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Magazine Editorial

Honey bee publish details

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Category Biodiversity
Title Time to Recognize the Rural Genius
Details Biodiversity contests have been an integral part of SRISTI’s activities over the last twelve years. A biodiversity contest involves, uncovering in the competition mode, the knowledge which children have about local biodiversity.1 It is an attempt to kindle the curiosity of children about local biodiversity and associated knowledge available with adults in the community. Through these contests, enormous knowledge gets churned and transferred from one generation to another in a few days, which might otherwise take decades or a lifetime. Every child seeks to actively know, discover and learn about the many ways in which biodiversity is used. On an appointed day, children are asked to bring a list of plants, specify their uses and also bring come samples that they have discovered and learned from elders. They are also quizzed about the knowledge they actually have about the samples brought by them. It is an interesting story as to how all this started. When the Honey Bee Network was still evolving, during a journey to Tamil Nadu Prof. Gupta met Vasimalai, a former student at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, who had formed a voluntary organization in Madurai. Vasimalai mentioned about the determination of a young technology professional working in an insurance company wanting to return to his roots in that region and start a humble, Gandhian philosophy based rural development institute. The idea of organizing a biodiversity contest came up. Vivekanandan, who later became the first long term partner of Honey Bee Network and is currently the coordinator of the Network, had resigned from his job to serve the rural poor. He organized the first biodiversity contest way back in 1992, with the help of his friend Muthuvelaiyutham in the foothills of Tirumalai Hills. This competition provided an unforgettable lesson. The boy who came first (a sixth standard student Bhoominalan from Kolunchipatti) was able to identify 116 plants and their usage. The maximum plants that the elders knew about were 246. This boy, at the age of 11 had learned about half of the maximum knowledge available in the community. But he might not grow in his life unless he learned A for apple and B for boy. The educational system did not recognize multiple sources of intelligence. Everybody had to excel by the same yard stick. How will pioneers and discoverers be born then? One of the most profound memories of the biodiversity contests would probably be of Amriben Thakore, of Tadav village, who bought a single neem leaf as her entry for the competition. She was not bothered about winning, she was not worried about people making fun of her solitary entry. Her sole concern was to participate in the competition. How many of us, the grown-ups do it! Another person who seems to have earned the respect of all is Giriraj Kishore Mina, a young boy from Pratapgarh village, in Alwar, Rajasthan. When the contest was held in his village during a Shodh Yatra, he was able to collect the samples of around 70 plants with their names and uses. When asked why so few, he complained that he had been given very little time to collect the specimens, otherwise, he would have collected more than 500 of them. This seemed improbable. He asked for two days time. The Shodh Yatris were surprised when after two days, he came searching for them on a cycle. He had bought the samples to prove his claim. He had been able to collect knowledge of about 501 plants. Such is the power of challenge that the young children can take up, given the slight encouragement. In another contest, the teacher in charge of holding the contest came up with an idea of asking children to collect samples of thorns. By doing so, he forced children to explore the biodiversity in the marginal lands, which they might have otherwise ignored. Biodiversity contests have been an integral part of the different Shodh Yatras2 which SRISTI has been organizing for the last seven and a half years. In the first Shodh Yatra from Gir to Gidadh, a contest was organized in Khijadiya Junction. Talaviya Ketankumar Kantibhai won the first prize. In the second Shodh Yatra from Amirgadh to Tundiya, a contest was held in Sambalpani Solanki Vipulkumar Dahyalal and Damor Divaben Udabhai were the best performers. Thereafter, many biodiversity contests were held as part of the Shodh Yatra activities. An overview of the contests held in the different Shodh Yatras is given in Table 1. Besides this, a series of nine biodiversity contests were held in Banaskantha district. The prize winners included 12 girls and 15 boys. The scores in the competitions was quite high with the average score among the prize winners being 377. Takor Bharathkumar, with a score of 559 was the best performer among boys and Manasa Reshmaben Nanabhai, who scored 411 was the best among girls. Eleven such contests were organized in Rapar district and prizes were awarded to 29 boys and four girls. This was again a high scoring contest, with the average score among the prize winners being 307. The best performers were Hinal Vadilal Mehta and Shilpa Ramnibhai Verat. An effort has also been made to understand some of the factors which contribute to excellence in biodiversity contests3 The results of fourteen biodiversity competitions held across Gujarat were analyzed. There was a significant difference between performance of the boys and girls with boys performing better. There was also significant difference between performance of children belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and the other children, with children from these groups performing significantly better. There was a positive correlation between academic performance as measured by school rank and biodiversity rank, although the correlation was very small. The biodiversity contests have also provided a platform for interesting interactions with the community. They are almost always accompanied by cultural programmes put up by the children. Parshotham Patel, a member of the SRISTI team, also recalls other interesting experiences during the biodiversity contests. He remembers a contest held in Kutch, where the students suggested that rather than just knowing about the biodiversity, they would like to be engaged in active conservation. They suggested that they would each sow one plant and take care of its needs. They did follow up on the idea and planted the seeds the very next day. In another contest held in Dahod, we had been trying to popularize nagli crop (Eleusina coracena). During a bio-diversity contest, one boy was asked to identify the sample of nagli. He was not able to do it. After the contest, we explained to him the advantages of the crop. He later discussed the crop with his father, and in the next season, his father sowed the crop in his field. This created an interest among the other farmers in the area and many of them started cultivating it. There has been a demand for these seeds in the last two years. We have also met children who have established a reputation for curing diseases among people and animals, during the course of our interactions. During the Shodh Yatra held at Himachal Pradesh, we came across a thirteen year old Vicky Kumar, who had been able to cure many ailments of cattle as well as humans. He had learnt about medicinal plants from his grand father. Interestingly, he refused to name the plants he was using for the treatment. He believed that their efficacy would reduce, if it was named. Similarly, Rajesh Parmar, another thirteen-year-old from Khokhariya village in Sabarkantha has been able to cure cases of food poisoning and bloat among cattle. He gained this knowledge by observing some wandering cowherds who were passing through the village. He noticed that they would chew the leaf of a particular plant and spit it into the eyes of the sick cow and the cow recovered. He also experimented with the leaf and found it to be effective. Again, he refuses to name or identify the plant, because he believes likewise. Sometimes, the children involved in these contests have continued to be in touch with us. In one competition held in Tilakwada village, one of the participants was very interested in our activities. Although he did not bring too many samples, he remained in touch with us and later also worked briefly with SRISTI, helping in scouting of practices. The biodiversity contests have been able to valorize alternative knowledge systems and highlight the fact that children have the potential for multiple excellences. Children who otherwise perform poorly in school might have very high knowledge of biodiversity. Many of these children may be labeled ‘laggards’ in school or even dropout of school altogether due to social and economic pressures. They have been forced to bear the burden of an education system which has failed to draw upon the skills in which they are good . It is indeed ironical that these children are not even welcome in professions like forest guards, where their knowledge systems can be most useful. While forest guards may be struggling to acquire knowledge about biodiversity, these children are forced to forget the knowledge they already have and live out a life of drudgery as unskilled manual laborers. There is definitely a need for more biodiversity competitions across the country and the world, to tap the knowledge which children have about biodiversity. Will the National Biodiversity Authority initiate national level biodiversity competitions to recognize and honor the merit of these ‘rural genius’?
Volume No. Honey Bee, 16(3):5-7, 2005