July 01, 2005

Water in the valley

The encouraging thing about Rishi Valley, 36 years on, is the way the school has determinedly tried to become part of the surrounding community, even the surrounding countryside. Certainly the kids here are largely from privileged India; but the way the school runs, the way it treats them, is a lesson in many ways. It’s not just that they are made to go spend time with rural kids in their schools. It’s the way they are encouraged to see that their future is a shared one, in which not just those other rural kids, but everyone around here, has a part to play.

One vital reason for that, even a vehicle for that, is water. This part of Andhra Pradesh is perennially drought-prone; the rainfall in a good year is about 10 inches. About 15 years ago, the school decided to do something about this, something that would be beneficial to the surrounding hamlets too. They built check dams, dug a large percolation tank on the edge of the campus, planted a nearby hillside with local trees, all measures to harvest and conserve water.

A few years of good rainfall in the early and mid-1990s mean all this effort paid spectacular dividends. The percolation tank was full to the brim. The trees grew on the slope of the hill and that regenerated more vegetation, so that slope became noticeably lusher and greener than others nearby. The campus itself became – and remains – greener and shadier than it was in my time. Greater varieties of birds began appearing on campus – so much so that the school runs a birdwatching course by correspondence and has published a gorgeous book called “Birds of Rishi Valley”. Streams and nullahs on the campus gushed with water. With the filled percolation tank, the aquifer under everyone’s feet got recharged. And the point was, everyone from the students to local small farmers saw the benefits of these simple measures.

But two things happened. First, farmers excited by the newfound availability of water began growing crops that needed lots of the wet stuff: paddy, in particular. Second, still excited, they began sinking borewells and pumping out the groundwater like there was no tomorrow. By some estimates, the number of borewells in this valley went from 3 in 1990 to … over 10,000 today.

Well, there is (always) a tomorrow. Following the years of reasonable rainfall came – as Joseph (and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) might have predicted – several years of very poor rains, a spell that continues till now. Groundwater levels began sinking, the streams and borewells dried up, and – hard to believe – the percolation tank dried up as well. Today I heard of a borewell sunk to 270 feet that has gone dry; a new one has had to go down to 570 feet before striking water. All illustrating two simple things: even worthwhile measures have their downsides; and in India, a lot of things, even worthwhile measures, remain dependent on the rain.

Water is a major concern at the school and across the valley. Everyone talks about it. Everyone longs for rain. But in the meantime, the school has started on other measures. Like reusing the waste water from the dining halls and hostels to water the campus plants. Like crops that need less water. Farming techniques that need less water. Vermiculture (using an African breed of worms that to my untrained eye, look no different from any others). And once again, they are experimenting with these measures along with the local villagers, one of whom is delighted enough with the success of his small vermiculture trial that he plans to take it up on a larger scale.

They still wait for rain here, and I hope they get some soon. Even a few more years like this will be a threat to the very existence of the school. But in the meantime, the degree to which the school seems linked to the community it is part of is striking. That’s a good thing for anyone from privileged India – me, to begin with – to experience, appreciate and understand.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I think all schools which belong to "privileged India" should start such things.

These days most colleges have social service programs, but by then, most children have already drawn an imaginary line between themselves and the poor.

Only a few do it because they like to, or because they think it's good. Most of them do it just because they have to.

Such programs will certainly go a long way in erasing this imaginary line. My latest post, "Looking Out, Looking In" is related to this in a small way. Check it out if you can.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I pressed the RETURN key by mistake. That was me.

Neela said...


This is wonderful work of course. But why have elite schools at all in India?? To my mind it only widens the class system. Even if the school does sterling social work, at the end of the day it is a privileged school made up of privileged children "looking in".

If we want true empathy, egalitarianism, the end of a rich-poor divide, then such schools should be forced to take in more than the token number of students from poor and middle class families. It would be interesting to see how many students from less privileged families Rishi Valley takes in per year. How many middle class students?

In this way, I think the standard missionary schools or the KVs or other schools (I am not familiar with them) provide true egalitarian education - quality education without elitism.


Neela said...

Anirudh, to add to your comment, how do you think that "most children have already drawn an imaginary line between themselves and the poor?". Partly because they go to such schools, which reinforce rather than erase their line with their well meaning "social service". As long as privileged parents decide to send their children to these schools instead of the local school there will always be this line existing. We will do social service, these schools say, heck we will even set up schools for these students, but sorry, you poor, you middle class you cna't study at our school.

Lets take RV. RV proudly proclaims on its website that it has 6 scholarship students each year. That's right 6 out of 360 students. What percentage is that? you do the math.

Further the cost to educate a child at the RV school is 85,000 rupees per year. Since the school declares that it is autonomous, we can assume that the 300 fee paying students are paying the full 85000 per year. Now this organization runs a Rural Education Program - the school (this is a school that makes approximately 2.5 crores a year) donates - hold your breath - a lakh per year! That is Rs. 300 for every 85,000 fee paying student.

So how does this rural initiative get subsidized? From the HRD Ministry.

Now I ask you, should the HRD ministry be subsidizing this program which can easily be subsidized by the 85000 fee paying parents or should it be subsidizing municipal schools in the ocuntry and raising their quality of education?

D, as someone who cares deeply about the poor and downtrodden, I would have expected you to at least highlight these facts (loyalty to school notwithstanding) instead of paying glowing tributes to a clearly elitist school just because it builds dams and tanks which bring more birds to the school.


Anita said...

My thoughts r not in same vein as the above comments, but makes me wish schools and citizens of Hyderabad too were as conscientious in their approach towards water and nature. I moved here a year ago and have since been bothered by the lack of green cover here. The saving grace was the long commute to work, on the outskirts of the city. After 15 minutes of mind boggling traffic, we finally were onto a lovely road in Jubilee Hills, shaded with trees on both sides. A road expansion drive has resulted in the trees (some at least 20 years old) systematically being chopped. The road looks naked and you can barely see any green cover anywhere. It makes me mad and wonder why on earth do people here complain about low or no rains? Where are the trees people? You have to look hard to find the colour green in this concrete jungle. The government has made parks and chopped trees. Right, like that is going to compensate for the environmental destruction. You think Rishi Valley people could come and enlighten the people here a bit?

Anonymous said...


Schools like KV do provide egalitarian education. I agree. But quality is another matter. If the school is good, that's great. But suppose it isn't?

Anonymous said...


I have replied to your comment on my blog.

Neela said...


If privileged citizens like us don't send our kids to local schools and thereby force such schools to increase the quality of their education, if we sit on the sidelines, content to have our maids children and our dhobis children attend those schools but not 'OUR" kids because, well, our kids must have "better quality" education, how can you expect the quality of such schools to improve?

If we speak of egalitarianism, we should practice it, and have the same set of "quality' standards apply to all.


Tanuj said...


Suppose the KV is not "good", then you obviously won't send your kids there. What you are implying is that you (the privileged) have a right to 'good quality' education, and others don't.

If this is not propagating the class divide, what is?

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Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, "why have elite schools at all"? Are you serious?

First: there are elites in India and I can't see either that that will go away, nor that there is anything somehow wrong about there being elites. When you have elites, you will have elite schools. Simple.

Second: let's face it, in India pretty much every private school, and many public ones, are elite almost by definition. And I can't see anything wrong with that either. Is your "severely middle-class suburban SSC school" less elite than RV? Sure, if you like to find degrees of eliteness. If it was English medium, for instance, you could make a fine case that it was an elite school on that basis alone.

But really, I'm not interested in trying to prove that RV is less elite than you imagine, or that other schools are elite, or in some proof of what "middle-class" is.

What interests me at RV -- whether it has to do with me once attending the school or not -- is that it makes more than the token attempt to form links with the community it is part of. The water issue is just one aspect; there are others I might explore in a further post. The result is that the students seem more conscious of the future they share with the people around them.

I think that's a good thing. Whether I care deeply about the downtrodden has nothing to do with this.

Finally, yes, I think RV is an elite school. It is not, however, an "elitist" school. I believe there's a difference.

Anita, this morning I climbed up the hill overlooking RV's playing field, through land that has not been reforested. Across a low stone wall was the land that had been reforested. The contrast was stunning. What's more, later in the day I took a bus to Chennai (where I'm writing this); the contrast between the clean plastic-free valley I had just spent three days in and the grubby AP/TN towns we drove through was also stunning.

Yes, I think the Hyd authorities could do with inviting people from RV to offer them some suggestions.

Neela said...


You said: " What interests me at RV -- whether it has to do with me once attending the school or not -- is that it makes more than the token attempt to form links with the community it is part of."

More than a token attempt: As I wrote earlier, I am quoting verbatim from the RV website:

1. " The Rural Education Programme incurs an annual expenditure of around Rs 2,500,000." Further "The School contributes about Rs. 100,000 to the Rural Education Centre and its activities" . this is 0.4% of its total income (@ 85000 rupees for 300 fee paying students). More than a token attempt?

2. The school states: " Rishi Valley School is financially autonomous. Funds generated from its approximately 310 fee-paying students cover all running expenses.

In a typical year there are about 6 scholarship students, including children from families engaged in social work in remote parts of the country"

6 students. 2%. More than a token attempt?

3. Further, in your second post, you mention how villagers can't spend an extra 1 Re to come to the good doctor's clinic. If the school/foundation were doing more than a token attempt to form links with the community, would it not understand by now where the local community lives and how they travel so that it would not set up clinics in inaccessible areas?

I have nothing against the school and even laud its good work. But the above pieces of evidence convince me the "community links" you speak about are mere tokenism and good PR for the school. I would be more than happy to be proved wrong, through facts to the contrary.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, I went there. I spent three days there. Is that to be discounted and we should instead go by your impressions?

"Inaccessible area"? How do you know? The health centre is on the road that runs past the school, about 500 m from the school gate. (I walked there, you will note i wrote). It is closer to the villages on that side of the school (where the road goes directly to the main highway in the area), but further from the villages on the other side of the school (where the road winds through villages and joins the highway elsewhere). If it had been on the other side of the school, the villagers that are closer now would have had a problem with the bus fares; the ones that have the problem now would not have.

This is "inaccessible"?

Are you determined to prove, and believe, that this is some ivory tower set in the middle of gawking and resentful villagers? Well, if you are, then you will see just that much.

Anonymous said...

Dilip -- I think your visiting RV should not be discounted. At the same time Neela is quoting the RV webpage and that cannot be discounted too. The figures that Neela has (4% and 2%) smack more of tokenism.

Anonymous said...


I am not saying Rishi Valley isn't doing some good work. But what do you have to say about the statistics?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Like I said, Anand, I have no intention of trying to prove something about RV's being elite or not. What I'm saying is, to anyone who visits and understands what they are trying to do, it isn't tokenism. It's more than any other school I went to, that I even know of, does. Figures on the website can't tell that story. That's one reason I'm trying to tell it.

But as I also said, if Neela or anyone else is determined to see it as an ivory tower, well, they will see it that way.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Ani, what do I have to say about the statistics you ask?

Simple. For one thing, the number of "local" students (kids from the villages, kids of clerical staff, etc) is now over 50, out of a student strength of 350. Do the arithmetic yourself.

For another, there are costs involved in running such a school. The school has over 50 teachers, in a conscious effort to maintain a low teacher-student ratio. (This includes the doctor Kartik I mentioned, who is paid by the school, takes a couple of classes, and is not the school doctor anyway). Their salaries come out of the fees; one student's fees pretty much pay for one teacher's salary.

There is the low density in the hostels: never more than 20 kids, one or two as low as 4. Another conscious decision.

There are the extensive sports fields, the costs of food, electricity (including a generator since the power supply is erratic) ... again, you do the arithmetic.

It's easy to look at those numbers on the website and think "tokenism". But it's worth trying to look beyond that too.

Certainly this is a school that elite children attend. My point is that this is a school that tries hard to shake them out of elitism, that tries to show the kids that they belong to their community and have a common future. As far as I can tell, it works.

Neela said...


Lets clear up a few points:

1. No one, least of all me, is discounting your impressions. I was merely quoting facts that seemed puzzling to me in the light of your statement about more than tokenism. As I wrote then and still hold the view, I am happy to be proved wrong on the facts. If this information is available on the school website, can you fault me or any other reader for reaching some conclusions that may not exactly fit with the picture that you draw?

2. The fact that I choose to be persistent and potentially annoying about reconciling these differences (between facts and your impressions) does not make me "determined to see it as an ivory tower". I reached a conclusion with 3 pieces of evidence to support that. All you needed to do was to indicate that my facts were incorrect. If I still stuck to my origiinal conclusion you could have concluded that i was "determined" to see the school as an ivory tower and given up on me. I think you are being unfair by slamming a judgment without even giving me a chance to react to corrected statements of facts.

3. Having said that, now that you have corrected 2 of my 3 facts (about (a) the geography of the clinic and (b) the number of students) I am happy to rethink my view on tokenism with regard to this school. I hope you will also re-examine your view about how much the school is doing exactly vs what it could be doing in light of my observations about how little the schools appears to contribute to the Rural Initiative project relative to the fees it collects.

4. If your intention is to show that this is an elite school with a difference, I have no quarrel with that. The degree of difference is what we disagree about.

5. Finally, I didn't quite understand what point you were making in quoting the costs of maintaining extensive school grounds and a low student-teacher ratio and this as a justification for donating the low amount to the Rural Initative Project. Isn't that exactly the tokenism argument? That you spare very little for some other cause because you "need" the giants share of resources for yourself?



Anonymous said...

I just happened to stumble upon this blog. And yes, I am an ex-student of Rishi Valley.

Without letting on which side of this discussion I fall on (or whether I even think this discussion is relevant), I just wanted to point out one "perceived" flaw in Neela's 3 point argument, specifically point 1.

As I understand it, the poster says that RV contributes 0.4% of the finances for the Rural Education program. And therefore it is only making a "token/superficial" effort.

Does the author mean to imply that the only measure of one's involvement in an endeavour is one's own financial contribution? Are there no other yardsticks to measure this by?

As an extremely contrived, hypothetical and unreasearched example, how much of Mother Teresa's annual budget came out of her own pocket? Would you call her efforts "token"?

The REP was conceived and nurtured by RV. One must try to look at what they did with the program and why they did it. That's the more important yardstick to measure commitment, in this case. How does it matter who paid for it?

Moreover, those who contributed the other 99.6% of the budget certainly did not think RV's was a "token" effort, did they?

(PS: why RV does not contribute more could be a valid point raised in another discussion, but it is not relevant here, in my opinion).

That financial statistic, seen in isolation, does not prove anything one way or another (as is the case with most "facts" seen in isolation).

Your argument would make sense if RV contributed a miniscule amount to a third party project and someone tried to use that to show involvement. Like for example, if I gave Rs 1 lakh to Mother Teresa's organization and I had an income of a few crores (I wish!) and I tried to brag about it, then you would be completely justified in calling it a token effort.

But I think that 0.4% statistic is irrelevant in this case. Or should I say it's just a "token" statistic :-)

If I misunderstood/misrepresented the intent of the author's note, I apologize.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am not going to exactly continue on the lines of these discussions in case I become overly 'patriotic' about RV but I am an ex-student too and i passed out a year ago so I am much younger than you guys.What I can say is that despite the fact that most of my ckassmates were from priviledged India I think we passed out having developed an awareness and concern for our surroundings . Rv never preached or anything but the way we learnt the why and how, it was just ingrained in us.For instance it really just itches me to see water being wasted unessecarily(like while brushing ) and I would never ever throw plastic ont the road or in the sea because despite my otherwie elite upbringing rv's put such values in my bloodstream.
ABout the tokenism..we would discuss that too often...there might be some truth in it, I don't know but rv is certainly better than the pretencious 'elite' college I am attending now.Badly articulted comment but well..

Anonymous said...

Hi all
just stumbled on this. I run the health centre at RVS and here are a few of my observations - particularly to Neela:
(i) I hope you agree that teachers need to earn some money to live? Our salaries come from the fees paid by the kids and by any token, the RVS salary is rather poor. If you so desire I can mail you my salary details.
(ii) As Dilip pointed out the tchr:pupil ratio of 1:6 is quite out of the ordinary for any school.
(iii) The Rural Education Model has been taken up by UNICEF and has spread to many states in the country and to Ethiopia too.
(iv) The Helath Centre caters only to people who have BPL cards turning away all those who are "rich" enough to go to the nearest town - Madanapalle. www.rvrhc.blogspot.com will give you some details about our work
(v) Please do mail me at rvsrhc@yahoo.co.in in case of clarifications

Anonymous said...

I am not an ex student or in any way related to RV but it is ridiculous to know that someone is criticizing the school without knowing the objectives of the school properly. It is a way of teaching that RV follows and their primary role is to educate students in a certain way in my understanding. What they are doing should be taken as tools of teaching students to develop understanding of the society.And if their tools help anyone in the society it should be considered a bonus.

You seem to have missed the main argument of maintaining a good teacher student ratio.......and its importance, it is not to boast of having a greater share of resources for few. It is much more than that.