Vigyan Ashram

Had been hearing about Vigyan Ashram a lot. So we decided that we must spend half a day there. We got in touch with the school principal, Anand Gosavi, who said that we can visit any weekday – so we made the 2 hour journey to Pabal. Pabal can be reached from either the Nasik or the Ahmednagar highway from Pune – but the general preference for Pune residents is the Nagar road. You take a left at Pabal Phata on Shirkapur and then another left 100 m later to hit the Pabal road. When you hit Pabal, almost any villager will let you know where the Ashram is. It sits prettily on top of a small hillock overlooking Pabal village.

Vigyan Ashram was started by Dr Kalbaug in 1984. Dr Kalbaug did his PhD from the US and came back to India to work with Hindustan Lever. He decided after working 17 years with Hindustan Lever that he now needs to start giving back to society. Charity begins at home, so he went off to his native village, Pabal to start a school there. He built himself a 200 sq ft room and started hunting for kids whom he could get into his school. He was clear that his educational system was for those who were the misfits of society – so the primary criteria for entry into his school was that you need to be a failure in school!

The guiding principle of the school is ‘Learning by Doing’. As the name – Vigyan Ashram – indicates, the school is oriented more towards science and technology. The school curriculum is designed to be completed in 2 years. Each student has to go through 4 modules of 3 months each in year 1. They are:

  1. Energy and environment: Basics of electrical wiring, Lighting.
  2. Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
  3. Food Processing and Basic lab work
  4. Welding and fabrication

Every year in the month of May, admissions are opened and 60 students are taken in , mostly boys but about 5-10% girls also. Apart from Maharashtra, students also come in from Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat and the Northeast. There are even a few students who come every year from the UK to intern at Pabal. Students are typically school dropouts in age group of 16-21. If they have passed 8th, then they are asked to appear for NoS exam to qualify for Class X. The class is broken up into 4 groups of 15 each. Each group of 15 goes through rotation in a module for 3 month duration. Each of these modules is also offered as a short term course, which is nowadays preferred by the local Pabal residents.

Most of the buildings on the campus have been built by the students themselves. The school is a residential one – and what strikes a visitor as a unique feature are the hostels. They are semi-spherical. The construction is quite interesting – with a basic structure built out of steel angles which are joined around plates. There are two types of plates: hexagonal and pentagonal. The whole structure requires apart from these two types of plates, 3 lengths of angles. The lowest layer has only hexagonal plates, the next layer requires alternate pentagonal and hexagonal plates. At the apex of the dome is a pentagonal plate. This is Geometry in action!

pabal-dome

The Pabal Dome

Once the structure has been completed, a grid is made using steel sariya and this is placed on the structure. A finer grid of chickenmesh wire is placed on this. A 3 inch thick concrete mix is now applied here with small shuttering support from the inside. There is a ventilator at the top, which keeps the room surprisingly cool. Adding to the cuteness factor are triangular windows. These domes are sometimes used as drying rooms, in which case the ventilators are deleted and the wall thickness reduced to 1 inch. For those who want to check out more details here is the place:

http://www.vigyanashram.com/Inner/InnerPages/Technology_Pabal_Dome.aspx

Here is an interesting documentary on Vigyan Ashram:

solar-cooker

Parabolic reflector for Solar Cooker

Food is served in a canteen, sometimes with vegetables which are grown on the campus itself. The school uses a solar cooker in the non-monsoon period. The food processing unit also has a solar dryer for making stuff like amla supari. Drinking water supply is through a well on the farm. Pabal is a drought prone area. A tank was made on the farm to store rain water, but the soil conditions were such that the stored water would hardly last a month as most of it would seep down. So now the 2.5 lakh litre tank is covered at the bottom with a special 99 micron thick single plastic sheet. I asked Anand, the principal, about its cost effectiveness vis-à-vis concrete. The plastic sheet costs about Rs. 1.5 lakh and has a life of 5 years, but still works out much cheaper than concrete. One of the disadvantages though is that being plastic, problems arise when an animal gets into the water – the feet do not get too much traction on it, but the mouth does. A dog had fallen into the pond once, and it took thousands of repair work as a result. After this incident the pond has been fenced around. An ongoing experiment is fish farming inside the pond.

water-tank

Water Tank

The farm also has a greenhouse. I have always wondered what advantages a greenhouse offers vis-à-vis open farming. My idea was that the water requirement would go down, since the evaporated water will condense on the roof at night and percolate back to the soil. Anand shared two more advantages – one is that the poly sheet reduces UV rays and the other that the greenhouse effect of trapping CO2 is actually beneficial for plants – because CO2 is the basic raw material required by the plant for their manufacturing of food.

The school has a well equipped workshop. The school allows ex students to use this for their projects even after they finish school. When I went over I found an ex student busy working on a slicer for a dry fruit roll manufacturer. Apart from the usual lathes and milling machines I was surprised to run into laser cutting equipment, vinyl cutters and PCB manufacturing using table top milling machines. These are machines gifted by the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology’s media lab!

pcb-milling

PCB Milling

vinyl-cutter

Vinyl Cutter in Foreground and Laser Cutter in Background.

Students sell their produce in local markets. In fact they are expected to contribute to 20,000 all inclusive annual tuition fee by selling products that they have worked on in school. We added to their bottomline by buying some til oil which was pressed on a hydraulic press. The remnants get processed into a guilt free oil-free chikki, which was also on our purchasing list.

hydraulic-press

The Hydraulic Oil Press

As we were leaving, I had an interesting chat with Mira Kalbaug, the late Dr Kalbaug’s better-half. She still continues to stay in the 200 sq ft room that they built when they shifted into the ashram in 1984. She talked about how there are 50 Vigyan Ashrams in schools across Maharashtra and Chhatisgarh today. And also about how Dr Kalbaug was instrumental in getting vocational subjects introduced into the state board curriculum. Today the school gets funding from a lot of private corporates – as also the state government. As we were visiting a new building was being constructed using state government grants. I went there expecting to see the Ashram students busy with construction, but found contractors instead. Tragically, government subsidy comes only when all rules are followed. Pabal domes and plastic lined water tanks are innovations which still don’t come under the government rule-book!

After students finish the 4 modules, they have to intern for 1 year –typically at establishments run by ex Vidyan Ashram students. Today Vigyan Ashram cannot meet the demand from ex-students for new guys. Students get a stipend of 5000-10,000 p.m. during this internship. After the internship, they have a choice to continue or leave. Most of them continue at the same place, some of them join corporates – and a few leave immediately to start off on their own. About 2-3 years down the line, most leave to start off on their own. In the course of the last 25 years or so, the school has made 1500 entrepreneurs out of school dropouts!