Small Is Beautiful by British economist E. F. Schumacher is a collection of essays that argues the modern ‘bigger is better’ ideology and reasons that we need to steer away from the belief that technology is the answer to all our problems. It questions the dominance of profit-based economics where craft skill is no longer a requisite, nor is the quality of human relationships.
When Ms Seetha Ananthasivan told me that she read the book as a post graduate management student, I was convinced that the life of a corporate worker wasn’t for her, and she was meant to achieve greater things.
Subsequently, the work of many scientists and philosophers, and the complex global crises of climate change and an economic system that does not recognise ecology nor social inequities, only re-confirmed for her that there were more important things to work for than maximising profits for the 1%.
A life in the wilderness
“Anyone who has spent time in the wilderness, knows the impact it leaves on them for life,” said Seetha when I asked her about her fascination with nature.
Although she lived with her family in Coimbatore, Seetha spent two summer months every year during the holidays in Munnar. As a child, she loved being surrounded by the mountains, streams, forests, and the tea and coffee plantations in the hills.
So I was not surprised when I read a quote by Einstein as her Facebook bio – “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.”
But as a young girl in the 70s, she knew of little options that would give her a chance to study the environment. “In those days, there were no talks of sustainability. Some colleges offered a few courses in forestry, but they were predominantly male oriented. Courses in nature conservation were available in the U.S, but the American universities required five years of college education, and I had three,” she said.
On a usual day at home, Seetha came across an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad brochure. Despite no interest in management she decided to apply to the college as two more years of education is what she needed to apply to the American university.
But in her first year at IIM, Ahmedabad she realised that she didn’t want to work in the corporate sector. “Everything that you learn in a management college teaches you how to maximise profits for the stakeholders, so I didn’t take a standard job like most of my friends and classmates did,” she said.
After finishing college, Seetha felt the need to experience nature conservation in India. She wanted to start working right away and landed a job at the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), India.
However, owing to her management background, they didn’t give her work that would bring her closer to nature. The kind of work that she could get there was fund raising, marketing and sponsorships. After a year and a half she decided not to continue any longer at WWF and come back to Munnar to work at the plantations in the hills.
“Though tea and coffee were not the best option for sustainability, I wanted to work with communities close to nature. And here was a strong community of 5,ooo workers in the hills, caught up in all kinds of sociopolitical, economic and educational transitions”, said she.
Recalling her time at IIM-A, she spoke about one of her professors, Dr. Pulin Garg’s work. “Not only was he into organisational behaviour, but also pioneered work that integrated culture building, personal growth and traditional Indian wisdom that was much neglected in the British era”, she said. “His work fascinated me.”
Seetha continued working at the plantations till she was thirty-five, along with ‘process work’ for personal growth and culture building through the organisation started by Dr. Pulin Garg. Though working in the tea and coffee gardens helped her learn more about nature and rural communities, she knew that her end goal was to build spaces that taught individuals from a very young age about the importance of our environment – and the manner in which our perceptions are schooled to neglect nature.
An earthy campus, different species of trees and simple accommodations for students from diverse works of life – Bhoomi college in the outskirts of Bangalore has a peaceful atmosphere which teaches its students a deeper understanding of real life, sustainable living and holistic education, while in the physical presence of nature.
“When I was in school, I wanted more than sitting within the four walls of my classroom and getting a theoretical understanding of things. In college I wanted to learn about conservation of nature and wildlife”, said Seetha. “But I couldn’t find anything.”
“From the year 2000, there were greater discussions about climate change and the need for sustainability. People realised that the world is transforming due to global warming and climate change, caused by an economic system that focussed largely on unending growth in a finite planet” she added.
There were a few colleges that offered courses like an MSc in ecology or a BSc in environmental science, but Seetha believed that subjects related to the nature, organic farming, renewable energy or ecological economics should not be taught in an academic way. Her struggle to find spaces to learn about nature and sustainable living in her youth is what led her to establish the Bhoomi College for youngsters.
She first started the Prakriya Green Wisdom school with the goal to sensitise youngsters and the society about various ecological issues. The school’s curriculum was woven into the ICSE format.
Nine years later, Bhoomi College was established.
As a space for learning through living as a community, the college offers post graduate diploma courses in Sustainable Living and Holistic Education. Students and faculty are involved in inner and outer ecology programs and processes as well as modules on systems thinking, organic farming, deep ecology and more. Various inspiring scientists and thinkers like Shri Satish Kumar from Schumacher College, U.K, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Shri Devinder Sharma and many others are visiting guest faculty here.
Bhoomi College is an alternative educational institution that focuses on green wisdom. There are more than 101 species of trees and more than 70 species each of birds and butterflies in the campus, which is a beautiful space spread over four acres. It also has an organic garden which provides most of the vegetables used here.
The campus has been designed as a space for learning through living as a community. Students, faculty and guests are invited to join in the activities in the garden and kitchen at least for an hour every day. Ninety percent of the energy used for lighting, fans, etc. is from the Sun. Composting, using organic soaps and cleaning materials is the Bhoomi way of life.
Most buildings in the campus are built with stabilized mud blocks and tiled roofs or ‘filler’ roofs which use less concrete. Rainwater harvesting and black water recycling help minimize the water print.
The college offers diploma courses because the management doesn’t want to run it in the same manner colleges have been functioning since the last forty years. “We believe in a modern way of learning – learning from the inspiring work of others and not from books alone. Co-creative learning and sharing the work – it’s a continuous process. And in all of this, the self-exploration program is embedded,” said Seetha.
“There are other institutes that offer the same courses that we do, but they are more academically inclined, rather than learning through life in a collaborative manner,” she added. “We wanted the students to co-create the syllabus with us, in a way which makes them learn only those things they are interested in.”
Seetha hopes that Bhoomi College will help launch green careers for many youngsters, and over a period of time it will also have a greater multiplier effect by leading to the establishment of other such alternative educational spaces that care for fundamentals such as individual, social and planetary wellbeing.
She and her colleagues have successfully created a learning space that not only teaches the students about sustainability, but brings them closer to each other and the planet. With a serene environment and a supportive faculty, the students learn things in a down-to-earth fashion.
The Logical Indian appreciates the efforts taken by Ms Ananthasivan to create a holistic environment for the youngsters of our country. Her work is an inspiration that we hope motivates thousands others to aim for a sustainable way of living.
To learn more about Bhoomi college click here.