Land Restoration Efforts at the Agastya Foundation in Kuppam
Dr Yellappa Reddy hosted a small party of guests from Maitreya this week at the Agastya Foundation’s remarkable field base near the Kolar Goldfields. Dr Reddy retired from the Karnataka government in 1995. A hard worker, he is a director of the National Dairy Development Board. He is in demand and lectures widely saying, “I have reached a stage in life where I am only looking for moral compensation”. When Dr Reddy took voluntary retirement he continued his work on eco-restoration whenever possible. He went out for long walks and was concerned to see plastic waste pile up.
Dr Reddy met Ramji Raghavan, a former banker, in 2002 who started the Agastya Foundation – which had acquired some barren land near Kuppam from the Andhra Pradesh government. Agastya soon became an attraction for schools in and around the district. Taking notice of its potential, Dr Reddy offered to help with the development of the foundation.
It should be noted that Kuppam is a semi-arid district right where Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka meet. Annual rainfall is 40-60 cm. The landscape is hilly, though, with the exception of eucalypts, they are largely bare. This situation was largely due to the deforestation of mining interests for fifty years at the nearby Kolar Gold Fields. It is asserted by scientists that widespread destruction of the once lush forests had led to the decrease in rainfall and degeneration of the land. Based on his previous experience, Dr Reddy had confidence that he could restore the now almost barren hill top where the Agastya campus now stands. That was three years ago. Visitors today see for themselves what determined effort and inspired leadership can do to change a landscape for the good.
In addition, Agastya has built a laboratory with a telescope, models of the solar system, and devised a large number of simple experiments to demonstrate various aspects of science. These are made by teachers who are constantly designing easy-to-make working models. In addition, teachers teach teachers how to make these as educational tools, a skill, which they are able to take back with them to their own schools. Thus Agastya is making a practical contribution to the broader educational system for those who visit here.
Children come here almost everyday and play first in the lab and then outside in the garden. Thanks to the tireless work of Astagya’s founders and of the teachers – the children receive invaluable hands-on lessons in the open air. This is the best way of communicating ecological values in the situation as it prevails in Kuppam, and may be extended to apply to a number of environments in south India. Before leaving, the children are given a light lunch.
Experiential, hands-on learning such as found at Agastya, is an educational method that directly involves the learner, by actively encouraging them to do something in order to learn about it; ‘learning-by-doing’.
At Agastya it has been found that there are certain learning situations in which hands-on education is the only way to teach something. Here the foundation asserts that doing something is the best way to learn about it, rather than attempting to learn about it merely and solely from a book. Hands-on learning allows students to directly observe and understand what is happening. This is a successful way to teach kinesthetic learners, who learn best by example. It is often hard to properly understand something you have never directly seen or experienced.
It also encourages young pupils to do things for themselves. Thus the foundations for learning independently later on in life are well laid. Important life skills such as these are often neglected in a situation where students are simply told facts and made to learn them by heart. Of course, students hoping to attain the highest grades, will also read up on their subject to develop a deeper understanding of it. That is why at Agastya there is a balanced approach to classroom and science laboratory work with field studies.
Not far away from this hill, Kuppam has been the site of several high tech activities. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras set up his wireless telephony system here. Hewlett-Packard created an i-community in the town. Kuppam has also been the site of an experiment with the Israelis, who had built a complex network of underground pipes and used several high technology methods to practise intensive farming.
Dr Reddy is no stranger to land restoration. He has a Doctorate in soil chemistry. He was the Chief Conservator of Forests in Karnataka before he became the Environment Secretary in the state. Between 1982 and 1987, he restored 50,000 acres of forestland in North Canara district. He repeated the work in Coorg district, while he was the Chief Conservator there. Now, Dr Reddy’s aim at Kuppam has been to create a sustainable model for all semi-arid regions in southern India; a compact capsule of protocols that could be replicated elsewhere, in all semi-arid parts of south India.
It was noticed that the soil did not have moisture. In the absence of grass (grazed by wandering cattle and the remainder removed by villagers), rainwater would flow, taking the topsoil with it. So the founders created dams, with the help of Jain Irrigation Systems. Several trenches were dug to hold more water, the aim being to reduce the surface flow, which takes away the topsoil, and increase the sub-surface flow. These interventions increased the moisture content of the soil.
Grass returned, and with it many species of plants. Now the campus is flourishing with plants of all kinds, many of them of high medicinal value, with about fifty ‘keystone’ species at vantage points to increase the chances of succession.
Dr Reddy notices several changes already visible in the area, such as butterflies appearing, as are some exotic birds, and a few anthills that indicate the increasing fertility of the soil. The land is quickly coming back to life. Now also, the villagers are allowed to cut the grass everyday to a limited extent. Dr Reddy’s plan is to develop a sustainable economic model, yet, without heavy investment.
Much of the restoration work is funded by the Oberoi Foundation (of Alok Oberoi, former partner of Goldman Sachs) and the Jhunjhunwala Foundation (of stock market investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala). Jain Irrigation Systems worked on the trenches and the check dams. There are significant contributions in research as well. Several professors from the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Bangalore are helping on various aspects of its development. Among them are botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, apiculturists and other experts.
Balakrishna Gowde, professor at the university, had been going to the campus at regular intervals. Gowde maintains a bio-resource park (with the help of the department of biotechnology) about 30 km from Bangalore, and is deeply interested in biodiversity. Professor Gowde has studied the botanical history of the area and is convinced that there were once abundant rains and a dense forest in Kuppam district.
Grass, food crops, honey, health drinks, medicine, natural dyes… For Dr Reddy the potential of the land is very high. It will take the Agastya campus at least another five years to approach its full potential. It will also become a place where children learn about ecology and the environment. Here all the experiments are done by nature. Altogether, the guests from Maitreya had a day full of inspiration and wonder, as well as having the opportunity of making new friends with Dr Reddy and his colleagues. Maitreya congratulates Dr Reddy and his team for their outstanding contribution to restoring a very beautiful part of south India.
Adapted, in part, from an article that was published in the August 29, 2005 issue of Businessworld magazine in India.