By Suryamithra Vishwa/DailyFT-Harmony Page
In the afternoon of February 3, I managed to tumble into a Badulla bound train compartment, looking like a virtual walking tree, carrying Kohomba, Mee and Kumbuk plants. I was taking them to the Kotagala Tamil Maha Vidyalayam to start two mini forests in the school premises, which will act as food and medicinal resources for the students and their families. Why the Kotagala TMV was chosen was because it is the only school I know of in Sri Lanka where the principal, Raju Sivalingam gets the students to worship plants and give respect to mother earth at assembly time and had earlier nurtured a medicinal garden in the school premises.
As our discussions progressed last month, we came up with the idea to appoint Mother Earth Protecting prefects (Mother Earth Guardians). When Principal Sivalingam had announced the appointment of the Mother Earth Protecting school prefects two weeks ago and wanted volunteers he had expected 10 or 15. Instead over 100 students had been eager. They were then asked by the principal to bring any plants or seeds to grow at the school. They were also advised not to waste a single seed-bearing fruit or vegetable, without placing it within the heart of the soil to give it a chance to bear its produce.
The sight that greeted me when I walked into the school last Tuesday were 100 children from varying ages, lined up with plants ranging from neem, avocado, plantain, mango, gauva, different types of herbs and vegetables. Some of the plants were taller than the students!
The enthusiasm with which they were embarking on this initiative made few things clear. Children, inherently are closer to mother earth than the average adult. The sensitivities of the children are sharp as to their role on this planet as guardians of it. Thus, if we nurture the love of our common mother, the earth, among children, we will have a chance at preventing the ruination of this planet that is currently happening.
Adults are today the mindless users of plastic who are too busy worrying about keeping their family fed and clothed, and may give little heed to the gravity of their everyday actions on this earth. Yet children, who are still in the phase of unsullied idealism, are the greatest resource we can tap, if we are to collectively increase groundwater by growing trees, starting a chain education system on knowledge of plants and herbs for sensible eating patterns for preventing diseases, and educating how the country can be an agrarian country as were in the times of Sinhala kings, without depending as today on foreign pesticide, weedicide and such evils.
Overall, the idea of protecting the mother, our earth, is central to the idea of protecting ourselves. We already know the price we are paying for using technology and the concept of development to produce more and more non-biodegradable products and constructing more and more concrete jungles – and what it does to our planet. All around the world we have seen forest fires – both man-made and caused by excess heat and we have seen the disastrous impacts of an abnormally and rapidly changing climate.
“I can’t believe how blind we are to the way we are ruining our mother, the earth,” says principal Sivalingam who feels very strongly on the subject.
“Every morning my students pray to the trees that give us life, we take a vow of love for them, we thank them for sustaining us humans and we pray that humans will cease to abuse these life giving trees,” says the Kotagala TMV principal, who has been awarded twice the Guru Pradeepa award given for the best principal at provincial and national level and has received many other provincial and national level accolades.
Facilitated by Earth Life Water Knowledge Trails Lanka and the Harmony page, the Mother Earth Protecting prefects of the TMV took the following oaths last Tuesday:
To re-use all plastic material. If it is plastic bags, to help parents fold the bags and keep them neatly and cleanly so that they could be re-used at the next visit to the shop.
To carefully segregate garbage so that they could be recycled, keeping in mind that it is other human beings who clear garbage.
To minimise use of soaps and shampoos and learn how alternatives can be used directly from mother earth and therefore not subject the soil and our bodies to chemicals.
To come up with simple methods of recycling, such as making bookmarks and useful everyday items with those such as toothpaste covers, plastic bottles and other such items.
To develop the habit of gifting a plant or seed on occasions such as birthdays, and learning that medicinal plants consumed as everyday food, prevent illnesses, and trees such as Kos eliminate hunger, providing a power house of nutrition
Principal Sivalingam is one of the best authorities on malnutrition among the estate community, especially children. His M.Phil thesis has been on the geography and sociology of structural change among the plantation community. Writing regularly in the Tamil media, he has delved deep into social issues faced by the community. He points out that almost every child in the Kotagala TMV are exceptional in scholarship as well as talent, who put their utmost effort into their studies. The average number of students who get university entrance per year in this school is between 50 and 80 and mainly to streams such as commerce, engineering and science. He points out that this excellence is the result of extraordinary efforts at their studies amidst unimaginable harsh circumstances.
His own story, on how he got to where he is today, is akin to a fairytale.
“My first experience at earning my livelihood began around six years of age and lasted till I was nine years of age. I did not know what a school was like. I worked in rich bungalows and in homes of relatives in other districts. I believe in the universal power and its miracles. I believe that it is such a miracle that got me into a classroom. It happened on a Deepavali day when I had come home for the holiday. I saw neighbouring children my age carrying nice shirts and trousers gifted to them by a benefactor who had come to their school. I really wanted one of those nice new shirts. One of the students said I wanted them that I should come to school as the distribution of it is made there. So, I went to the Daytron estate school to get those shirts. The principal of that school spoke to me in detail and the end result was that I not only got the shirts but also got enrolled into school,” laughs Sivalingam.
However, his journey from that point was not a laugh. He used to still do odd jobs after school so that he could be less of a burden on his family. By grade 6 he had shifted from the estate school to the Kotagala Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, the school he is principal of now.
His approach to teaching is unique because it is of a genuine love of knowledge and an empathetic caring for his students.
“I know the family details of each and every child. I have never hit any student in my life. They come and talk to me as a friend. The have great creative ideas. We have wonderful painters, singers, dancers, athletes and karate experts amongst us,” he says.
His staff, who also have risen above many challenges, have the same dedication as him in making the school an epicentre of excellence across disciplines and impressing upon the children that the purpose of education is for the development of self and country. They maintain a constant enthusiasm and curiosity in the search for knowledge, which is a hallmark of a good teacher.
Development Should Be Holistic
Sivalingam feels that development should be holistic. “Development should be spiritual, mental and economic. And when we say the word spiritual, in Tamil culture we take into account all of mother earth – plants and animals – our development model should be one that takes into account all these aspects,” says Sivalingam.
What was initiated last Tuesday in this school will take time to take root. But slowly but surely it is actions like this, when multiplied, which will change our country for the better. Each of us is a Sri Lankan who have power within us to change our country for the better.
(The featured image at the top shows Principal Sivalingam with his Mother Earth Protecting Prefects)
(The writer is the founder of the thought movement Earth Life Water Knowledge Trails Lanka. Her library of 20,000 books, of which a large number is on indigenous medicine, Sri Lankan and South Asian History, global literature, science, comparative religions and secular spirituality has been opened up for the public free of charge. Those interested in borrowing any book could contact 0812494285.)