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.