Universities in rural settings are increasingly implementing global technologies to solve local problems, says former Atomic Energy Commission chief Dr Anil Kakodkar in a chat with Uma Keni Prabhu.
“Let us look at education in a broader context. It is necessary to look at education and development together. That enables real life, activity based learning and makes education holistic. More importantly, such an education binds young minds to solving problems before our society and nation. Does the quality of research suffer if linked to development? The answer is “NO”. On the contrary, the research to solve problems that needs to be solved creates greater impact as compared to research on problems that can be solved. Rather than blindly copying what others are doing, we should orient our research and education to include developmental issues, especially the larger developmental challenges in rural areas.
Maharashtra Government had appointed three high-powered committees in 2010 for reforms in higher education. I chaired the apex committee. We had collectively suggested a broad framework for creating an enabling atmosphere for the state to bring quality improvement and make higher education more student-centric. We had recommended emphasis on all three layers of education viz.:
• Learning up to the current frontiers of knowledge in an ambiance of research that expands these frontiers,
• Thorough capability in procedural knowledge to implement activities to achieve pre-laid aims, and
• Inculcation of requisite skills.
We had also pressed for new university campuses in rural areas to focus on research oriented to problems of the neighbourhood. For instance, you could do research in the rural setting even on Nano technology but with a specific objective in mind, which is to solve a local problem. Such research campuses which we call ‘cillage” (best of city in a village) should be able to attract best research talent to do research in coordination with relevant technology demonstration activities around the university campus for supporting development and livelihood activities in the neighbourhood. Involving local artisans in implementing various research applications could facilitate grass root innovation in high tech areas of value to the neighbourhood development. Live linkages between the university research and the local talent pool would ensure knowledge continuity and prevent technology obsolescence.
We have the Akruti (Advance Knowledge based Rural Technology Initiative) programme at a few places in Maharashtra. These programmes are based on the Akruti technology pack from BARC. University researchers and Akruties have to engage with each other in order to gain new grounds and come up with new technology. Such a framework is being created at the Shri Vithal Education and Research Institute (SVERI) at Gopalpur near Pandharpur. SVERI has signed an MOU with BARC for setting up rural human resource facility in the college.
Under this arrangement people in the neighbourhood Akruties and other places can be trained at SVERI, and their technology related problems resolved by faculty and students of SVERI. In the process this would create learning opportunities for students and research challenges for the faculty. This would be the first approach towards “cillage” – becoming a new development model for rural India. This is an ongoing knowledge based livelihood generation model. With incorporation of a financial inclusion such an approach can keep itself continuously rejuvenated and replicate itself on the basis of its resource (financial, human, technological) generation. In a sense that becomes the ‘DNA of rural development’!
Building a village campus is not easy. It is difficult to persuade faculty to go to a village. Unless and until you create in a village setting facilities like you have in an IIT campus like better housing facilities, better educational opportunities for children, etc., you will not be able to attract quality faculty. I see no reason why young people who wish to make a difference would not be attracted to such a place provided we are able to create an atmosphere which is conducive to productivity.
New technologies in the areas of Micro Engineering and Photo Chemical Etching are being explored for the benefit of rural people at SVERI. We have parked requisite facilities there and apart from engineering students, they have involved local artisans in a training programme. Traditional art, Warli paintings etc., can now be replicated by them on a sheet of metal instead of the usual paper thereby creating a new value added product. With the help of engineering students, we can refine this process further and make a difference to the livelihood opportunities in the area.
National Knowledge Network (NKN) has brought in high bandwidth connectivity to a large number of education and research institutions. This can be further extended to remote areas through low cost broadband wireless framework. Further low cost tablets in the hands of students and teachers duly supported by appropriate content management and delivery, as well as learning and evaluation tools, can become a practical way to transform school education even in rural areas. A project is currently being jointly implemented by NKN, Maharashtra Knowledge Foundation, IIT Mumbai and several others at SVERI to study this idea. For this we have picked up students from one class each from five secondary schools in a radius of around 20 KM in the SVERI neighbourhood. One of the models could be to back up pedagogy with better tools, improved content replete with animation etc., to make it engaging. Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) can be carried out more meaningfully and effectively. Children can access a lot of databases apart from textbooks. A tablet could be a link between students and teachers and the arrangement could bring about a paradigm shift with teachers taking up a greater role as mentors.
The Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Commission, Government of Maharashtra, apart from the activities at SVERI has taken a similar initiative to set up a science and technology resource centre at newly formed Gondwana, University, Gadchiroli. Mentored by IIT Mumbai in active association of Forest Department, Gadchiroli Circle, VNIT Nagpur and a number of other resource institutions/individuals, this centre will work within Gondwana University.
With full autonomy, it will facilitate R&D for value addition to forest resources, related graduate / post-graduate academic programmes and also skills programs for artisans. The centre would implement these activities either by itself or slowly by departments and colleges of the University. The thrust area would be the knowledge driven forest based sustainable development to bring the tribal people in the main stream of development. Leveraging traditional knowledge and moving it forward in synergy with modern technology would be an important aspect of the activities of the centre.
The science and technology resource centre at Gadchiroli would thus cover all three layers of education mentioned earlier linked to local resources with a view to bring about an overall development. There is significant experience that can be leveraged for the purpose. For example chief conservator of forest Shri TSK Reddy has done significant work towards enhancing livelihood of tribal people based on local resources in the area and that experience would be of help. Professor Rao of IIT Mumbai has done significant work on bamboo craft and related training. There is a Sampoorna Bamboo Kendra in Melghat. C-TARA (Center for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas) at IIT Mumbai has run successful post graduate level programmes related to rural areas.
The home science college, Parbhani is developing “ready to eat” snack out of vegetable wastage. There is a huge nutrient value in cabbage, cauliflower and discards of other vegetables, which are chopped off for better market presentation. The patty made out of this is just exquisite. We are trying to sort out the last mile technology deployment problems.
University by definition has to be holistic in terms of delivery of education; students should be taken up to frontiers of current knowledge; teaching should be in an ambience of high level research which pushes the frontiers of knowledge and leads to new technology and innovations, students should be exposed to translation of technology to industry and a spirit of entrepreneurship. University ambience should be such that it should be a mini cosmos that replicates society. While a student is on the campus, along with the structured education, he/she should be able to go through a complete experience, which makes them holistic personalities. To achieve this we ought to have the related facilities on the university campus, which should, by definition, be much bigger in size and carrying out a spectrum of activities. There is lot to be desired.”