Sunday, May 25, 2008

One Who has in fact Wrought a Revolution

Arun Shourie

"When Dabholkar comes to Delhi next, I must get the two of you together," Dr J P Naik, would say. When I was to go to Bombay for some work, he would urge, "Take two days off, go to Kolhapur and meet Dabholkar." Years passed, Dr J P Naik passed away, I never got to meet his friend, Dr Shripad Dabholkar. And then I saw a little snippet in a video magazine of the Plus Channel. It was about an agronomist in Bombay, Dr R T Doshi. The programme showed his roof farm -- on his roof in the middle of Bombay, he was cultivating grapes, vegetables, fruit, even six foot high sugarcane. I went to visit him the next time I got to Bombay. The second time I was able to take Anita, my wife along. I am just following the methods of Dr Dabholkar, Dr Doshi told us. Therefore, when the Pudhari group of newspapers asked me to deliver a memorial lecture in Kolhapur, I agreed at once to do so.

And even before the lecture, I went to Dr Dabholkar's house. It was late in the evening. A score or more villagers were there. It turned out that villagers from all over Maharashtra visit the place regularly -- to see, to learn, to share their knowledge and the results of their experiments. I still remember my gasp of wonderment as we came out of the staircase and stepped on to the roof of Dr Dabholkar's modest house. Vegetables in pots. On one side, corn stalks five feet high. In another, sugarcane. In one pot -- just a small 12" pot -- a mango plant with a mango larger than my hand. A layer of soil made from vegetable-waste, from leaves and the rest : Dr Dabholkar would lean down, and pluck from under the surface ginger, garlic, even potatoes. On one side, by the wall, standing high and erect in what seemed just a pile of the same sort of soil, a subabul tree -- almost two storeys high.

I was wonder-struck, and returned to Delhi full of enthusiasm. Anita and her mother had started a roof garden. They were enthused to do more, they began to experiment with some of the new ways Dr Dabholkar had worked out. Today the garden is a joy for all of us. It has flowering plants of various kinds. A 6' bottle-brush tree, a 5' ficus, vines of several sorts. Bougainvillea of many colours blaze away, the ones which are planted on the ground below have climbed two storeys, the ones on this roof climb another storey. Harsinghar, Oleander, Champa, Anar, two varieties of Gulmohar -- with the evocative names Krishnachur and Radhachur -- each 5' tall in pots, lemon grass, basil, karonda, the tulsi of course, fragrant motia and juhi, bamboo gifted by a friend in Assam.... Each plant is a joy for Anita and her mother, each is a boon for me -- for the room in which I work opens on to this lovely garden, and beyond it are trees, almost thirty of these have been planted in and around our house by Anita. Each time I step into the garden, I am of course grateful for their labour of love, I am also reminded of that magical evening at Dr Dabholkar's house.

All these years I have felt, "If only there were a book that set out what Dr Dabholkar has done, his experiments, the methods which he has evolved..." At last Dr Dabholkar has himself completed a book about his life and experiments. Entitled, Plenty for All it is being published by the Mehta Publishing House of Kolhapur.

Dr Dabholkar's life is a romance. It is also a life of enormous achievement. Ever since he was a child, Dabholkar had a fascination for experiments, and he had a real gift in growing vegetables, fruit, plants : pumpkins in pots -- the vine would originate in the pot, the pumpkin would sprout in and then come to rest outside it, its size larger than the pot! -- watermelons in riverbeds, bananas in stone heaps.

Dabholkar graduated, but instead of taking a conventional job, he began "Open self-study courses". With no more capital than a chalk and a blackboard, he began giving instruction to anyone and everyone who came forward -- mostly persons who had dropped out from conventional schools, those who had failed in conventional classes, elderly women. He would teach them whatever they wanted to learn. His teaching would prepare them for securing admissions to and degrees from the institutionalized system.

But the methods of imparting knowledge were entirely non-conventional : "I never had to impart teaching, coaching or tuition to anyone," he writes. "It was not a class in the regular sense. My methods were (1) to make one understand the form of the subject under study, its conceptual contents, the catchwords and the terminology used...; (2) the relationship of ideas and topics; (3) some common analogies and illustrations from their own life situations; (4) all this in the students' own form of expression...; (5) in about 15 to 20 sessions, I treated the subject; (6) for the rest of the year I allowed the student to work out the rest of the subject himself, with the aid of my card-sets; (7) he also interacted with textbooks, and (8) with anyone in the group who he thought could help discuss and resolve his difficulty."

The institution became a great success -- Dabholkar himself was earning more than principals of conventional institutions in the town, students from advanced educational institutions located far away were coming to attend the courses for at least a few days. A second branch of the institution was soon set up 50 kilometers away. The work went on for 8 years, Dabholkar began losing interest in it. He wound up the place entirely. "I began to pine for a complete break with the entire system," he explains, "I am not the type suited to permanent institutional forms of any type." He heard of and soon joined the Mouni Vidyapeeth, an institution which Dr J P Naik had helped found. It was 55 kilometers from the nearest urban settlement. Here he was given the fullest opportunity to put his ideas of non-institutional learning into practice. "I made an open call to various staff members to undertake to teach any subject that they liked the most, irrespective of their academic qualifications, to whosoever wanted to learn it. No fees were charged and no regular remuneration was given," he records. "The entire manner of covering syllabi rested with the learner and the guide-friend. It worked smoothly and successfully. Without any type of institutional form or pressure, more than a hundred students received their secondary certificates as well as their much coveted university degrees by studying at any odd free time that they and their guide-friends found suitable."

In spite of the success of this experiment too, Dabholkar soon concluded that the complex life of our rural areas could just not be changed through institutional activities and training : "In whatever way the institutions may work, the standard curriculum of the system kills all the germs of creativity and originality," he writes -- a lesson that is recited at every seminar on education, but a lesson to which our educational institutions have shut their ears.

By 1966, Dabholkar had begun work in an entirely new sphere, work which was to transform the lives of lakhs and lakhs. At Mouni Vidyapeeth, each staff member had a modest house with a little space around it. With his childhood fascination for experiments, and his gift at growing plants, Dabholkar began experiments in agriculture, horticulture, poultry, sericulture, in rearing goats, in rearing rabbits, in developing arid wasteland.... In everything he did, he would start with no more resources than are available to a farmer living below the poverty line -- a farmer who is in debt, who has no land other than a patch of dry wasteland, who has no resource other than his own unpaid labour.

"The whole place, which used to be barren wasteland," he writes, "became like a forest of fruit plants, all healthy, all productive and all taking their nourishment from the symbiotic built-in aggregate from the garden waste." People started visiting the place -- to see, to discuss. In ten years about 10,000 visitors had come, left their addresses in the hope that, if he started courses on the basis of these experiments, he would let them know. He had thus acquired, without building it, a list of ten thousand persons -- each one of them eager to participate in the next phase of his work.

The food situation in the country deteriorated in the early '60s. In 1965 Pakistan drove into Kutch, and there was another war. Dabholkar was filled with concern about food availability in the country. At the invitation of the editor of a Marathi magazine, Kirloskar, he prepared a special 24-page supplement in which he gave what he calls a "flash report" of his experiments and their results. The effect can be glimpsed from the reaction : the supplement was published in January 1966; within the year he received over 10,000 letters from persons offering to join his network of experimenters.

At the time, few thought that grapes could be grown in drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. Dabholkar began with this precise fruit. Today the drought prone areas of Maharashtra -- with annual rainfall of no more than 12" -- produce grapes worth Rs five hundred crores a year. Farmers in his net produce sixteen tons of grapes to an acre. They have been given national awards for their innovative practices, for the yields they have secured.

It is not just in the amounts produced that Dabholkar has made a breakthrough. He and his "Prayog Parivar" -- his family of experimenters -- has revolutionized every aspect of grape cultivation -- spacing the vines, training them, thinning and girdling them, preserving the fruit, and so on.

And grapes are just one of the crops which have felt his touch. And in the case of every crop his experiments and innovations have been attuned to the small and marginal farmer. And to using locally available resources -- not just resources available in the locality, but resources available on that small plot of a quarter acre or an acre : obtaining in this round one set of nutrients from plants of one type for the next round, obtaining different nutrients from different parts -- the roots, the leaves, the stems, husk, bagasse -- of the plant, obtaining different nutrients by composting the plant at different stages of its growth. He has established that a family of five with just a quarter of an acre can grow enough to acquire a living standard in terms of nourishment and income of a middle class family -- and this has been established not in theory but in the plots themselves, and not just by him but by farmers and families which have adopted the methods he has pioneered.

No wonder, he is today, and has been for fifteen years in demand all over Maharashtra. He travels incessantly -- holding "classes" all over, these are attended by 400 to 1200 farmers. His house, as I saw, is a living school.

Dabholkar's life and work hold a score of lessons. To start with, consider the effect he has had -- the output of grapes is today Rs five hundred crores, this is so in the areas of Maharashtra which are drought-prone, it is the output which farmers with holdings of half an acre to two acres a piece have secured. How many lakhs of lives must have been transformed as a result of this venture alone. As I put this effect alongside the "effect" which our "Demand-and-Denounce" activists have, I am reminded of what Gandhiji said while chiding the young Communists. They would prance around as Revolutionaries -- with a capital 'R', and heap abuse at him, "an agent of the bourgeoisie," they would shout, a "lackey of imperialism," they would shriek, "an instrument of the bania-landlord class," they would howl, "a representative of the comprador classes," they would scream, "the blind messiah," they would yell. Gandhiji smiled, and remarked, "Many have just talked revolution, I have worked one !"

In contrast to our activists -- and what a mass base they have managed to contrive in press clubs! -- Dabholkar too is one who has in fact wrought a revolution. But that, as we shall see, is just the first of many things which set Dabholkar apart.

India Connect
May 5, 1997

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