Tuesday, January 3, 2023


Bala was curious to know what we were doing on our land and how we were going about it. He came over unannounced and started chit chatting in the typical local fashion. He had a degree in Science. I thought Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture Design Manual” would help in the conversation and might appeal to him. I brought out the book and handed it to him.

I love this book, not just for its content, but also for the presentation -- hand-drawn pictures and designs. I thought Bala might like it too. But he fell silent after he got the book in his hands. He looked at how thick and fat this book was and how many pages there were. After the initial apprehensions he started reading the first page in a serious, non-flippant manner. I could see that the book was weighing him down. He couldn’t get past the first page. After a few minutes he gently closed the book. He said that he had to try reading it another time when he had the whole day reserved for reading! "Is there such a day?" I wondered.

Basically it was a big flop show. I have seen this repeat many times -- different people and different books, of course. People got bogged down by the mere thought of having to read a book. As I was pondering over this recent incident, it stirred up some really old memories where I have had the same exact feeling.

Till high school I was a top ranking student. In the Indian context, this meant that I could faithfully reproduce what was in our course books on to the exam papers. Our education involved very little creativity or fun or real learning. I had a photographic memory, which was just the thing needed in this context.

For the first time in my life, when I went to college I got introduced to a fiction. As a part of the English course, we had to read a book by Jeffrey Archer. I dreaded this book for the sheer number of pages it had! I was 17 then and I had never read anything for the pleasure of reading. All I had read was school textbooks. I remember the drudgery involved in the reading of this fiction. It took me six long months to get to the last page and understand the story just enough to take the English exam.

This aversion to books was in spite of the fact that I was a good student. Or, should I say that it was because I was a good student?? Students who didn’t fare well obviously hated books. Some burned their textbooks after the final exams. Some ripped their old books. It was as if they wanted to get rid of these seemingly innocuous things that were controlling their lives. Even while engaging in such “nefarious” acts they were worried -- “what if we failed in these exams? what if we have to repeat these exams? what if the Gods punish us for being disrespectful towards books?” After all, books are considered sacred in India.

Strangely enough those books that ought to be the source of knowledge became the very source of bad associations with learning.

 -- Hema

Sunday, October 23, 2022


Before building our house at the farm, it took Dev several months to nail down all the details involved in building a composting toilet for the Indian context. We have been using this composting toilet for over four years now. Here I share the history and details of this construction.

Developing An Understanding

A couple of decades ago, when we were living in California I remember reading somewhere “all of us are peeing and pooping in drinking water”. The blatant truth in this statement hit me really hard. I felt terrible about  what we were doing (or being forced to do). This understanding was weighing me down for sometime and slowly it receded into the background. Several years later I came across this quote by Joseph Jenkins:

“The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don’t.”

This was a wake-up call. Dev and I started reading “The Humanure Handbook” by Jenkins. (All the quotes in this article are from this book) Soon after reading this book we decided that we wouldn’t have a septic system in the house that we were planning to construct on the farm. Also, we had a self-imposed limit on the water (2000 liters per day for household and farm purposes) that we could pump from our bore well. We needed to conserve all the water we could and use it for growing trees. Thus a no-flush toilet idea appealed to us right away.

 “According to a composing toilet manufacturer, waterless composing toilets can reduce household water consumption by 150,000 liters per year. This is significant when one considers that only 3% of the Earth’s water is not salt water, and two-thirds of the fresh water is locked up in ice. That means less than one percent of the Earth’s water is available as drinking water. Why shit in it?”

Current Sewage System - A Nightmare

“Let’s assume the whole world adopted the sewage philosophy we have in the United States: defecate into water and then treat the polluted water. What would that scenario be like? Well, for one thing it wouldn’t work. It takes between 1000 and 2000 tons of water at various stages in the process to flush one ton of humanure. In a world of jut 6 billion people producing a conservative estimate of 1.2 million metric tons of human excrement daily, the amount of water required to flush it all would not be obtainable.”

"Our septic systems pollute groundwater; this is an undeniable fact ... Between 820 and 1460 billion gallons of this (water from the sewage systems) contaminated water were discharged per year into our shallowest aquifers. In the US, septic tanks are reported as a source of ground water contamination more than any other source.”

What about wastewater treatment plants or sewage plants?

These plants are basically huge septic tanks that collect excrement(floating in water) of a large population. Treatment plants use aerobic or anaerobic microbial digestion of the solids. Once the microbes do their job and the contents are allowed to settle down, we are left with solids (called sludge) and the waste water. Sludge is treated differently in different places -- benign to out-rightly harmful practices . “The water left behind is treated, usually with Chlorine, and discharged into a stream, river or other body of water.” Whatever happens to groundwater! In India, the fecal sludge is often emptied out into untreated water, agricultural fields or forests. This poses serious risk to the public and the environment.

The Human Nutrient Cycle




PC: The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

I found this excerpt on iharweb.org; it succinctly captures the mess we are in:

“humans are going through the elaborate process of mining and processing to manufacture fertilizers, applying them to crops, and then losing it all via wastewater. Lakes and streams, which receive an excess of nutrients from wastewater are suffering from serious ecological effects such as oxygen depletion and fish-kills. Also, synthetic fertilizer manufacturing is an energy-intensive industry and is expected to increase to feed an ever-growing population”.

Closing The Loop

 “Not all cultures think of human excrement in a negative way. For example, swear-words meaning excrement do not seem to exist in the Chinese language. Traditionally, there was nothing more valuable to a peasant than humanure.”

 "In China, the practice of composting humanure with crop residues has enabled the soil to support high population densities without loss of fertility for more than 4000 years. There certainly was no chemical fertilizer 4000 years ago. The practice of composting all waste (humanure, livestock manure, household organic residues, organic farm residues) yielded a rich manure". 

“Farmers of Forty Centuries” was a book written by Dr. F. H. King and published in 1910. Dr. King was interested in finding out how people could farm the same fields for millennia without destroying their fertility. He writes:

“One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all humanure in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility ... mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern Western agriculture have been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years”.

Our Construction

One of our friends, Venetia Ansel, had built a composting toilet on their farm. She helped us understand the issues involved. After a series of discussions at home and some R&D, we arrived at a design that incorporates:

- a urine diverter

- a urinal (for men)

- a urine collecting tank, that receives urine from both the men's urinal and the urine diverter

- a granite-top bench that sits on top of a toilet chamber 

- a toilet chamber 

- an exhaust vent pipe from the chamber

Our Composting Toilet

Composting Toilet Bench

Technical Details:

  • The granite-top bench has a "business" area and a wash bowl. The "business" area is basically an opening in the bench with a bucket underneath it. The opening is slightly bigger than a normal Western toilet seat. The height of this bench (38 cm) ensures that it can be used as a Western (sitting style) toilet or Indian (squatting style) toilet. We have a hand-crafted toilet seat, for Western use. 
  • The urine diverter, installed in the front of the "business" area, separates urine from the solids. We got this fabricated. This is connected to a five liter can, that is placed outside the building. We dilute the collected urine and use it as a fertilizer. The urine diverter does its job irrespective of the user's position (sitting or squatting). It ensures that the bucket underneath doesn't get  much of the liquid. The user is oblivious of all these technical details. 
  • The toilet chamber has an opening from outside the building. We have a metal gate here. We have used an old cycle tube to achieve an air-tight seal (to deter bugs). The floor of this chamber is sufficiently above the ground level, to prevent any water from getting in during heavy rain.
  • The vent pipe, from the toilet chamber, is covered with mesh at the top and capped with a PVC 'T' joint
  • A hand-crafted, inverted 'U' shaped, wooden platform sits on top of the wash bowl to enable easy washing
  • A window with mesh keeps the place well ventilated


After every potty use, we gently scoot over to the wash bowl and use the health faucet (spray) situated on the wall behind us. To prevent any odour, the (solid) excrement needs to covered well. We use sawdust from the local saw mills as the cover material. We get our sawdust from timber-only mills (these mills don't process plywood). We have used crushed, dried leaves when we couldn't procure sawdust. 

This toilet wastes so little water -- hardly 5 liter, for a family of four for an entire day!

If a composting toilet is managed properly, it should be odour-free...these toilets should provide a suitable alternative to flush toilets for people who want to stop defecting in their drinking water".

Composting and  Pathogens

We do off-site composting. We have a 10 liter bucket, aligned to the center of the opening in the granite-top bench of our toilet. This bucket is placed on a wooden base, with castors. Once the bucket gets filled up, we use a long hook to drag it out of the chamber. We dump this on top of an (unfinished) compost pile. 

We add kitchen waste and farm's green waste to the same pile. We sometimes add the collected urine also, depending on the moisture level of the pile. The nitrogen in the urine balances the carbon in the sawdust. Before re-installing the bucket into the toilet chamber, we wash it and add sawdust to the bottom. This ensures that the contents of the bucket get cleanly dumped. This keeps the bucket fairly clean and uses very little water while washing.

Once the unfinished compost pile gets sufficiently big, we start the composting process. We let the pile cool down for a couple of months. We then use the end product -- dark, fluffy, earthy smelling humus -- to fertilize fruit trees. We have observed that the trees and bamboo close to the humanure compost pile absolutely thrive from the extra nutrition that they receive from this pile. We have not observed the same growth rate anywhere else in the farm.

"There are two primary factors leading to the death of pathogens in humanure. The first is temperature. A compost pile that is properly managed will destroy pathogens with the heat and biological activity it generates. The second factor is time ... Given enough time, the wide biodiversity of microorganisms in the compost will destroy pathogens by the antagonism, competition, consumption and antibiotic inhibitors provided by the beneficial microorganisms".

Feedback from our visitors

We have had visitors from all over India, the U.S. and London. The most common feedback that we have heard so far is "it is just like a normal toilet!" We are very happy to hear this. We have hosted many, many families and have had no problems. A friend who built his house recently remarked "how I wish I visited this place before building my house! I would have built a composting toilet too!" Surprised by the ease-of-use and odourless nature of the toilet, a friend from Bangalore said that she would recommend this design to anyone thinking about such a toilet.

Commercial Composting Toilets

There are many commercial composting toilets now. Eco-san toilets are used in many places in India. Clivus Multtrum USA has been in the market since 1964! BioLet toilets are being engineered and built in Sweden since 1972! "At least 21 different composting toilets were on the market in Norway alone in 1975".


A no-flush movement is gaining momentum in Europe. People are waking up to the fact that the current way of flushing and polluting the environment is not a sustainable one. Just last week, the Sunday Times (UK) ran an article on how "Composting Loo" is becoming the new status symbol!

“we too will have to constructively deal with all of our organic byproducts eventually. We can put it off, but not forever”. 

”... human species must inevitably evolve ... flush toilets and bulging garbage cans represent well entrenched habits that must be rethought and reinvented”. 

-- Hema


Friday, October 7, 2022

To Market, To Market

We live on our farm, at the foothills of a range of hillocks. We are off the main road by about a kilometer. We go to the market area in Athimanjeripet once every couple of days or so for all our house-hold and farm needs. This is a three kilometer ride one-way. Athimanjeripet is a village with a population of about 5000. Here is an account of my ride to the town and back, from a couple of days ago:

Subbamma went “Madam! Long time no see! How are you?”. I found her limping more than usual after the recent surgery. I was wondering how her husband was doing. I hadn't seen him in a while.


On the road, Nalini, a retired school teacher, was waiting for a bus. She said that arthritis was quite bad. She is a cheerful person, I enjoy meeting her, however briefly.


I stopped at Lata’s place to pay for the manure we had picked up from their place, earlier that week. Lata’s neighbour got curious to know what was going on. After a couple of minutes of chit-chat, she went about doing her usual business having had her curiosity satisfied. I paid Lata for the manure, bought some coconuts from her and left soon after.


We used to live in a rental house when we initially came to Athimanjeripet. There I got to know Babu, our landlord’s brother. As I was riding towards the town, he was zipping through on his motorbike; he acknowledged me as he went past. This quick acknowledging gesture of the head making a quarter turn and back took me some time to get used to, not to mention the practice needed to get it right. I was wondering how his new business was going. During corona, he started selling fruit on a truck stationed by the roadside in our market.


A bit later I spotted our potter on his bicycle. He did the same quick quarter rotation which I was happy to reciprocate. I was remembering that his wife had recently passed away. 


I arrived at the bazaar street, the one and only one we have. The cloth merchant’s shop, a tiny 8’ X 20’ space, was stocked with sarees, T-shirts, fabric for men's shirts, pants and women’s blouses. He had a couple of stools at the entrance of his shop to seat his customers. He typically brought the fabric out to the customers at the entrance. He let me step into the shop and look at his collection. Once I finished my shopping, he said that he was offering me a discount of 10!!


My next stop was the tailor’s shop. Rama, in late 20’s, used to work at a textile export factory in Chennai. When he couldn’t suffer the long hours any more, he quit the exploitative job to start his own shop here in the village. He gets inundated with orders, especially during festival seasons, school reopening times and months in which weddings happen frequently. He is never short of work. This also means he can’t deliver on time. Thus it was my nth time to his shop asking about the status of my clothes. I remembered that one of his relatives was recently hospitalized after a snake bite. I asked about that relative’s health. He updated me about those hospital visits, the expenses involved, the stress in the extended family etc. It was needless for me to ask if he got around to working on my order. Happy that his relative survived the snake bite, I left his shop. Rama asked me to call him after a week.


A little disappointed about not getting my clothes, I started my ride back home. The banana vendor waved at me and said “no”. I knew what he meant -- “I don’t have old bananas to spare today”. I usually stop at his teeny-tiny (5’ X 3’) make-shift, road side shop to pickup the bananas he can’t sell -- overripe, mushed up, with black spots. I bring them home for our chickens. He sets these aside for me to pickup once in every two days or so. He is happy to give these away and I am happy to get these for our chickens. In return, when I want to buy bananas, I make it a point to buy from him.


The next two kilometer ride was not eventful. As I approached our village, I saw Mohan on the road. I remembered that his son-in-law had come over last week and there was a big dispute. I asked him about that and he said that they had decided not to send their daughter back with her husband. The guy being a drunkard had beaten his daughter many times in the last few years and the decision is now made to have her live here with the parents. The story gets complicated as this daughter has three kids and there is no source of income.


With a heavy heart, I kick-started my motorbike. A couple of minutes later, Das waved to say that he will come over to get his cow. He had brought his cow earlier in the day to graze at our farm. We get milk from Das’ cow. I said okay without stopping to talk further.



I came back home and started my chores. It is quite normal to meet people on the road, chat, get to know the happenings and share a bit from our side too. This gossip is essential, as Harari says in the “Sapiens”. There are downsides of gossip too, no denying that. But the lack of human connection makes our lives dry and disconnected.


To compare and contrast, I would like to talk about our lives in a suburb in northern California. We had lived in the same house for 11 - 12 years! And yet, we didn’t know a single family there for 10 long years! Only during the last year (ironically when we decided to move) we had neighbours who wanted to talk to us. Our neighbourhood was beautifully maintained, landscaped, had all the amenities but yet lacked life. I had two babies in that house. Not one soul came to see me or the babies! We and all our neighbours got out of our houses in our cars and came back in our cars -- it was as if our remote-operated car garages were spouts from where our cars emerged out and the garages sucked us and ours cars back in when we came home. Nobody ever needed to walk out of the house! We could hardly see people out on the roads. In all those twelve years, there was a two week period when they were laying roads for which we needed to park our cars outside the neighbourhood and walk the last bit. This changed our lives! We got to see people walking to work, coming back from the stores, gathering on the street. I started looking forward to that little walk in the mornings and evenings, just to see new human faces.


Now, twenty years later, when I go to Chennai (or any other big city) especially to the new areas where high-rise apartment-living is the norm, I remember my northern California suburb days and wonder how people in such apartments, leading nuclear lives, feel about their disconnect from the rest of society around them; or do they even have the time to know that there is a disconnect?

-- Hema




Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Taking Delight Vs Cute-ifying

According to Webster, "taking delight" means "to enjoy very much". Here I would like to introduce a new term that I have coined -- "cute-ify" to mean "to turn something that exists without any intent into a cute thing and get entertained by it". In the context of parenting, many a time I have noticed "taking delight" slipping into "cute-ification". I would like to compare and contrast the two processes here in this article.

When "taking delight" in what a child is doing:

- the adult is either a non-judgmental observer or a participant in the process

- the child is allowed to just "be" and not made self-conscious

When "cute-ification" occurs:

- the adult is being judgmental

- it is quite likely that the child (if old enough) gets self-conscious

To illustrate these two responses I would like to present some examples:

Five year old Ruby shows me the rangoli that she had made. Her caregiver immediately says “Did you see that? How cute! She loves making rangoli. She is very talented.” Overwhelmed with anxiety, the caregiver took over the space and I was not allowed to respond. I could see in the face of the child, subtle ways in which she was becoming self-conscious.


10 month old Satva just learned to stand up on his own. The other day he crawled to the nearby window, held on to the wall, stood up and lifted the curtain up. This let in light and he was delighted by the experience. Fascinated by this experience, he repeated it over and over again. The mom was observing this and taking delight in the process in which her baby was excited about. She just let him be.


Four year old Anu invented a repetitive game in which she and her friend would pass a coin and call out each other’s name while doing so. A simple game that could go on forever! There was absolute delight on Anu’s face, until an overseeing adult said, “Look! How cute! How well she is playing!” The delight on Anu’s face was gone. She got self-conscious. She twitched her mouth and started baby-talk.


Two year old Ishan liked doing everything on his own and refused to take help. He was potty trained. Once when he said that he needed to go to the toilet, the mom rushed to the toilet with him, opened the toilet door, turned on the light and helped him get setup for the job. Ishan tightened up, pulled up his pants, turned off the light, got out of the toilet and closed the door behind him. He said “BABY!” and redid the whole process, this time on his own, without any help -- opened the toilet door, turned on the light and went on to pee. The mom was overjoyed by what her child had demonstrated. She understood the cues and followed them right on from the next time onwards. She didn’t trivialize the child’s attempt to assert himself, nor was she condescending.


I find babies, toddlers and young children serious about what they are doing. They are trying to figure things out, making sense of the world and people around them. There is absolute, sheer, unsurmounted joy in being there with a young child as he is figuring things out. I have repeatedly observed that the experience gets diminished when the child’s behaviour is “cute-ified”. I have also noticed that if there’s unrest within ourselves, if there’s anxiety, we tend to “cute-ify” and move on rather than participate in a wholesome manner.

Now, what does becoming self-conscious do? When we become self-conscious, we are aware of the response that our behaviour will elicit from others. We understand that we can modify/manipulate our behaviour to elicit the response that we are looking for. Thus our authenticity can get compromised. This is a common game that people play. Little children don’t by default play this adult game. But they can learn to play this game after they have been “cute-ified” enough.

-- Hema

Tuesday, September 13, 2022


 If you have access to some 10 or 20 or 30 years old group photos (school, college, wedding, party), please take a look at them; compare and contrast them to some recent ones. If you don't have access to such photos, try to think of a group of people that you know -- friends, co-workers and extended family members. Age group doesn’t matter. I request you to pause here to find some pictures before reading further. It is a crucial step in this exercise.

Now, it is very likely that you would agree that over-weight/obesity is on the rise. We don’t need to know the exact numbers to acknowledge that. But, if you are a person interested in numbers, all you need to do is to go to any public space or a social event and check it out for yourself. I did exactly that. I stood at some busy cross-roads in Chennai, clocked myself and observed the people on bicycles and motorbikes. I counted the number of people who were NOT visibly overweight (Group-A). My friend counted the number of people who were visibly overweight(Group-B). 

If the number of people in Group-A was 'n',

the number of people in Group-B was at least four times 'n'(4n).

Some caveats here:

- Obviously, we are likely to have missed some people due to the nature of the traffic at that time. Thus, #(Group-A) + #(Group-B) was not equal to the total number of people on bicycles and motorbikes. So, we can’t do a percentage calculation here. 

- We couldn’t count people in cars and three-wheel autos.

- Data collected from pockets of Chennai doesn’t *accurately* represent all of Chennai, or other other cities or rural areas.

Having said that, this data still shows us the *trends*. I am deeply pained by this trend. Being over-weight or obese significantly puts one at risk for various diseases. I have been observing various contributing factors at play here, for more than 20 years. This post is an earnest attempt to present my observations and understanding that ensued from those.


I have chosen to omit exceptions for brevity and have focused on the patterns that are quite common.

A baby is born. The new parents are excited and figuring out ways to feed the baby (breastfeed, bottle-feed). As they are going through this challenging phase they get advice from doctors, books, family and friends. Most of them develop this understanding that the baby would cry when he is hungry. They also get to know that once the baby is nursed, he stopped crying. They begin to understand other hunger cues. Now, as the baby grows into a toddler the parental anxiety around food grows too. The caregiver distracts this mobile little person in a million ways just so food can be shoved into his mouth. 

Sure enough, the distractions work, at least in the short-term. Once a set of options expire, the caregivers quickly come up with new ones. The technology used can be different (from pointing at the moon or a nearby animal to using a mobile phone), but the theme is the same -- distraction.

What do distractions do? My thoughts are:

1. They *disconnect* the baby from her *self*.

The beautiful process of feeling hungry and smelling, touching the food and taking that one’s own mouth:

- activates the digestive system

- helps the baby understand the connection between her hunger, hands, mouth and the good feeling that results when the food reaches her tummy. 

- develops a good tactile sense.

- empowers the baby (although the baby wouldn’t know that)

- integrates the baby into the meal routines and rituals.

2. Distractions are basically manipulations to get what we want to happen. Once the baby starts seeing through this (which is likely to happen eventually), they start losing trust on the care giver. 

3. Food is for survival. All living beings are interested in surviving. Children simply can’t starve themselves to death. That goes against Evolution. Left alone to their devices little children, who have a healthy relationship with food, will seek food only when they are hungry. In my limited experience I have seen that, if this healthy relationship is allowed to exist, the chances of developing eating disorders (anxiety around food, over-eating, binge eating, anorexia) -- is quite small. Distractions don't let a healthy relationship develop between the baby and her food.

The baby is now a toddler and he is sent to a day-care, pre-school or kindergarten. There is a routine enforced by the place that he is going to. He is asked to eat when it is time to eat, whether or not he is hungry. The disconnect between his self and what he does starts here (if not earlier). He is also asked by adults and care-givers to “finish” what is on his plate, even if his body is not for it.

Occasionally the toddler falls sick and rejects food. This is body's natural response to sickness. In simple terms, the body tries to heal itself when we get sick; digestion is too cumbersome during sickness. But the adults around her are worried and anxious for her. They insist that she should eat or drink. The toddler eventually yields to parental pressure, thus widening the disconnect.

To understand this disconnect deeply and assist with healing, we need to start looking at our own relationship with food. 

-- Hema

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Walking, Talking And Learning

One fine day, a crawling baby decides to try to stand up. He holds on to something nearby (furniture, railing or an adult) and tries to get up. Not an easy task. Soon he is on the floor again since he let go of the support and his legs are not used to carrying his weight in that fashion. In a little while he tries again. Several attempts and a few days later his falls are not awkward. Soon he develops the stamina needed to stand a bit longer. Now he lets go of his hand and tries to take a step. He falls. He gets up and repeats what he has mastered so far and tries to take it a bit farther. He falls again. These failures don’t deter him. There is no fear. Babies put in a lot of their energy into this process of learning  to walk. This process demands changes at various levels -- physical strength, motor control, cognitive abilities.

This immensely hard learning process is something that all healthy babies go through and they emerge out of it as walking toddlers. Yet, we didn’t teach them how to go about it.

Now onto talking. Toddlers learn to talk the language(s) spoken at home. They don’t learn abc’s. They start off with sounds like “ma”, “da”, “pa”. They put sounds together and experiment with various combinations. They try to repeat the words they hear. They don’t ever get tired of repetition. They absolutely love repetition. They constantly play with the sounds and words they know. There is no fear. They put words together to make sentences that are not grammatically correct. Nevertheless they convey what is needed to be conveyed. 

In our family, I spoke in Tamil to our babies and Dev spoke in Hindi. When our toddlers started talking, they used Tamil words while talking to me and Hindi words while talking to Dev. I know many children who have been bi or tri-lingual since their toddler years. Toddlers go from not being understood (by strangers) to speaking grammatically correct sentences in multiple languages in a year or so. Thankfully there are no formal practices to teach a toddler his/her mother tongue.

Learning to walk and talk demonstrate humans’ ability to learn complex skills on our own. Both these skills are learned out of necessity -- since the people around them walk and talk, these little toddlers also naturally want to be like others. They emulate the behavior they see around them. They internalize their learnings. They learn all their wakeful hours. They are self-confident, in a humble way without knowing that they are so. They never doubt their ability to learn to walk or talk. They don't give up. The toddlers learn both these skills at their own pace. They take the first step only when they feel they are ready to.

Now we take these highly skilled, self-confident learners and subject them to meaningless, mundane, out-of-context, irrelevant learnings drafted by seemingly-caring adults. We start with abc’s. This makes very little sense to English speaking kids since they can already speak fluently and they don’t see a need to learn the alphabet. To non-english speaking kids, this is utter nonsense, but they are forced to learn these foreign abc’s. If they didn't get shaken by the abc's , there is always the 123's. I have heard many young children say that they are not good at English or Math or Science. And yet, these children were once the confident toddlers who mastered walking and talking, all by themselves!

Can we trust little children's learning process?

-- Hema

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The konnai story

In 2013, when we were new to Athimanjeri, there was no garbage dump here. I didn't really see a need for one as there was not much garbage. But in the following few years, this changed rapidly. We now have two 100 ton garbage pits that fill up in no time. This put me in touch with the stark reality -- just a handful of us making eco-friendly choices is not going to make a dent in the garbage produced.

When Corona was at its peak in 2020, I realized that this presented a unique chance for introducing cloth pads (an eco-friendly alternative to disposable sanitary napkins) in our village and town. I started making cloth pads with a small group adolescent boys and girls. My idea was to provide job opportunity locally and grow a few socially-responsible individuals who can carry this venture forward.

I wanted to keep the price low, to make it affordable for the people here. I priced them at ₹ 100, per pad. Armed with a bunch of our cloth pads, I started a campaign, in our town and nearby villages, about the financial and ecological implications of using disposable napkins. Whenever I had a captive audience I handed out free samples. Over the course of next eight months, I gained the following understanding about the lives of rural women and the various factors that are at play here:

  • Cheap disposable pads are really cheap (₹ 5, per pad). Because of this highly subsidized rate, in many cases it makes very little economic sense to not use disposables.
  • Women spend  ₹ 50 - ₹ 150 per month on disposable napkins
  • Many of them don't change their pads since every pad costs money. They use their pads for 8 - 12 hours!
  • Young girls, women in their 20's and 30's do not want to wash cloth pads. 
  • Older women (40 and above) still use cloth
  • Often a poor, semi-urban family shares their bathroom/toilet with other families. Soaking and washing cloth pads is not practical here. 
  • Government schools in Tamilnadu offer free disposable pads for girls from 9th grade onwards. Their families are not spending on pads. The staff at these schools siphon a part of these pads to their homes. Thus their relatives also get free pads. 
  • Government schools in Andhra Pradesh offer free pads for older girls. The girls toilets are equipped with incinerators. So these schools don't see how this can be an environmental pollutant.
  • Women often develop allergies by using disposable pads, but they don't talk about that.
  • Most women burn the used pads, only some bury them.
  • Up to 10% of the women, between ages 25 and 35, have had their uterus removed for mysterious reasons.
  • Interestingly, caste and class played a role in how menstruation could be talked about. The upper the caste or class was, the males in the family were not involved in the discussion.
A very small percentage of women were eager to try the cloth pads. Satisfied with our pads, they started spreading the word around slowly. This local market was clearly not enough if this venture had to provide a sustainable livelihood for the makers of these pads. There was a need to go beyond the tiny radius that we were operating in. Thus konnai was born in mid-2021, with the help and support of many of our friends. It is now a rural employment initiative providing a source of income to a small group of youth and women.

konnai's vision is to enable people make better choices for a better tomorrow. This includes providing high quality eco-friendly reusable products at reasonable prices; providing a healthy work culture for the makers where they and their families can thrive.
Other than cloth pads, we also make cloth bags, cloth diapers, changing pads, baby wipes and bibs. konnai is now online. We can receive online orders and receive payments through GooglePay. Please spread the word about konnai. Thank you!

-- Hema