Meet Arvind Kumar Chalasani
Photograph by: Arvind Chalasani.He treks the hills of Dehradun, sees the universe in a fallen leaf and looks at children as the owners of a planet that adults seem bent on sullying. A naturalist and conservationist, Arvind Chalasani is a teacher in the truest sense of the word. He wants to prepare children for life ahead, not merely for exams and curricula. As Master-in-charge of Environmental Sciences at the Doon School, he considers it part of his purpose to turn his wards into guardians of the Earth. He speaks to Bittu Sahgal about nature, children, society and the relentless search for a better tomorrow
You recently took a bunch of kids on a nature trail to the Rajaji National Park, not to watch birds, but to launch a campaign to protect the wildlife corridor between Rajaji and Corbett. How come?
The kids you refer to were selected from among 60 schools and all are confirmed nature addicts. Unlike kids in Mumbai or Delhi, these children have gone beyond mere ‘nature appreciation’. They want something with bite. They want to make a difference and that is why we turned the nature trail into a mission to restore the wildlife corridor. The children made scale models and met the Governor of Uttaranchal, the Chief Secretary and senior Forest and Army officers. They asked for the ammo dump to be shifted and collected more than 2.5 lakh signatures to save the corridor. It’s a vibrant generation. Much better than our own.
Where did this love for nature spring from? What makes a teacher do the things one normally associates with died-in-the-wool wildlife activists?
My parents. Their respect for nature was never something to talk about. It was as natural as breathing. And, of course, Andhra Pradesh itself! What an amazing part of India this is. Thick with forests. Rivers you can still drink from and stocked with fish of all colours. Birds in your backyard and birdsong in your home. Anyone would fall in love with nature in such circumstances! I was born in Guntur where my father had a business of his own. The long walks spent in the company of my paternal uncle also left a deep impact on me. His love for nature was… just there. He loved tending plants, cleaning the birdbaths he would leave in the backyard, or just sitting out watching the sun go down and the birds roosting. I think some kind of osmosis must have been involved, culminating in a deep love in me for nature.
What else nudged you towards verdant horizons?
Swami Vivekananda. He always suggested people do things, rather than just talk about them. I wanted nature to be protected, so I chose to become a protector. Not by patrolling forests, but by turning children into forest protectors and supporters. Also Sri Aurobindo, whose teachings are shining examples of the divinity in nature.
Talking about teachings, given the state of education in India, can one even think of inculcating a similar respect for nature in children, particularly those who are less fortunate than those who study in Doon School?
Bittu, if you get me started on the education system in India and its appalling state, we will probably not have time to discuss much else. Let me just say that we desperately need a shift from the conventional approach of teaching to a more hands-on approach. I believe that students, particularly those who live in towns and cities are being denied the fantasies of nature, if I may be permitted to refer to nature experiences thus. As for village kids, the media is constantly telling them that they are poor and unfortunate. This perhaps is responsible for them not being able to appreciate the exhilarating beauty they are surrounded by. I do not wish to glamourise poverty, but it hurts me to see how adult ambitions – urban and rural – are transferred to children. This places kids under pressure and robs them of the carefree life and simple pleasures that should be their birthright.
Photograph by: Arvind Chalasani.
I understand what you say, but do you foresee some way in which we can collectively gift a respect for nature back to the kids?
We can. And we must. That should be our national purpose. But it will not happen merely by enunciating policies, or by delivering sermons to our children. We must ensure nutrition and safety for village kids. We must ensure health and the opportunity to commune with nature for city kids. This has to be a part and parcel of our education effort, not a sort of addendum to what we consider to be “real” education. Take the simple issue of water. It used to be safe to drink everywhere. Now it is unsafe to drink almost anywhere, even when you pay for it! Let’s just work towards making water safe to drink for everyone. Adults will have to demonstrate a caring for nature if our water is to be safe, and that caring can be the torch we hand over to our kids to light up the morrow.
That is almost the same message we have been putting out through Kids for Tigers over the past three years.
I know. “Tiger pattedar pani ka devta hai – the tiger is a striped water god!” We must have repeated this and the fact that the ‘forest is the mother of the river’ hundreds of times. The children really do know and understand this now. I wish adults were half as capable of listening. Data put out by the IUCN suggests that 90 per cent of all the large cities in the world obtain a significant percentage of their municipal water from one Protected Area or other. Yet so much money is being spent to destroy wild nature. It defies reason and sometimes for teachers like me it becomes really difficult to explain to children why adults preach one thing and do the opposite.
So what do you do?
We impart the right environmental values to them and leave the business of explaining the contradictions between what they know to be true and what they see being practiced at home, or in their neighbourhoods to their parents!
Professor Kanti Bajpai, your school’s Head Master, approves?
He not merely approves, but invariably exhorts us to lead by setting an environmental example. Even John Mason, our former Head Master used to insist that nature is the best classroom. This is a great school and enlightened individuals lead it. Most of our ex-students too are supportive and this synergy has a positive impact on our students.
Presumably, your students appreciate this?
The good thing about kids is that they tell it as it is. Overwhelmingly, they love the outdoors and they approve of our efforts to conserve the sylvan surroundings. Sometimes, however, because they are kids, their attention drifts. We teachers may plan ahead and do this or that “because it will build their character, or secure their future”, but they live in the here and now. But this I know, my students would rather take a trek than take a class and I love that about them. It actually helps me stretch my own horizons beyond the confines of my comfort zone.
What about officialdom? Do education policy makers accept the students’ involvement with the outdoors as a part of real education, or do they consider it to be an interruption?
Environmental education is a force to reckon with today. I am a member of the curriculum vetting committee of the ICFRI. Let me assure you that environmental education is soon going to become a compulsory part of the curriculum in schools and colleges. After this, it is up to us teachers to deliver.
Photograph by N.C. Dhingra.
Are parents supportive? Are they worried about safety during treks, forest outings and the many rock and mountain climbing excursions you organise?
We are probably even more ‘paranoid’ about safety than parents. We leave very little to chance. Our students are thoroughly prepared and the supervision quotient is very high. As I see it, expeditions to the Himalaya, which we regularly organise, help build team spirit. Outings throw up natural leaders. Being outdoors also places life in perspective for our kids. Parents can see the good this does and they are very, very supportive.
I have often come with Bikram Grewal to the school campus to birdwatch. This must be a popular activity for the faculty and students.
Absolutely. Dr. Sálim Ali also used to birdwatch here with our students! Fortunately the Doon School campus is a paradise unto itself. Botanists have written tomes about the trees of Chandbagh, as our campus is called. At last count, as many as 1,500 plant species, from 12 different countries had been listed. These naturally attract birds and a simple walk through the many kuchha paths can be a twitcher’s dream come true! All of Dehradun was once like this. We have some really good birdwatchers among our students and on holidays they invariably make a beeline for the nearest river, or to Rajaji National Park.
Do teachers see themselves as part of the battle to protect the forests and hills around Dehradun?
Gulab Ramchandani, ex-Head Master of Doon School and Vandana Shiva were party to the court case against quarrying. But our problems continue to be severe. Because Dehradun has become the state capital, construction activity is on the rise. Traffic and pollution pose more serious problems than ever before. The fragile Shivalik ecosystem continues to be quarried, mostly illegally. This directly affects the stability of the slopes; ruins water sources, interrupts elephant migratory routes, degrades tiger habitats, puts leopards into conflict with humans and poses huge health problems for everyone. The vast majority of school principals agree that we must unite to defend Dehradun and its natural landscapes. This is why the teachers and principals of 65 schools in Dehradun and Mussoorie have spontaneously rallied behind the Kids for Tigers initiative.
What are your plans for the future? How would you like to see teachers become a part of the defence of natural India?
My plans are to plug away. I think we are on the right path. Consistency and perseverance are vital for any measure of success on the environmental front. If I could have my way, I would find the money to step up the number of trips and the number of kids we are able to take out to forest-India. When we went to the Corbett Tiger Reserve as part of the Kids for Tigers Camp, just before sunrise, with a group of boys we waited with baited breath atop a watchtower as the forest erupted with alarm calls of langurs and sambar. And then we heard a tiger roar. An even louder roar answered this from another of the great cats. Forget about the kids, even I had never quite experienced anything quite as humbling, as exciting. Those kids will defend the tiger all their lives. So will I. My plans for the future? To teach the next generation that they are of the earth and that enjoying and protecting its miraculous bounty is purpose enough for life. I believe from within that we did not inherit the earth from our grandparents, but are borrowing it from our children.
by Bittu Sahgal First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIII No. 6, December 2003.