The environment hasn’t been spared in India’s headlong rush towards development and consumerism. With it came mounds of garbage, piles of waste that had nowhere to go, industrial pollutants that were fed straight back into the rivers and lakes that supply drinking water to millions. Walking around the streets of any town in India, you don’t get the feeling that care for the environment is on the top of anyone’s list of priorities.
So it was with a little skepticism that I read about a school which claimed to be completely environmentally friendly. I made a plan to travel to Pune, about 190km (118 miles) from Mumbai, to take a look at the Aman Setu school, which means “bridge to peace”. They claimed fantastic things – the buildings were environmentally friendly made entirely out of recycled and natural bits and pieces – they had their own vegetable garden for children – kids were allowed to run around barefoot.
What I found really was surprising. The “school” consisted of just a handful of buildings. Madhavi Kapur, who came up with the idea for the school, told me how they’d made the buildings – they’d taken old cement bags, commonly left over at many construction sites after buildings are made in India, and compacted them together with mud to make the rooms. One of the buildings was cone-shaped, others rectangular. Roofs were made out of old advertisement claddings. Ventilation was provided through disused plastic pipes.
Instead of using toxic paints and whitewashes, they used a mixture of cow dung, mud and water. I was told it’s been traditionally used in India for centuries because strangely enough, a mixture of cow dung and water insect proofs buildings. Who would have thought?!? It smelled reasonably pleasant too, you wouldn’t think you were standing somewhere were the floors and walls were plastered in cow dung.
There were rough windows cut into the walls. No lights or fans, just natural light streaming into the rooms, the sound of wind rustling the trees outside. The children seemed to love it. Why wouldn’t they? The classrooms were rustic but nice. If they got bored of studying maths or whatever, they could just leave the class, run around in the grass for a while, feed fish in the local pond, or do whatever they want and then come back in. A teacher told us they wanted the kids “to be one with the surroundings” to give them a sense of responsibility, and also to release energy – when they do come back to studying multiplication tables, they’re docile.
They’d thought of everything – they bought an old municipal transport bus and stripped it down to make it kid safe. They installed a blackboard and it doubles as a classroom and a play space, where the boys can go and dangle from the handlebars on the roof.