Friday, 30 June 2017

On the Brink - The Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti)

The Forest Owlet (Athene blewitti) is a small 23 cm owlet endemic to Central India. This species was once known to be almost extinct until recent sighting in the forest of Central India in Melghat in 1997. Regular sightings of this owlet are documented from Melghat near Nagpur, Tansa near Mumbai, Nashik and Toranmal regions in Maharashtra and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat states. It is listed as Schedule I species of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the highest protection possible for an owl species in India. This is also listed as Critically Endangered in IUCN Red List and also listed under CITES Appendix I. The owlet prefers deciduous forest habitat especially dominated by teak trees. They are mostly diurnal but active during early morning and late evening hours. Due to its shy nature, these owlets are quite difficult to be sighted and generally they go unrecorded. An estimated global population of this species is 300-400 all around Central India. The threats to this species include habitat destruction, cutting of teak wood for commercial purpose and forest fires. Conservation efforts include an awareness and education programme among villagers on the significance of saving the forest owlet, avoiding forest fires and saving teak forests.
Photo courtesy: Rajneesh Suvarna

On the Brink is our regular column on endangered species in Ecotrail our bimonthly magazine on Environment and Education.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Blowing in the Wind...

So many questions and we are looking all around…….. the answer my friend…. is blowing in the wind. Last month the Nobel Committee on literature in Sweden awarded the Nobel prize for literature to the uncivil but iconic figure of the 21st century, Bob Dylan. A rebel with many causes. Bob Dylan came by at a unique time where the world was undergoing changes. Industrial revolution was taking shape in Europe and America.The world was just about settling down after being battered by two world wars and the first use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world was broadly drawn apart by two primary political ideologies. The Communist thought, practiced and led by Russia and China, large parts of Eastern Europe, many Latin American countries besides many African and Asia countries and the other called themselves Free world democracies where the people decided who would lead them through elections like Western Europe, India, Japan, USA, Australia etc. The world was bipolar one led by Russia and the other by America. Two bloody wars for world primacy was being fought in Vietnam & Cambodia and the other in Korea by USA and Soviet Union. The youth in Europe and America took up cudgels with the then government, against the war which was not connected to them- and the Rock & Roll culture was born. The youth world over did not want to fight battles. They wanted love and peace thereby the famous sign of Peace, love etc. Hippie culture was on the rise as a sign against any form of rules which were seen by the youth as unjust laws, be it in schools, university or work place. “Woodstock” a rock show over three days still remains a milestone in the growing liberal movement. Drugs, smoking, rock music, modern art, free love and political opposition was the norm. Hijacks, Police brutality and army excess anywhere in the world was rebelled against. One such rebel was Bob Dylan. There will be many a debate on nominating and awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel prize. Was it appropriate, mainly from Purists, who will readily acclaim García Márquez or Salman Rushdie or Rabindranath Tagore as worthy of such a prize. The truth is Bob Dylan is an amazing poet and musician who poignantly brought out the pain and suffering of the youth and the inequalities that existed then. He constantly was against the establishment forcing them to right their wrong. He spoke about the unjust wars, the mass destruction of forests, the exploitation of labour and pollution. He was intolerant to the world and the United Nations for being tolerant to apartheid in South Africa and the sins of politicians. He expressed love for all humanity in his writing and practiced in his life. His famous song and lilting lyrics of “Blowing in the wind”, “Like a rolling stone”, “Knocking on heavens door” are a landmark both in music and poetry that connected with the youth of the sixties to the eighties. But they apply to our lives today even more, since the inequalities still exist, planet earth is on self-destruction mode, gender bias, religion, caste and colour divide still exist. Congratulations Bob Dylan on receiving the award and just like you, playing difficult to reach and a truant to the Nobel awards committee who just can’t reach you ……. They should have known better. The answer my friend is Blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind…

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Education: A Tall Order?

Every year, the months of March to June are times when both parents and children undergo an arduous journey of being tested, getting admitted and being bench marked, notwithstanding the interventions of the government education officers and the glee amongst the journalists of the fourth estate.
The news being created for them free of charge means they have to use less grey cells to write meaningful, impacting, transformational articles or editorials. All the good deeds and misdeeds across the nation come out from all parts of the country. There is woeful lack of clarity and purpose all around, be it examinations, results, admissions, discipline, leaking of question papers, the toppers and the failures, the success against all odds and failure due to missing the train to help you reach the examination hall on time… the train being cancelled, the inability to show compassion by educationists and soulful efforts of a rickshaw puller in Patna whose son or daughter makes the grade. If we want to negotiate the minefield of education, it is a veritable mess from the nursery to the highest levels of education. That education is a State subject and the Centre has a HRD ministry. Between the two HRD ministries in New Delhi and the State education ministry there is a wide gap. More and more schools are moving out from the clutches of the State Government to become a CBSE or ICSE followers as now they find that too stifling and many of them, the new ones are becoming International schools. Are the teachers prepared? Is the infrastructure available? Is the community prepared to pay the kind of fees it requires? Almost in all the cases the answer is no. Many have created the infrastructure first and in due course got the affiliation. The school was provided land at a reasonable cost like hospitals so as to benefit the local community. But if the locals cannot afford the education, then the schools import the students from afar to fill the seats as they can afford but the local community cannot. Admissions incidentally in Mumbai and Delhi are only given to students residing within the 5 km radii of the school. The point being made is simple. Keep it simple. The unnecessary tension faced by all is not even worth the effort because few sell quality in the end. Quality is a misused word. What we get instead is a compromise. We compromise is selection of the best manpower, we compromise in the selection of the best supplier, we compromise on selecting the best materials, we compromise with safety, we compromise on admissions, examinations and we compromise with education which is now sold as a commodity. In the end we surround ourselves with mediocrity. The market forces are at play and in a matter of a few years the school will lose its sheen. Compromise is a short term game. The game changer is to constantly surround yourself with the best. Thus what is the magic formula to succeed? Schools impart knowledge and that and that alone should be its focus. Schools will lose out if they assume the term I mentioned earlier. “Knowledge” does not mean books alone; it is imparting all round knowledge for the mind, body and soul. Children are sharp and know when they are being fooled. So transparency, quality, honesty, compassion, understanding and immense subject knowledge of the faculty, well stocked library, intrepid and enquiring laboratories, clean toilets and a humungous playgrounds will define the school. I am aware this costs. Never did I say education comes cheap. Quality outdoor education or camping like quality schools does not come cheap either. Parents must learn to pay and schools should invest in the magic formula. Be it a municipal run school or an ICSE, CBSE, Cambridge, IB or whatever else comes around. People will pay if they know top and uncompromising quality and safety is on the menu.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Safety in Outbound Programs

Every once in a while we are faced with a grim reminder as people, as organization, as a country, that how callous are we when dealing with human life. The tragedy of young engineering students falling prey to the inviting sea near Alibaug when the college went on a “Picnic”?!! Not far back a school kid crushed his leg in one of the rides during a school trip. A year back we saw another set of young students of engineering from Hyderabad washed away in Manali when the sluice gates of the river were opened. We saw school children from Mumbai on a school trip, injured seriously while taking a horse cart ride in Panchgani tableland, another where the child was dragged by the horse and killed, and when a travel company took children to a high altitude camp in the Himalayas and had no clue why the child was having a headache. They gave the child crocin and the next morning the school child was no more having passed away in the night because of high altitude sickness. The company did not have a clue to the problem. Just by bringing the kid to a lower altitude or the plains would have been enough, but knowledge is not available and the school will not pay for having such a team and thus bus operators and all sundry have joined the bandwagon of this business. These companies still continue their business either under new names or some have even the audacity to continue the reckless business since schools still patronize them as they offer cheap service. Thus the statement in the first paragraph of this article “How callous are we with human life”. Little do we realise we could be the victim one day. We often notice parents walking on the road with their young child holding their right hand and walking on the road completely exposed to the traffic flowing from behind, despite the footpath being there. How often do we see cars, two wheelers racing above speed breakers!!! What is wrong with the collective us? While we are seeing this, one is helpless on correcting the nauseating attitude of drivers and pedestrians alike. So we can all go with the adage we are all like that only. Safety is a culture, be it at home, school, college, work place, roads or during the use of public utilities. One can never be safe enough.

Basic Outdoor Safety Tips

• Carry your First Aid Kit Always

• Check out the weather

• Dress appropriately. Wear complete safety gear during adventure activities

• Carry enough supplies

• Carry maps, torches, caps, whistle, hand sanitizer

• Plan your trip well in advance

• Keep someone informed

• Eat and drink frequently, stay hydrated

• Never leave a campfire unattended

• Never enter pools, beaches without life guards

If we depend on others for our safety then it is a big risk but sometimes it is inevitable. You hope your driver is a safe driver. When you board trains, planes, then you are outsourcing your safety concerns and here too we weigh our choice depending on our knowledge and information. More often than not we are more responsible for incidents that take place since we have taken safety as a given and for granted. Safety costs and we are often not prepared to pay since it is not a visible service. But a team of trained staff will ensure and minimise the risk you are exposed to or take. Simple things like ensuring the coach drivers are well rested, do not consume alcohol prior to driving, team eats after the guests have eaten, no swimming policy, doing a fire drill, carrying a properly checked medical kit with valid dated medicines, doing an reconnaissance of the site to be visited, checking and rechecking the form of the participants for allergies or any other medical issue, blood group and type are all to ensure the trip is uneventful from the medical or safety point of view. Trailblazers even works on the customized menu to ensure that they are ideal for the guests. There are scores of concerns specially for school or college camps that must be addressed starting from the planning stage, where and when to go, completing the procedure of enrollment at least 4 months prior to the journey, making assessments of the company they are partnering to lead them, clearly stating the aims and objectives and the learning outcomes from the trip, completing a safety briefing with accompanying teachers students and parents. These are just some of the basic protocols, there are lots more. I can say proudly that for 22 years Trailblazers has had a completely safe experience because safety is a priority and a Trailblazers culture and we continue to learn and adopt more and more safe practices. We have inbuilt protocols which are followed zealously. We have though miles to go. -Editor

Monday, 22 August 2016

Move your Classroom Outdoors

Not more than a century ago an eminent poet Sir Rabindranath Tagore created a storm in Macaulay’s world by taking the classroom “Outdoors”. This happened in Bengal at Shantiniketan and the story goes on. The only replication of it is done by Trailblazers which calls itself “The Outdoor School”. Last year when we concluded another stunning outdoor workshop series on Environment, for over 500 B.Ed. students, I had asked if they had any question - a young girl got up and said she had a prediction.

I was not sure what was coming. She said she wanted to join Trailblazers and then she predicted that the schools of the future would be such, which was being addressed by Trailblazers at the outdoor workshop! That the classroom will move outdoors. That there will be no rooms suffixed to class!

The thought  led me to think  and I wondered why should classrooms be fenced off by walls, in a way fencing off children’s minds. My team of outdoor teachers and me, have been successfully conducting classes, teaching Chemistry, Physics, Math, Statistics, Environment, Economics, Wild life, History, Geography, Sociology, all in the outdoors. The sky is our roof, earth our playground and nature our biggest teacher. What more can one ask for? These have all been truly remarkable experiences for all the accompanying school teachers, students and us. The idea is worth taking ahead.

What outdoor learning does is to fundamentally gear the senses in action thereby making the process of learning stronger. It also makes the children ask questions which sharpens the enquiry process. Many put up hypothesis and see if that applies and works thereby getting a chance to construct an idea and see its results. Many just observe and many still are dreaming. Outdoor learning evokes curiosity and wonder in children. The more fresh air they breathe, the more they play in mud, the more they dance in the rain, they become independent thinkers. These are just some of the several obvious benefits. There are different pedagogies to help them learn.

Nature in front of you is your living laboratory. It is your art class, it has History to tell you and you need not even change your geography! The light and heat have a story in Physics, the soil and water, Chemistry. You look up and see the birds fly and you look down on the carpet of grass, you sit down, you’ve just got Botany and Zoology covered. Bored? Let’s play football or meditate, do yoga! Want to do Math, the Fibonacci sequence is there to see in the way the floral designs are laid out or even in the curve of a seashell! Sociology is observing the people, for Economics you just visit the local market and in India, Political Science is everywhere. Artists take inspiration from the sunrise, Literature is inspired by emotions all around and the fragrance of the wet mud and flowers in the outdoors makes the possibilities heady!
Trailblazers, The Outdoor School’s admissions are open… join our Camp.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Dreamers School...... Management of schools to note.

Schools & colleges need to come around to doing their basic tasks well. Provide a safe and conducive environment to every child for learning, teaching and growing up to be a reasonable citizen of the world. The key term is reasonable. Exceptional children will be supported to incrementally benefit from his/her god gift.

The core competencies of an educational institution is the above. When they begin to fail in these areas of excellence that the rot sets in fast. 
Since the role reversal has happened I will not go down the road of guru Shishya param para etc. suffice here to say that schools which keep to their basics will survive the competition and all others will fall by the wayside. There is no need to lament that schools have become a magnet for making money, that politicians, business investors who have barely passed their high school have set up institutions of learning. The top management and the market  will decide the long term performance of an institution. Should the institution make the core vulnerable the outer shell too shall become vulnerable. 

What therefore are those core competencies we are talking about or what are the basic stuff. 

So here goes the basic stuff that a school must provide is a safe haven. By that I do not mean cameras at all places, watchman at every 10 meters,a fence or a wall making the school a prison for thoughts, words and deeds, a set of supervisors overseeing the watch mans and another set overseeing the cameras, and a supervisors overlooking the supervisors, no need for multiple registers, id cards and badges to be given out. All this defeats the purpose and helps get you more helicopter parents.

The school will believe and action the fundamental principal that every child is good in every sense of the word, and any behavioural issues can come from something not going right at the child's home, school or it has is a medical issue. 

The school should be such that it is like your home. Simple comfortable and people around you that are compassionate,care for you and love you and provide that knowledge we are all seeking. The school needs to have open space in plenty, and needs to have a great library, awesome laboratory, invigorating sports room,musical music room,creative art rooms,a great auditorium, lush green surroundings, a city forest to nature sow its magic. The class rooms should be spacious, allowing a lot of natural light, a school canteen and eating area, very comfortable staff rooms in each floor and rooms for coordinators,a big play ground and the cleanest toilets on all floors. 

All floors should be designed such that movement is safe and children cannot easily misstep, fall etc. The school also has to have a reasonable and well equipped medical room. The unfortunate part of architects and owners is when designing the school the perspective is from a child's point of view failing as usual to see that the school may have at any given time at least 70 90 adults as well.
But most important of all is not any of the above it is the school faculty that will decide how good or bad the school is, not the structure, not the air conditioners,nor the space. Compassionate, knowledgeable, intellectual with immense patience and love, well read, willingness to give, high standards of communication skills, open mind willingness to learn, enjoying the process and light handed banter, setting high standards of values, highly self motivated and having high ethical values, environmentally inclined, creative,innovative,and  keeping the child at the center of his or her being.

The nerve center of the school will be .... you guessed it wrong the Library. Books of all kinds and a librarian of top class who will encourage you to borrow books, recommend books is well read, and is a author too. The chief guests for any function will be persons who personify knowledge or a skill, they will be visiting faculty every week be it a story teller, a musician, author, politician, economist, stock broker or a street performer. The school will at all times and its faculty will endeavour to provoke, create an enquiry, research ideas, discuss.

Getting all this will be difficult in one individual thus the school management has to invest in seeking out the best teachers and constantly sent for or conduct training. Teachers make the institution not the structure. Thus mediocrity will find no place in the institution and must be weeded out swiftly and with alacrity.

The intention of the institution must at all times and every time focus on the needs of making learning fun, interesting and the child coming out from the school may not have come first in the city or state or not joined IIT/IIM he she should be a reasonable student of the world,  ready to take up the challenges the universe prepares to throw at him/her. 

The child has learnt and is passionate about his/her dream is passionate about his her subject of interest and has a hobby  has learnt finer things of life be it in music, art, theatre,science, History, literature or geography. He/She  has travelled sufficiently to appreciate hunger and pain but also fine dining and dancing be it khathak, kathakali, bharatnatyam, Bhnagda or kuchupudi, Jive or Flamenco.

 He she has learnt to appreciate the great ancient temple sculptor and  architecture, cave paintings, calligraphy,paintings of Monet or Hussein he she has learnt to play or enjoy listening to Bhimsen Joshi or Mozart and Strauss and equally enjoy the music of Kishore Kumar and Sonu Nigam, he has the  knowledge the exotic night of black tie attending a concert or a shake spear play or in a sherwani enjoying the Munsi Premchand play of "Kafan" and the music of ustad Allaha Rakha. The child takes interest in sports, participates, competes and just has fun in ll he does. The school will make provisions for any one with special flair. All children are welcome all children with whatever difficulty will be attended to by a specialised faculty. All will be taught to speak their mind and parents involvement will only be limited to the allied issues. They will be a partner of the school and will help propel the school to greater heights. High levels of transparency will be there between all stake holders and fees will be high but for every 10 children one economically deprived child will be provided free education all inclusive.  Teachers will be highly paid and well taken care of in order to help them focus on the child. The school will evolve a culture of the outdoors and every child will care for the planet.

Such a school will not fail. It will set higher standards and the world will flock to such a school. Management with a vision, transparent approach, high ethical standards, no room for mediocrity high standards of safety and excellence in all that is done.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Dressed to kill

Continuing on the subject of safety,  as a civilisation as a whole we need to assess the way we dress when we are in the outdoors. During many of my outdoor trips with children, teachers,corporate executives,families I have observed many small but crucial safety compromises.
These compromises are made during any outdoor activity be it indoor or outdoor sports activity, picnics, get together, treks, camps, bird watching trails, training assignments etc. Some of those compromises are as follows:

  • Not reading the communication carefully a couple of days prior to the trip and getting to know about it from the third person. You are here assuming the person you called is more diligent than you and not as lazy and must have read the communication.
  • Not clear about the outdoor activity and what is going to happen, in many cases not even knowing the destination.
  • The opposite is also true in some instances we have a Mr. "Know it all", we call this person the influencer who has been to the site 6 years ago and from memory shares his experience and that becomes the group standard.
  • Not reading up about the place, people and culture.
  • Some common observations made are going to play a racquet sport with slippers, jeans,full sleeve shirt,sari, rainy shoes, leather shoes.
  • Not doing any kind of warm ups nor carrying a sweat shirt after a physical activity where you have sweated to prevent you catching a cold or getting spasms. 
  • Going into the sea with improper clothes as above and once again either not reading the sign board or not heeding it. I remember a sign board boldly put in the Tadoba Lake which has crocodiles. It had a person swimming and a crocodile with mouth wide open following. The board read simply " Survivors will be prosecuted".
  • Going into or near water bodies without knowing to swim.
  • Not heeding the warnings of tides or reading about the same.
  • Going on a bicycle without head or hand, elbow and knee pads, Going on a bird watching trail in brightly coloured clothes mired in perfumes or body odour and wearing stilettos, high heels shoes, slippers, moccasins of leather.
  • Two persons carrying food for 8 and lit erring the place.
  • Playing loud stereos below a board saying no noise and then bribing the guard to go Scott free.
  • Drinking and littering the place and breaking glass beer bottles and throwing it around without a care.
  • Not carrying a basic medical kit
  • Drinking and driving
  • Not carrying head gear i.e caps, sun glasses and water to hydrate constantly. Keep your personal medicines and ensure you carry sufficient dry fruits, and hard boiled chocolates.
So how does all the above kill you. If they do not kill you they can injure you even critically and some falls during critical activity can kill you too if your shoes are not right. Dupatta or a neck scarf hanging on your neck while on a motor Buick can be disastrous if mistakenly entangled.
Chastise bad driving, rude driving, rude and insensitive parking and ensure you give your driver sufficient resting time an good food and no alcohol. Ensure he is given a room to stay, and give him clear instructions of the programme and next days plans. Bad driver is a recipe for disaster. Do not do back seat driving. If you do not like your driver change the driver or cancel the trip and use other mode to travel. 
Do not start the road journey before 6 am. Most road accidents happen between 3 and 5.30, when the human body is demanding rest and sleep. You may have given enough rest to your driver but remember it takes two to tango. The driver from the opposite direction is unlikely to have a sensible owner.

Have the vehicle checked fueled watered, coolant ready and tyres including the step nee checked for air.
Stick to time and do not argue with your driver.

Dress for the occasion and dress appropriately. Do not dress only to impress or feel good. Outdoors does not have time for fools. If you do not know what to wear ask, check out on the internet and know why are you going? Dress accordingly and behave accordingly.

You can never be safe enough but follow the scout moto "Be Prepared" 
There will be more articles to follow on this subject readers may add to this and we can have a safe outdoors activity for all, Outdoors is fun just follow simple rules.