the kids best to their limited knowledge. Every day a supervisor visits the Balwadi to check if everything is in order.

Life at the Balwadi

The children were not so curious about us as I would have imagined. I guess they are a bit too young and shy, plus we’ve been also a larger group of people coming to their small school. Our conversations where only in Hindi with the teachers as they don’t speak English.

The teachers told us that even for the pre-school villagers started sending their kids to private schools for better education. Education is seen as a tool for survival in the years to come. So somehow they manage it even with their very low incomes.

Conclusions

There is no doubt about the huge developmental disparity that exists between urban and rural areas in India. For me it seems that a majority of the population which lives in rural areas are totally untouched by developments in urban areas. I could see this clearly in the village that we did visit.

Infrastructure and the connection to telecommunication services — in specific the internet—is one cause of such disparity. India is vast, with geographical characteristics that range from tropical forests to alpine mountains, from deserts to flood plains. Several parts of the country are not easily accessible even now due to lack of roads. First infrastructure needs to be developed and internet and related services need to be made available for the rural population. Internet would provide these rural areas in India with appropriate information on various topics to improve their lives such as health, hygiene etc. and agriculture which is their main source of income. Of course this comes with challenges as the rural population has not the disposable income to pay for such services.

I feel a second reason for the disparity of the urban and rural areas is the non-availability of appropriate, cost-effective technologies that work in remote rural areas. The village that I visit is so disconnected from the rest of the world and I couldn’t see anywhere any technology used or being placed in the courtyards as a sign of their existence in the village. Self-sufficiency has be the mantra that organisations and the government should support with their efforts in these areas. There seems to be no access to technology and enhanced human development.

Further education and knowledge are missing in these areas. The importance of the access to knowledge as a measure of human development has been clearly stated by many development experts. The UNDP’s Human Development Report lists three essential elements for human development: long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. The term “knowledge economy” is increasingly being used in discussions and planning related to development. A knowledge economy “creates, disseminates and uses knowledge to enhance its growth and development. Enhancing the knowledge economy involves developing educated and skilled workers, creating an efficient innovation system, and building a dynamic information infrastructure (Dahlman & Utz, 2005). It gives immense possibilities to the private sector and startups to bridge this gap and bring in innovation and develop products that can help rural communities.

With the above mentioned other deficits that I did observe as malnutrition, hygiene, healthcare, quality education, water supply and indoor toilets could better be coped with.

The trip was fascinating, exhilarating and exhausting for me in equal measure. To come back to the trips objective, I would say I gained knowlege through Pratyakṣa (direct perception) and Upamāṇa (comparison). My experience although small, gave me a better understanding of problems faced by rural people. Instead of field trip, I would call it an ‘enrichment’ trip and I’d say nothing beats the personal experience in learning.

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