“We never imagined a life like this.”
The first batch of participants in the Amrita Rural Internship program fanned out across India in the summer of 2014 and reported the experience to be one of the most memorable of their lives. A part of Amrita SeRVe, Amma’s village rehabilitation project, the internships were also Amma’s idea. She described the project as a way for young people to help villagers find solutions to their problems and for the young people to gain understanding of the challenges faced by their fellow countrymen and women, as well as their strong values and resilience. Students and staff from many departments participated, including the Schools of Engineering (Mechanical, Chemical and Computer Engineering), Business, Social Work, Physical Education and English, as well as CIR and AmritaCREATE.
Students interned in adopted villages in twelve states- Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Haryana, and Goa. Before leaving for the villages, students and faculty were given a mandatory training that outlined their roles and responsibilities in the village, how to interact non-intrusively with villagers, teach young school children with tablets, motivate school dropouts to go back to school, and how to identify key concerns related to education, health, sanitation, water and malnutrition. Faculty members were trained to guide interns on conducting surveys, and finding simple yet practical solutions to issues faced by villagers such as initiating government processes to sanction toilets in the adopted village.
Some of the villages were quite remote and the students were challenged by heat, biting insects, water shortage, lack of toilet and bathing facility, as well as lack of electricity. Undaunted, even in two week visits, the students, along with some accompanying faculty members, managed to achieve a lot. They were able to pinpoint some key problems, and in some villages were even able to put solutions into motion. Some of these projects included upgrading schools, upgrading village status to qualify for improved infrastructure, demonstrating agricultural innovations and healthy habits, cleanup campaigns, repairing a temple, career counseling and tutoring school children, as well as teaching illiterate people to sign their names.
In collaboration with the institution's, Amrita SeRVe has developed experimental models of rainwater harvesting, organic gardening, water filtration systems, smokeless chulhas (wood-stoves), bio-toilets and watershed projects, some of which were deployed in a few villages by students, guided by their faculty, during this internship. “Awareness is the key element that needs to be provided in these villages,” the students visiting Chhatisgarh said unanimously, “Awareness about education, health, and sanitation. And also about economic opportunity- people have land, but most of them live below the poverty line.”
Rural education is stressed as a key area in the internship program. Under Amma’s guidance, Amrita-RITE (Rural India Tablet Education), the education wing of the Amrita SeRVe project, has developed a unique technology-driven educational program and teacher-training program for rural education based on tablets and hands-on methods, that motivate children to learn at their own pace. The students had received training and were given tablets through AmritaRITE to take with them to use in the tuition centres that have been set up in the villages. The tablets were used in tutoring and in promoting health and social awareness using special software developed at Amrita. Although there is a school in the vicinity of most villages, attendance is poor and the average student’s skills are many levels below class standards. But most of the children were quick learners. The ‘teaching-hands-on-Math’ training that the teams had been given before they set out for the villages came in handy even across language barriers.
The students said that most of the schoolchildren had not seen a tablet before and it completely captivated them. The students found the tablets very interactive and very encouraging. The children were fascinated by the Aksharamala application with which they practiced writing the English alphabet over and over again. They were just shown a couple of times and learned it so quickly. Soon they were showing us how to use it. The students felt that with some motivation, encouragement and tutoring that the children can catch up and achieve.
As the rehabilitation project continues, the work of the pioneer student/faculty teams that made initial inroads into strange villages will be looked back on and remembered with nostalgia and pride. Many of the students, even in their conversations with friends, faculty and staff, already refer to the village they interned in as ‘our village’- showing the bond they have already forged. Many of them want to go back and get involved deeper in the work that has been started.
The students shared that they had learned quite a lot through the internship experience. Shekhar, who visited a village in Rajasthan commented, “We have quite a lot to learn from them. With all our modern facilities and conveniences, we have forgotten our values. In their small village everyone shares whatever they have- they farm together and share their produce. The village ensures that no one goes hungry. Even for getting their daughters married, they pool in money and conduct the wedding.” Another participant added, “We went with the thought that we would teach them something. But it was we who learned something from them.”