Friday, July 22, 2005

Toys from trash

Can one learn science while playing and tinkering with toys? Is it possible to create toys and science activities from waste/throwaway material and thus be gentle to the environment? At the Muktangan science exploratorium, an activity and science center in Pune, one can see this happening.

This wonderful science center is located in the Pune University campus and is the brainchild of Dr. Jayant Narlikar, a person well known for popularizing science and reaching out to non-specialists. At the center, children learn to make toys, gadgets and paper foldings, and are able to freely tinker with interactive scientific demonstrations. The atmosphere is very friendly and the staff extremely enthusiastic. Mr. Arvind Gupta, an experienced toy maker and educationist along with two other instructors Ashok and Vidula, runs the center.

The unique thing about the toys and experiments is that they are often made from throwaway household things. Or if not throwaway, then very low cost material. A goal clearly is to design the toys and activities so that they can be accessible to the poorest of children and have minimal environmental impact. A few sentences from the preface of one of Arvind Gupta’s books will give you an idea of the underlying philosophy, “…we must not forget that each scrap of paper was once a living branch or a tree trunk. That each ballpen refill, broken pen and all other plastic comes from crude oil. The earth’s resources are limited and we must use them sparingly with love and care. Today’s throwaway culture offers new challenges for reuse, whether it is tetra packets, batteries, bottles or ballpens. So, don’t waste, don’t abuse; instead recycle, reuse. This is the only way of making simple and environmentally sustainable toys.”

The demonstrations encompass various scientific principles – air pressure, stability of objects, production of sound, moment of inertia, magnetism, eddy currents, current induction, etc. The ideas for toys are also innumerable and I will mention only a few. There is a pump which can be used to blow balloons which is made from two empty film roll boxes, a six inch piece of an old bicycle tube, a drinking straw and sticky tape. There is another pump, which is made from only an old toothpaste tube, a broken balloon and a piece of drinking straw. These pumps nicely demonstrate how valves work. There is a mecanno set which made from matchsticks and bicycle valve tube. And there is a small electric motor, the material for which costs Rs.10 including the cost of the battery! There is no exaggeration – I have made such a motor and it works!

Groups of school children, science teachers and general public visit the center and it is really wonderful observing the excitement they feel there. One can see here serious faced adults turn into playful children! The center also makes visits to schools and I had the chance to visit a municipal girl’s school with Ashok during one such visit. The children had a wonderful time.

Arvind Gupta has nicely documented this work and his books and writings are available at He does not believe in copyright and wants to share everything that he knows and has created.

I hope many more people can come to this center and also interact with Mr. Gupta.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Right to Information

Just got back from an AID screening of a documentary by MKSS on Right to Information. I had seen (parts of) it the first time when Aruna Roy was in LA last year (at an event organized by IFA). Vishal, a fellow Asha volunteer, who was present at the screening and is familiar with Mahadhikar (which works in Maharashtra where an RTI act has been in effect before an effective central law was passed recently) says however that without more judicial reforms the path to curbing corruption is not very easy.

In solidarity with all those tirelessly fighting heartless corruption...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ravi and Aravinda

Aravinda and Ravi (and little Khiyali) were at the AID meeting today. Very nice talk, new perspectives/thoughts, and of course very inspiring. And there was a larger crowd too.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Activist filmmaker with a difference: Shriprakash's visit to Princeton

Activist filmmaker Shriprakash based in Ranchi (Jharkhand, India) visited Princeton on November 21st, 2004. His film "Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda" on the effects of uranium mining and radioactive waste dumping on adivasi communities was screened [organized by Association for India's Development (AID)]. There was a discussion following the screening and after that, we went to Sujit's place and had the opportunity to talk to Shriprakash informally. I got a different and interesting perspective about grassroot activism from this discussion, which I would like to share.

I have said "different" perspective. So, I should first mention what I was expecting and why. During the past couple of years, I have got the opportunity to meet several social activists from India through talks/discussions organized by Asha for Education and AID. It has generally been that these activists look for greater involvement of people in the US with the struggles in India. They generally use their opportunity of visiting the US to build collaborations or support groups for the struggles in India. Given this background, I was expecting that Shriprakash too would appeal to AID and the Indians living in the US to get involved in the uranium mining issue in Jadugoda so that they could exert pressure on the local government and strengthen the protest movement on the ground. However, during the post-film discussion when we asked Shriprakash how AID could help the Jadugoda struggle, his answer was that the best thing we could do was to recognize and honor the local people on the ground who are involved in the grassroot movement. He did not want any other "help". This was not what I expected and I was curious to know more about where Shriprakash was coming from. Though I had earlier planned to leave soon after the post-film discussion, I now decided to go to Sujit's place where Shriprakash was going to stay for the night. There we got a chance to talk more with Shriprakash and get an answer to the question which was on my mind "Why wouldn't one want greater middle class/NRI involvement in the Jadugoda struggle?".

Shriprakash recited a poem, which eloquently captures some of the things that we talked about that evening. This poem called "Stage" is written by Dr. Waharu Sonavane and is from a collection called "Adivasi Swar Aur Nai Shatabdi". A few lines of the English translation are below. The poet, a victim, says:

We did not go on to the stage,
Neither were we called.
We were shown our places,
told to sit.
But they, sitting on the stage,
went on telling us of our sorrows,
our sorrows remained ours, they never became theirs.

Shriprakash told us that several grassroot struggles and movements are hijacked by middle class urban educated activists often to further their own ends (like gain fame, get awards). This may still be OK I argued if the cause of the struggle was fulfilled. There are some realities in India like access coming with being able to speak English and this might be a strength that the middle class activist brings to the movement. But Shriprakash clarified. Things on the ground are often not so simple as a politically motivated activist would like and it is often not easy to take a stand one way or another. For example, refering to the uranium mines as Jadugoda, Sriprakash said that it is not easy to make a blanket statement that immediate shutting down of the mines is what the adiviasi people there want. Though the mines and nuclear dumps may be causing disease and reducing the life a mine worker and his family due to radiation exposure, a job at the mine provides for their food so that they can survive.

A middle class activist often does not reflect this and in his own worldview might think of environmental degradation as the most important factor while taking a decision to support the cause of closing the mines. Shriprakash articulated about how for a middle class person survival is taken care of. What he/she is doing now is with that in mind. The choice of the adivasi however is between a slow and fast death.

There was a difference between Shriprakash and the other activists that I have mentioned before. All the other activists I have met so far have had an urban middle class upbringing. Shriprakash's parents on the other hand are farmers and his early life was in the village.

It was revealing discussion with Shriprakash. Sriprakash's simplicity, lack of veneer and ability to bluntly speak the truth has left an impression on me.