It’s the trendiest new subject in the country. All the beautiful and well-heeled citizens of urban India, headmasters of nexgen independent schools which set bench-marks in education, and left-wing political activists orphaned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are united on the urgency of saving India’s fast deteriorating ecology and environment. As a result environment education has been introduced into every self-respecting secondary school’s curriculum in varying degrees of intensity.

But how much of this eco-enthusiasm has been effectively integrated into classroom curriculums? Are the basic tenets of conserving and protecting the environment — the Good Earth we inhabit and will bequeath to our children — unimaginatively termed ‘environment education’ being appropriately delivered to the nation’s 396 million children (ages six-18)?

Not quite. Despite widespread water scarcity, deforestation, chaotic cities, pollution and global warming having transformed into everyday realities, environment education in schools and colleges across the country is limited in its content and reach. The sudden information overload on environment conservation has left most well intentioned school managements perplexed and confused. Though most urban schools have jumped on the green bandwagon, introducing environment education as an academic subject or an extra-curricular activity, there is widespread dispute about its contours and content.

“I don’t think there’s much environment education happening in schools — urban or rural. If it is, it’s about tigers and trees, not about real ecology issues. Both tigers and trees are dependent on natural resources such as water. But the vital connection between water scarcity and modernisation is seldom made in school curriculums. The reality is that environmental issues are intimately connected with a nation’s social, political and economic policies. It cannot be taught in isolation as a ‘science’ subject. Unfortunately awareness of environment as a holistic discipline is lacking in most curriculums. Environment education has become just another subject to be rote-learned for marks and results,” says Darryl D’Monte, the well-known Mumbai-based environmentalist and author (Temples or Tombs) and former resident editor of Times of India, Mumbai.

D’Monte, who has conducted numerous workshops for school children in Mumbai on environmental issues, is a leading light of a new group of green campaigners who are resolutely opposed to the trivialisation of environment education, which they believe requires carefully chosen multidisciplinary inputs. The pioneer organisation spearheading this school of thought is the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy NGO (non-government organisation). Founded in 1980 by the late and legendary Anil Agarwal, CSE has a fully-fledged environment education unit which has been given the mandate of “producing quality resource material and programmes to bring about a more ecologically conscious way of thinking and living” for secondary schools and institutions of higher education.

Moreover to spread the message of holistic, integrated environment education, CSE also conducts its own in-house programmes. Among them: the Environmental Educators Workshop for teachers which helps them incorporate environment awareness and learning into their subjects; the Ecological Footprint Project, comprising a package of four eco-tours (Yamuna Yuk Ride, Water Walk, Jungle Jog, Raising a Stink and Sanitation) to make students aware of their role as urban consumers and its impact upon their immediate environ-ment, hinterland and beyond. Currently these tours are available only to schools in Delhi. But a manual has been prepared for teachers so that across the country they can conduct eco-tours of their own. CSE also publishes Gobar Times, an environment focused monthly magazine for teachers and children.

“Most environment education programmes have remained transfixed on nature, although it is equally important for children to be exposed to the development and social issues of environment conservation. Therefore environment studies shouldn’t be limited to learning about beautiful forests and exotic wildlife. It needs to be expanded to cover the development choices we make as a society and nation — it has political, social and moral contours. In our eco-tours for schools, we introduce students to these wider, more complex issues. For instance in the Yamuna Yuk Ride, we take students on a boat down the polluted city stretch of the Yamuna, a river on which Delhi depends for its water needs. This way they are exposed to the sights and smells of one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Such holistic and experiential environment education helps students to connect water pollution with the pressures of urbanisation and modernisation. Only through such broad-based education can we find the solutions to build an ecologically balanced and sustainable society,” says Rustam Vania, a former graphic designer and currently the coordinator of CSE’s environment education unit in Bangalore.

Implicit in this aggressive propagation of broad-based holistic environment education is criticism of initiatives launched by populist green campaigners, particularly the trendy Mumbai-based environmentalist, Bittu Sahgal, editor of the best-selling monthly magazine Sanctuary (est. 1981). In the year 2000 Sanctuary in collaboration with biscuit manufacturing major Britannia Industries Ltd initiated its Kids for Tigers programme in Bangalore and Mumbai. Perhaps because it is accompanied by considerable razmataaz and marketing hype, Sanctuary’s populist Kids for Tigers campaign has aroused the ire of the grave academics of CSE.

Reacting to implicit criticism of environment education pundits, Sahgal clarifies the rationale of the Kids for Tiger programme. “Ours is not a people versus wildlife initiative. We use the tiger as a symbol of nature, much as the national flag symbolises a country. We believe forests should be saved to protect the hydrology of the subcontinent. We propagate that protecting forests protects forest cultures. And that respecting the earth is as good a way to ensure a future of dignity, health and happiness as any other,” says Sahgal, who adds that the programme has enrolled 750 schools and 2,000 teachers in 13 cities across the country.

Nevertheless so fashionable has environment education become that not only is it being adopted as an extra-curricular programme, in a growing number of schools it’s being introduced as a compulsory academic subject. Indeed some state level examination boards like the Maharashtra board have made environment education compulsory while national boards like the CISCE and CBSE have introduced it as an optional subject, in their curriculums.

Comments Varsha Kanorkar, principal of Colaba Municipal School in Mumbai, affiliated to the Maharashtra SSC board: “Environment education is a compulsory subject and is taught until class X. We follow the textbooks prescribed by the board, which are actually more workbooks than textbooks. Irrespective of what we teach in class, our main endeavour is to teach children hygiene basics . They are also taken on day trips to parks for practical environment education.”

Yet educationists question the utility of adding an additional subject to an already packed curriculum. Moreover, given the notoriety all state government mandated textbooks have for errors and indifferent quality, they wonder whether their content will be utilitarian or useful. Their focus according to most environment experts, is on the theoretical aspects of the natural life cycle rather than acquisition of practical skills and advice on how to regenerate human and natural environments.

“While environment education is a compulsory subject in schools, in Maharashtra, the question is, does the curriculum actually educate children about environment issues? The answer, I’m afraid is in the negative. Children are just mugging another subject — environment studies. For example the prescribed curriculum won’t help a student in getting a mound of rubbish outside a house or school cleared. Students are being taught mere facts and figures. We have to make our children realise that they are part of the problem, and therefore they have to be part of the solution,” says Katy Rustom, a well-known Mumbai-based environ-mental activist who co-promoted the Centre for Environment Research and Education (CERE) in 2001 together with Dr. Rashneh Pardiwala, former scientific advisor to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR).

CERE has drawn up ambitious plans to “radically transform prevailing environment education practices in schools and colleges” by preparing a prototype curriculum for CISCE and SSC schools and training a team of professionals who will in turn train school teachers. However CERE’s most promising initiative is its School Nurseries project which helps schools establish small, self-sustainable, student-run plant nurseries.

“This programme to enable schools to establish small student-run plant nurseries will encourage their students to become responsible, caring citizens with an affinity for nature and the motivation to work towards creating an ecologically sustainable world. Young students can integrate a number of subjects with this project. For example creative writing skills can be enhanced by encouraging students to write stories and poetry on trees, planting, harvesting etc,” explains Pardiwala.

Though there are definitional and implementation flaws, environment NGOs and activists need to be given credit and accolades for creating a nation-wide awareness of the crisis of environment deterioration.
While NGOs such as CERE have recently begun to advise confused school managements on ways and means to smoothly integrate environment education into their curriculums, the Union government backed Centre for Environment Education (CEE) has built on its head start. Promoted in 1984 by the Union ministry of environment and forests, CEE has five regional cells in Bangalore, Lucknow, Guwahati, Pune and Ahmedabad and seeks to “create environmental awareness among children, youth, decision makers and the general community”. Currently CEE runs various programmes such as the National Environment Education Programme for Schools (which establishes environment education resource centres); the National Green Corp Scheme (objective: to help establish 100 eco clubs in each district of India); and coordinates Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), a worldwide hands-on internet-based science and environment education programme in partnership with the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA), USA. Over 50,000 schools all over the world, of which 86 are in India, are enrolled in the GLOBE programme.

One such school is the Divya Shikhar Smriti Vidyalaya, Lucknow, (DSSV). “As participants in the GLOBE programme we have set up a small weather monitoring station in our school. Children use the station to maintain temperature and cloud charts, measure rainfall, gather weather-related information and feed it into the GLOBE website. The data is then used to forecast worldwide weather trends and to develop environment protocols,” explains J.C.Srivastava managing trustee of the Divya Foundation, which runs the school.

The central government-sponsored CEE is also the nodal agency for the Environment Orientation to School Education programme of the HRD ministry under which a comprehensive review of school curriculums is undertaken to identify ways and means in which environment education can be integrated. Recently CEE North, which has its headquarters in Lucknow, undertook a comprehensive content review of textbooks of schools affiliated to the Uttar Pradesh state examination board.

Preeti Kanuajia Comments Preeti R. Kanuajia, the Lucknow-based programme officer of CEE: “The review process highlighted that environment education should not be added as another subject to the already overburdened curriculum. Instead environment awareness should emerge from the subjects under study by infusion, not addition. For instance in history one could talk about Emperor Ashoka’s environment policies or what foreign visitors have written on the subject. Our job is to develop quality content material and suggest ways in which it can be used. The material is vetted by experts and handed over to the state department of education to use as they deem fit. Our task is restricted to suggesting ways in which textbooks can be greened. The interest and willingness of the state govern-ment’s education department is crucial to the success of our initiatives.”

Most educationists and school principals are also averse to environment education being added as a compulsory subject to curriculums. They prefer to introduce it as an extra-curricular activity, supervised by committed teachers and students resulting in the greening of all subjects. “Mandating environment education as a boring study subject is the best way to kill it. Instead it should be introduced as a voluntary, extra-curricular activity to arouse the interest and awareness of students in green issues,” says Madhulika Sen, principal of Delhi’s Tagore International School (TIS).

Indeed environment education as a hands-on extra-curricular activity rather than an academic classroom subject is arousing growing enthusiasm across the country.

Down south in Chennai, The Children’s Garden School, a government-aided institution, runs a very successful nature club. Started with help from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) it organises field trips, exhibitions, visits to environment and pollution control centres and lectures by ecology experts. “Environment education is not taught academically though some science texts have chapters on ecology and pollution, which are uninteresting and lack illustrations. So we decided to start a nature club which conducts environment activities round the year and 90 minutes per fortnight is set aside for formal environment studies,” says C.R.Vijayalakshmi, a biology teacher who supervises the activities of the nature club at the school.

But though informal extra-curricular environment education is perhaps the best methodology to spark student interest in ecology, there is a growing demand for it to be also taught in classrooms.

In Kolkata, the G.D. Birla Centre for Education (GDBCFE), a CISCE-affiliated school with 1,940 girl students has the unique distinction of having been awarded an ISO 14001:2000 certification for environment awareness. This is perhaps because it is the only school in the city which offers environmental science as an optional subject in the class X and XII school-leaving exams. Inevitably it also has an active nature club — CARE (Come and Restore the Environment) —which initiates environmental campaigns round the year. “In GDBCFE we are committed to imparting ‘quality guidance of an enduring nature in a clean and green environment’. Perhaps our most successful initiative has been in the area of waste management practices. Students learn how to segregate garbage into biodegradable and non-biodegradable. Every class has two dustbins for these two types of waste, as do common areas and the playfield. Everyday volunteers gather the biodegradable waste and put it into a vermi-composting pit that the students have built. When the compost matures, our gardeners scatter it on the flower beds,” says Mitra Sinha Roy, principal of GDBCFE.

A broad generalisation which is unlikely to be disputed is that south of the Vindhyas ecology and environment issues tend to be accorded greater attention than in the rest of the country. This is particularly true of the garden city of Bangalore where there is a clear and present danger of a threat to its famous parks and gardens from automobile pollution and an exploding population.

This impending crisis HAS prompted the city’s Bangalore International School (est.1969) which has shifted to a new campus in Bangalore’s green belt, to mandate environment geography as a compulsory subject for classes VI-X. Comments Anu Monga, the cheerful principal of BIS: “The best way to create a deep awareness in students of the importance of nature is by encouraging them to maintain their own gardens and to plant and nurture trees and herbs on campus. This will not only enlighten them on the types and uses of various medicinal plants, but also enable them to experience the pleasure of watching plant life grow, flower and fruit.”

Inevitably it’s the small minority of unaided or independent schools which are introducing environment education not only as an extra-curricular activity but increasingly as a subject for formal classroom study. Unfortunately environment education is an almost unknown quantity in the nation’s 700,000 government schools across the country (90 percent of all schools are government run or aided). With most of them grappling with basic administrative problems such as demotivated teachers, student retention, and lack of buildings, blackboards, drinking water and sanitation, their harassed administrators tend to regard environment education as an exotic subject best left to elite schools.

“Though children and youth in rural India are physically closer to nature, they seldom have access to natural resources to satisfy their basic needs. For instance though they may live beside a river, it’s rare for rural youth to have experienced piped water. Instead river water is transported across hundreds of miles to cities. The Bangalore Water Supply & Sewerage Board (BWSSB) spends Rs.300 crore annually to pump water from the Cauvery to Bangalore; but villages in the Cauvery basin don’t have access to its water. This deprivation — which I describe as the environmental divide — is the main cause of the continuous migration of millions of youth from villages to cities. Migration to cities is not the answer to India’s development problems,” warns Suresh Heblikar, promoter of the Bangalore-based NGO Eco-Watch which recently completed a workshop for teachers from 70 schools in the Kolar and Tumkur districts of Karnataka.

Given the pressures of population growth and continuous neglect of rural infrastructure development, most of the nation’s once abundant natural resources — forest cover, flora and fauna and water reserves — have suffered severe depletion during the past half century of centrally planned development. Yet perhaps the gravest deficiency has been in the realm of managing the country’s hitherto abundant water resources.

Continuous mismanagement and waste of water resources and years of large-scale deforestation has transformed India from a once water-rich society into a water-insecure nation. Long queues before public taps and private tanker supplies of water are common sights in town and country. Despite ten successive Soviet-style five-year mega plans, the benefit of subsidised piped drinking water is a luxury to the overwhelming majority of the poor and disadvantaged in rural and urban India. According to the latest census of India statistics, only 38 percent of the 192 million households in India enjoy the privilege of grossly under-priced piped water supply.

“Water is a resource which is much too free. Under-pricing of this vital resource has ironically put it beyond the reach of the poor majority. A resource conscious society should carefully calculate the cost — and price — of its natural resources. Since we haven’t done so, there’s a lot of pilferage and waste. Water should be a costed resource, only then will we use and save it as a precious resource. Water management should receive top priority as environment education is introduced in schools and colleges,” says Prakash Prabhakar, the Delhi-based CEO of Environment Cause Organisation.

But even as trend-setter schools in urban India have accepted the rationale of environment education as an extra-curricular, if not core curriculum subject, environment activists are beginning to voice alarm that this broadly defined subject is in danger of “being all things to all men”. They caution against indiscriminate introduction of environment education and advocate the creation of a non-government supervisory organisation comprising reputable environment scientists and educationists, to draw up a nationally applicable environment curriculum and monitor its implement-ation in schools and other education institutions.

Comments Prakash Prabhakar: “The ever increasing number of environment NGOs have turned environment education into a trendy fad and the cause into a business. There is little awareness of the big picture. Indeed considerable damage to the environment and the cause has been done by an abundance of funds and the proliferation of NGOs. There is a strong case for creating a national supervisory body comprising environment experts and educationists to monitor the content of environment education.”

However, though there are definitional and implementation flaws, environment NGOs and activists need to be given credit and accolades for creating a nation-wide awareness of the crisis of environment deterioration. “Formal, structured environment education syllabuses are urgently required because all major natural resources in the country are in grave danger of irreparable damage. A society cannot survive if its natural resources are rendered unfit for use by its people. The only hope of salvaging this grave situation is by making the young aware that they need to proactively begin to protect the environment they will inherit,” says P.M. Belliappa, a Chennai-based resource person for the United Nations and founder-director of Best Environment, Education and Management Services.

Quite obviously the dangers of cataclysmic environmental despoilation and degradation in India which hosts 15 percent of the world’s population on 2.5 percent of planet Earth’s land area, is clear and present. The response to this grave challenge is also patently obvious: environment education, and more environment education.