Education#xii Chapter 9 – Some Memories

Rural Development Through Educational System – A Report

Chapter 9
Vigyan Ashram, Some Reminiscences

 Contents

          Vigyan Ashram, Some Reminiscences
 The Environment
 The Cyclone
 Water Transport
 Security
 Muscle Men
 Hand Pump Repair
 The Diesel Cart
 False Charges
 The Electric Supply


Vigyan Ashram, Some Reminiscences

Staying in the urban area gives some vague ideas about the problems that one faces in the rural setting. The problems of project related work, such as those of communication, habits of rural boys etc. have been mentioned in the proper context. But there are other problems that effect rural life and have only an indirect effect on the project.

In this chapter we shall record those events that had no direct bearing on the project, yet they have an indirect impact not only on the efficiency of the work of the staff, but also on the willingness of urban students to come and work in rural areas.

The Environment

For those who love nature, staying in our campus, which is on a hillock about half a kilometre away from the village of Pabal, would be no problem. The air is so much purer than that of Pune or Bombay. You get fragrances of neem flowers hundred meters away. The fragrance of the citrus trees in bloom is also striking. Somebody smoking several meters away can be felt. Such pure air, the pleasant night, the beautiful night sky and nice scenery, all around, particularly after the first few showers, the beautiful sunsets and the full moon are all pleasures that few people can enjoy in an urban area.

But not many can visualise the other experiences that also were part of us at the Vigyan Ashram campus between 1983 and 1993.

When we first moved to the campus, the only structures were a low cost hut built by students with untested methods and material, a kitchen and a office block also built similarly. After office, there were only three of us myself, my wife Mira and her 80 year old mother. A watchman would come later in the night. The month was November and winter had set in. Electricity was connected, but the supply was undependable. Apart from the loneliness of the night there was no provision for hot water other than keeping the water in a black can for the morning and bathing in the afternoon. This did not bother me because I always enjoy cold water baths, winter or summer. But it was hard on my wife and her old mother. But they never said a word. Other staff started moving in after about a month when more house units were ready.

The Cyclone

The first summer in the campus, in May June 84 was also the most memorable because of the cyclone. Already some of the mistakes in constructing the mud kitchen and office block were showing up. The wooden columns got separated from the walls. We rectified the mistakes as they cropped up.

On June 4 about 3 p.m. the winds turned into a cyclone, as was normal with all the pre-monsoon showers in this region. The rain and cyclone went on for some time, soon, we in the office block hard commotion in the adjacent kitchen and Ashok Harihar ran out saying the roof was blowing off.

The kitchen wall had collapsed. The roof had held but had bent into an arc. The open workshop shed, which had a roof of asphalt sheets nailed into wood by the village carpenter, had flown over the office room about 100 metres away. Fortunately no one was hurt; the kitchen rack with all its contents had fallen on the table, trapping a lady beneath. While no one was hurt physically, every one had a serious shock.

That night we managed somehow and next day shifted the kitchen to another hut and started rebuilding the kitchen. In one month the kitchen was rebuilt, the damage to the office block and the open shed repaired. From the weight of the wooden door, that was lifted and thrown up in the air, the cyclone was estimated at 70 kms / hr.

The cyclone and the damage taught us what would otherwise have taken a long time to learn. The house unit had stood up and proved its design. Based on this, the new design we adopted has withstood many similar cyclones in later years. The new kitchen has survived well and has shown good results. The office block being protected from all sides, we have preserved the original mud block construction along with the wooden columns and other follies, as a reminder of our past mistakes.

Water Transport

While our own well gave an adequate supply of water, it would not last through the summer. In order not to be a burden on the village water supply system, we had decided not to draw from there.

We had therefore made our own well and pumped the water up the hill to fill the tanks on the campus. Our water needs were then about 1200 1itres/day. When we found the supply would exhaust, we stopped our pumping system and started drawing only drinking water by hand from our well. For other purposes we had to bring water by bullock cart or other transport from some kilometers away.

For some time this was a steady source of worry and apart from nearly Rs. 800-1000 cost, every month for 3-4 months a year, some days, we had no water and we had to go without a bath. The priority was for the animals and then the kitchen. Next year(1986) we got rubber balloons on loan from the Panchayat and hired a truck to bring the water. Later we made our own diesel cart named Mechbull. We put that to service. It would initially have frequent break downs but with constant use and experience, its performance improved until it became a reliable transport for our water. Later the model II was made and our water transport system had become standardised. A farmer Pansare, had a well with perennial water and he was pumping it to near his home. We installed a big tank there and made a system of filling our 200 1itre barrels which we use for transport. We paid for this water initially at Rs 1 for a barrel of 200 1itres and later offered to increase the rate by Rs 0.10 every year. We did not have much problem after this except that when electric supply was disturbed in that area, we would have no water so we had to make sure that this system was working properly. Of course, the transport cost was ours, the diesel and some payment for the boy who would drive the Mechbull, if he was given that as his job. I can’t imagine what we would have done without the Mechbull.

Security

Security was always a problem. We had an open campus and any body could walk through without being challenged. Apart from our desire to keep the place open, the cost of fencing was also prohibitive. All sorts of people would come and wander about and turn and twist whatever came to their hand. We had cases of cash being stolen and small articles from the office. There was a watchman for the night duty. Apart from irregularity, we had some suspicions that he was stealing things from Ashram. Finally when things went beyond tolerable levels, we terminated his services. He was an intelligent and also bold person but undependable. He decided that he would not let anyone else to do the job. The next person employed was timid and not so competent and also, as we found out later, suffered from night blindness. On one night around 11 p.m. we were woken up by some commotion and someone crying. We found that the watchman had been beaten with a steel rod by an unknown assailant. We could not confirm but our suspicions were that the previous watchman had done this job. The next watchman was also frightened by someone throwing stones and such other tactics. While no one said any thing these things were getting on our nerves. No watchman would serve for long. The next watchman, would often raise alarms about having seen some one with a light in our forest below or throwing of stones on the roof etc. I was not sure whether he was only trying to frighten us so that his job was secure or whether he really was afraid. Finally, we had to terminate his services because of irregular attendance and lack of trust, even if no watchman was going to be available. From that time all the stone throwing and other stories stopped. Since then we have felt reasonably secure.

While the feeling of security for me was adequate, my wife had to stay alone in our cottage when I went away on tour twice a month, for three nights in a row, many times no body would be on the campus and she would shut herself in the cottage and listen to the radio. During such times the felling of security would be shattered, especially if there were reports of burglary in the neighborhood. A particularly worrying time was when there were reports of one gang who had given advance notice of their intention to raid Pabal village. The village was talking of patrol by the residents. But what could we do,even if we spotted a gang coming our way? But apart from these fears, the record is that we had no burglary or major theft at our campus. But we were often insecure.

Muscle Men

All villages have some musclemen, who want to muscle their way around. We had no direct interference by any of them, only second hand reports. An interesting case, not for its effects on security but for the lesson it taught, was of GC who would sometimes visit me in the office and just sit in front of me on an easy chair. When asked what could be done for him, he would quietly say “Nothing. If it doesn’t bother you, I would just like to sit for a while, and then go”. He would say that he got a strong feeling of peace and satisfaction watching me work. I did not pay much attention. Later I learnt that GC was in his youth an extraordinarily strong muscleman, that he could lift heavy oil engines and carry them off and the owner would not dare to stop him. He could even run fast backwards. There were many anecdotes about him. I had no reason to be afraid of him. He was perfectly gentlemanly with me and I had in fact some admiration for his behavior with me.

There were some others, but I soon found that there was no need to be bothered by them, for even these musclemen were afraid of the power of truth.

Hand Pump Repair

Very soon after we had moved up from the village to the campus, we went to the adjacent hamlet called Maltali, about 1/2 kilometre away, which had a borewell with plenty of water. As the summer of 1984 started we needed to water the trees we had planted on the approach road to our campus. Our water supply had nearly dried up, so we had asked our labour that came to use the hand cart and water these plants for the first summer. After a few trips, Kashinath, the casual labourer, came to report that the hand pump hand broken down and the villagers were blaming him for damaging it. They had now no water and would have to carry it from a well about a kilometre away and from downhill. This was a serious situation.

I went to Maltali myself, and apologised to them and said that it is unfortunate that I came to Pabal to help solve the water problem, and that we had caused their water problem to become worse. I promised that we would try to repair the pump and also to help in its repair in future.

Thus we came to hand pump repair. We had to carry a heavy tripod and all sorts of improvised equipment. We managed to repair it and took the responsibility for its maintenance for the season. Later we had a course on the skill of hand pump repair.

A couple of year later the pump was out of order and Dnyaneshwar Khaire who had gone to repair it, found that the rod and pipe had dropped into the 250 feet deep bore well. We had made our own “fishing” tools for taking out such dropped pipes and rods. In fact we were often called when the other mechanics had given up because of the dropped parts. Khaire worked on it and trapped these in his fishing tool. When he tried to pull it up, the pipes/rods got stuck in the mud at the bottom, and the rope snapped and fell into the well and got firmly packed inside.

Now he got the rods again in his trap and tried pulling the whole thing out even using two bullocks to pull, but was unsuccessful. The attempts to take out these fallen parts went on for two or three days and I found Khaire becoming frustrated and losing his morale. Summer was coming in, and it was difficult to work in the hot sun, the failure was fairly depressing. That day at lunch, I announced to everyone that the problem was not his alone, it was ours as well. We should all stop our work and every one would work on this problem.

We went to the site, reviewed the status and worked out a strategy. The rope had coiled around the rods at a higher level, around 50 feet and packed tightly as it fell. We thought of a cutter that we could turn by hand from above and cut through the rope. We agreed on a simple cutter. Ashok Harihar, who always had lots of energy whenever there was a crisis, got to work and made the cutter in the workshop in less than half an hour. We got it fixed and tried it. It worked, we cut through the pancake of the rope and when we all pulled the thing up, every thing came up cleanly from the borewell. We all shouted with joy. We had experienced the rare feeling of joy from success through joint effort.

The Diesel Cart

We had plans to make a cart run by a diesel engine. We had the funds from CART but we had no knowledge of how to go about it. We had started the work and the progress was slow but steady, testing with a model, early in 1985, making a mock up, fixing the engine on one front wheel, when we decided to give the power on the right back wheel. We had not yet decided how to make the clutch. We had made our own gearboxes from gears purchased from the junk market. To test it, Ashok Harihar, our indefatigable blacksmiths son turned welder-cum-crisis man, lifted the wheel on to a stool, started the engine, pushed the cart and then our diesel cart went forward on its own. Having worked out a way of starting it without a clutch, we did the other work and got it ready for the first long run on our approach road which was 250 metres long. We repeated the technique of starting the engine with the wheel being lifted and then putting it on the ground. And there it went on the road with Ashok as our test driver. We all ran after the cart shouting with joy, seeing the first voyage of our diesel cart.

Some weeks later when the water crisis was deeper, we needed to bring water from outside. We had the funds enough to buy a power tiller and a trailer, for which we had a quotation of around Rs 35,000, for the tiller without the trailer. What should we do? Buy the power tiller and solve our immediate water problem or spend that money on developing our own Mechbull – the diesel cart.(the Mechbull name was coined later). I left the decision to the boys. They decided not to buy the power tiller but to make our diesel cart with more effort. It was a courageous decision. Kasar was a mechanical engineer from Dnyaneshwar Vidyapeeth. He had more expertise in motor rewinding than in mechanical things, but had strong muscles and a lot of patience. Ashok Harihar and Kasar got on to the job with Vijay to help. The diesel cart was now put into routine operation with a crude form of clutch. We decided to put it on routine duty for bringing water, for I knew that nothing develops a device like real life duty and responsibility. On the first runs, it used to break down at every trip, nuts and bolts becoming loose, cracks in the welding and so on. But we persisted, sometimes repairing it overnight so that it could go on its water mission again. Gradually its reliability increased. The faults stood out and got rectified one by one. The design problems were identified, the drive, the coupling the gear box and finally the clutch. We had solved problems one by one. And the diesel cart, our own was, bringing our water every day. And if it didn’t, some times we had to do without water.

When Kasar left for an outside job, in his farewell speech, he referred to his shock when he was given the assignment of building a diesel cart. Now when he sees it running on regular trips, he gets a joy that words cannot describe.

The diesel cart went from improvement to improvement and became a farm implement and from Mk I to MK III. After Kasar, Gore took over and helped in the MKII. Gore slackened and left. Then Shindade, who was fully our product, took over. With Vijay to guide him, he worked on the reverse gear system. Vijay had a novel idea for reversing, through a simple ingenious belt system. They tried it. It was reversing but could not transmit much power. I suggested using a Jeep gear box. But Vijay was not very hopeful and never tried it. When Vijay left in March 1992, I went to the market with Shindade and we purchased a Jeep gearbox and I left Shindade to “play” with marrying the Jeep clutch to a Kirloskar Engine. I could only give general directions and encouragement. Shindade was the doer and thinker. Patiently, he worked and the power unit was done. He built the MK III almost on his own. It is an excellent example of how patience and effort can make such a thing possible. After a lot of struggle, the vehicle was ready and fairly good. But the ploughing! The wheels would slip and it could hardly plough. We had tried everything we could imagine. Shindade was close to frustration and was slackening. I told him the stories of Edison and the Wright Brothers, how patiently they had to work until they succeeded. I told him this is your test. You keep testing it with small changes in the plugs, and I am sure you will find the solution. He did, and within a few days he found changing the orientation of the moldboard plugs did it. The ploughing had markedly improved. Further adjustment made it as good as a 4 bullock reversible plough, in use in this region. Now it is a beautiful mini tractor that does the ploughing, transport, pumping and threshing and all sorts of duties and so many boys handle it, and very dependable too. I can’t imagine how we could have sorted our water and other heavy transport problems without it. It is to me the symbol of what rural youth, the dropouts from the educational system can do, that even engineering students would not dare.

False Charges

There was another interesting case which when solved, gave me utter satisfaction. When I returned from Bombay on one of my monthly trips, I was given a petition by VKP. This petition was from some RT students claiming that their lecturer, had broken an electric meter but had falsely accused them of having broken it and wanted them to pay the fine for it.

My colleague spoke critical of the lecturer and said he should be punished for falsely accusing the students. Almost all the students who were present that day, had testified that the lecturer was guilty.

Somehow the whole thing seemed fishy. The lecturer was not one of my favorites. He was incompetent, indisciplined, always wanting to use his power threatening others, but I didn’t believe he would break a meter himself and blame it on the students.

I did not accept the charge of the students against their lecturer, but I could not find the truth. A couple of days later when I was discussing this same affair with my colleague, this lecturer came to us (at night around 10 p.m.) and said he was beaten by the students through one of their friends. My colleague now accepted my point that the lecturer was not guilty and wanted now, the students to be punished, particularly their leader, who was another staff member NP, I asked the lecturer whether he was hurt, to which he replied in the negative. Would he want me to punish this other man? Would he feel more secure if I did? He thought he would be in even greater danger if I punished the other staff member. I promised to get at the truth.

I thought about it. Finally, I decided to have an intensive interview with each one of the students and question them on their background, their beliefs, past history and lots of other things. I talked about many things to find out about their weak points. Finally with one student, I got the opportunity and I told him that I did not believe the lecturer had falsely accused the students of breaking the meter. I told him I knew they were telling the lies and one of them had broken the meter. Another person had already confirmed this, I needed to find out why this false accusation was made. He gave me the details. NP had told the students that they should pay the fine and if they had any problem with the funds, he would pay the fine on their behalf. But one of the students had come up with the idea that their unity is their strength. They could turn the tables on the lecturer and accuse him of breaking the meter. Having confirmed my suspicions, I confronted NP, complimented him on the rapport he had built with his students. But wasn’t he using it for the wrong purpose? He did not understand. So I told him that I appreciated that he offered to pay the fine on behalf of the students. But why did he have to agree with the students and make a false charge against the lecturer? From the expression on his face, I knew this was the truth. He admitted his mistake and confirmed my hypothesis. With this admission, I went to the lecturer and told him that I have proved the accusation was false and that he was exonerated. The real culprit who had arranged for him to be beaten had already left the Ashram. So there was no point in punishing anybody three months after the incident. I considered the matter as closed.

While I did not punish anybody for making the false accusation, I had the satisfaction that I exonerated the innocent person and got those that were guilty to express regrets. But some members of the staff did accuse me later of not being strict and punishing the guilty immediately after the lecturer was beaten up. The beating was symbolic and there was no injury. If I were to go only by verbal evidence rashly, I would have punished the lecturer on the basis of the evidence of all the students. Yet investigation proved many were telling lies. How could I know the full truth about who actually “beat” the lecturer? It was much better that I got the truth out and with no bitterness between the two parties.

The Electric Supply

The electric supply was one of the key services, next to water. But it was undependable. Sometimes in the monsoon, particularly after the first rains, it would be off for a few days. The work progress particularly in the workshop would stop. In the nights, dinner would have to be with small kerosene lamps. We had tried petromax lamps. They were bright, but difficult and slow to light. We had installed emergency tube lights, as well but after a year or so even they would not be maintained properly by our boys. Whenever I felt like blaming the MSEB for their poor electric supply system, I would feel instead – why can’t I get my boys to do our maintenance properly? After all, they would also have the same management problems.

Initially the MSEB staff had sent feelers that they needed tips for doing our work. But I had been firm not to pay anything that was not legal. I would even tell them that we are working for the village and they should also help us serve the people. After some time, perhaps our firmness paid off. Nobody ever expected tips from us, neither the MSEB, the Postal services, nor Telephones or the Panchayat.

 

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