16 December 2016

Aviott John in Tamil Nadu, India

In his retirement Aviott John, the former chief librarian at IIASA, joined a project to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu. Below he gives an update on this project.

© Aviott John

© Aviott John

Learning in a Village
by Aviott John

Studies about global warming talk about the need for developing countries to adapt to climate change. The good news is that in India a wide range of mitigation and adaptation measures are taking place. To use the phrase of Augustin, Vienna's well-loved figure of historical myth, "the situation is serious but not hopeless."  At the end of this article is a link to an example that illustrates the kind of initiatives that are already working. However, with 68% of the country’s population in villages, India needs many more such miracles. My wife and I recently joined a project, started by some local partners, to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu.

The land on which the school will stand, 5 acres / 2 hectares © Aviott John

The village lies in a green, agricultural area about forty kilometers from the city of Chennai (pop. 8.23 million) in the Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu. Although surrounded by productive farmland, approach roads to this village are so poor as to be almost non-existent. The roads were badly damaged in the extensive flooding that followed the unusually heavy monsoon rains of September-October 2015. Parts of the city of Chennai and the surrounding countryside were inundated to depths of one to two meters.

water well and green fields, the surrounding countryside © Aviott John

The village itself, when one arrives, is relatively prosperous. There are many large wells that supply water for irrigation. The land seems fertile and a variety of crops is grown. Despite this, young people are moving in droves to the cities, lured by scenes of urban wealth and glamor on television. These people are merely following a trend happening in many countries around the world as small farm holdings sell out to larger entities and corporations that can practice industrial-scale farming with all its recognized negative consequences.

Shadow puppet play by 8 year olds using home-made props © Aviott John

The idea of a rural sustainable school is really very simple. In addition to conventional education, the childrens’ learning will be focused on practical skills that are relevant in a rural environment; from organic farming, forestry, carpentry, medicinal uses of plants, setting up and servicing small-scale photovoltaics, wildlife management (the area is very rich in bird-life) etc. In addition, there are plans to use a locally patented system that incorporates waste plastic into long-lasting road surfaces.

The school building itself will be constructed on-site with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) that do not need firing or baking like conventional bricks. They just need compression following which the bricks are kept wet for a month and then sun-dried for three months. Electricity will initially be provided by 5 Kw of solar panels that are expected to cost around €4000 at current prices. More capacity and storage will be added as the price falls. For more information about the philosophy behind the project, see this article on my blog: “Development as an Attitude: learning to unlearn.”

Additional background information:

Aviott John

Aviott was born and educated in India then lived in Austria for four decades. He first came to IIASA in 1975 as a library assistant, and from 2005, he was the Chief Librarian until his retirement in 2013. He then moved to an island near Hong Kong where he lived for 2 years with his wife and two cats. Now back in Vienna, he is a full-time writer and trying to make a sustainable difference. Read more of Aviott's short stories and details of work-in-progress on his blog, and his books may be found on Amazon and Google Play.

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Last edited: 19 December 2016


Monika Bauer

IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Communications and External Relations Department

IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Communications - Communications and External Relations Department

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