I have been a science teacher all my life and the day I left IISER-Pune, my formal career as a science teacher came to an end. IISER was not a good environment for a science teacher anyway, but that apart, I am surprised that I am not missing my classrooms very much. Feeling good on the one hand that I won’t have to correct papers anymore, which I never liked, I also won’t be teaching in a classroom which I loved all my life. I still love that but it is strange that I am not missing much when I no more do that!
Perhaps I know the reason. A number of things that I did as a teacher continue even today. One is the katta. Now there is a katta at home every Saturday night, post dinner (no…no…. we don’t serve dinner. You have to have your dinner and then come). Interestingly some of the very first generation katta members, who are now well settled in their profession, have joined once again. Very soon, I believe their next generation will join. We have a more varied group now ranging from 12th entrants to grandmas, academicians to businessmen, students and housewives. First year collegians and their parents become katta members together. So katta isn’t dead, it has expanded.
The classroom is also still there, though less frequent. Now the class is attended by farmers, tribals and illiterates. Last week we had a meeting with a group of farmers that I have been working with for the past many years. Until the last meeting with them, I was a professor, with substantial research funding. Unlike most social science or agriculture researchers, my farmers are not my ‘subjects’ of research. They are my research partners, colleagues and collaborators. Over the last few years an interesting chemistry had been built between me representing a research institute, an active local NGO called Paryavaran Mitra and its insightful social workers, Poorva Joshi of Bioconcepts Pune and a group of over 70 farmers. Now only the research institute has backed out. The rest of the group remains the same. A few years ago we started with the spirit that let us study and understand our problems ourselves and seek solutions.
Although the intention was to build a spirit of working together, I always had some doubts in my mind. I belonged to an elite class of scientists and professors in a prestigious institute, whether I liked it or not. I brought funding for the research. In fact, because of the funding we could organize lunch at the farmers’ meetings. Officially farmers were the ‘beneficiaries’ of the funded project (although I don’t like the word) and they were getting the due benefits. I thought that majority of farmers might be coming because they see those benefits. By our principles we, the researchers, are trying to create a spirit of working together, facilitating collective intelligence, community governance and so on. But that might just be our perception. Farmers might simply be coming because they get free lunch, some money or other benefits at the end.
When I resigned from IISER, the funding ended. IISER took a very strange decision to continue utilizing my grants by appoint another principal investigator on the project. This is not the norm in the field of science. This was only a move to channelize money elsewhere. Research projects are researcher centred, the institute only hosts them. The institute has no rights to appoint a new investigator on an already running project, without even asking the consent of the original investigator who wrote the project proposal and mobilized the grants. But big people of science don’t need any norms. Whatever they wish is the rule, whatever they do is the procedure. The fact relevant here is only that now I was left with no funding.
Last week right at the beginning of the farmers’ meeting I told everyone that I have no money in hand. Now I can’t give any ‘benefit’ to anyone. Your work will not have any remuneration that we used to give from the project funding. Now you have to make a decision. Do we continue the work without any money or do we stop the project here? This was the acid test. My doubts whether the farmers are participating out of a spirit of co-working or they only come to get the ‘benefit’ would have been clear in no time.
And then came the biggest pleasant surprise. The moment I explained that we have no more funding and asked them whether they wanted to continue working, without a millisecond delay 80 hands were thrown in air in unanimity to say, nothing will stop us. We will continue working together. What I could read on those raised hands was, “We are not here because we get some money. We are here because we discuss our problems here. Someone listens to us and tries to understand us. He says let us all study the problems, try to understand and seek solutions. He doesn’t pretend to be a messiah; doesn’t give us any magic wand solutions, but only says let us work out our solutions together. This is what we come here for. Not because we get some free lunch and some money”.
I can see big parallels with my interaction with students throughout my teaching career. I never promised them good grades and further admission to best Institutes or good career opportunities. I interacted with students with a promise of doing good science, opening up new questions and addressing them. I never promised answers to their questions but said let us find ways to address them. I am not here to answer your question. I am here to share your questions and share the efforts to investigate and seek an answer. The classroom and the farmers’ group are not different in any way.
The response that let us continue working together, we don’t care whether there is funding or not, is the best reward that a science teacher can ever get in life, the true Nobel for a scientist. And here lies the difference. I am tempted to compare the response of farmers to that of students when they learnt that I was leaving and that I won’t have funding anymore. They were more worried about their incomplete degree and their career than about the problems that we were investigating. I feel the illiterate farmers are better researchers than the top grade Masters and PhDs in science.
Farmers have given me another assurance. The science teacher in me hasn’t died and will not die.