How A Former Journalist Got 900 Kids To Ditch Smartphones For Gardening

A group of children working on plants on a terrace.
Students of Kids for Environmental Development Initiative (KEDI) grew 4500 kilograms of vegetables last year.

Every day, at 7:30 am, when most students of the Sant Kabir School in Vadodara are attending their morning prayers, a group of students is on the school’s terrace. With trowels in hand, they dig, plant seeds, and identify birds they hear chirping. Sometimes, they blush at the sight of vegetables they have grown. Between February and September last year, these students of Kids for Environmental Development Initiative (KEDI) grew 4500 kilograms of them.

Hitarth Pandya, the founder and director of KEDI, himself mentors these children. A one-man-army, he conducts his classes during the morning assembly and the zero hour period, without disturbing the day-to-day academic schedule.

A former journalist, Pandya isn’t your typical green-activist. Yet his unique module for environment education has hundreds of enthusiastic participants. Despite no social media presence or publicity campaign, student-enrolment in his course has increased from 90 to 900 in just two years.

In a conversation with YKA, Pandya explained how he got a generation hooked to the screen to act on the environment. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:

Aishwarya Mohanty (AM): How did you come up with the idea of KEDI?

Hitarth Pandya (HP): I used to interact a lot with parents, teachers and principals while working on various reports as a journalist. I was also inclined to environmental activities. And I realised that a basic understanding of environment is lacking in us. So I thought, ‘Why not begin by educating kids at their schools?’

It took me 6 months to create the entire module, which runs for four years. My children learned everything first and their perception towards environment changed. Then I approached their school, presented them the idea of the module, and the school was more than willing to go ahead with it.

A man sitting in a garden surrounded by children listening to him speak.
A one-man-army, Pandya conducts his classes during the morning assembly and the zero hour period.

In the first year, I teach my students about the basics of environment: air, water and soil. Then we learn about vegetable-gardening and the basics of farming. When they see the output and the vegetables, their interest increases. They also learn about insects, since they are dealing with vegetables.

The second year is devoted to trees: a basic understanding of trees, their kinds, afforestation and deforestation, the entire process of tree-plantation and the after-care. Developing a tree museum is a part of this. We see a concrete jungle coming up and they are adorned with ornamental plants and trees. I try to teach my students which native tree should instead be planted.

The third year is about birds and animals. And the final year is devoted to water-body conservation.

AM: Why is it important for kids to go outside and into nature?

HP: Nature is something you can’t learn about in books. To understand leaves, you have to go out and touch them to learn that every leaf has a different texture.
Children today are more open to new ideas and are ready to learn. Making them sensitive towards their environment at an early age will help them take appropriate initiatives later.

AM: What are the challenges you faced working with an online generation?

HP: Interestingly, keeping them offline was never a challenge. The real challenge is time and space. Everybody wants to go out of the class and explore and learn. But to reach out to more schools and children, I need someone as mad as me to volunteer.

AM: How have the students’ responses been to the initiative?

HP: The students have been very enthusiastic. I remember having cried at the innocent questions raised by nursery students, which made me realise how cruel we have been to the environment.

When I asked the students to look around and tell me what they observed, they listed buildings, antennas, etc. I quipped if they saw birds, and they said, “Chidiya to sab udd gayi na, dikhti hi nahii (All the birds have flown away. We don’t see any.).”

Another student from a class, who isn’t a part of the programme, gifted saplings to her senior batch on her birthday, so that they could plant it as a part of this programme.

AM: How does your module stand apart from the environmental education in schools?

HP: My module is different because we don’t have books, blackboard or soft boards. Our surroundings, our environment is our book.

Children digging soil.
“We have made the school’s campus green, we are creating a tree museum, we have seasonal birds visiting us, and I think that’s the achievement of the module.”

Environmental education in school teaches children the melting of glaciers in Antarctica. They are minimally aware of their immediate surroundings and how they can mitigate the damages being caused to it. We have made the school’s campus green, we are creating a tree museum, we have seasonal birds visiting us, and I think that’s the achievement of the module.

Also, while the conventional method to teach students about environment includes excursions and field-trip, in such trips the students are mostly in picnic-mode rather than learning-mode. In my module, the nature itself comes to the school. Within one year the school campus starts witnessing presence of various insects and birds.

AM: What are the various environmental issues that Vadodara faces and how do you think children can be instrumental in changing them?

HP: Vadodara was the chemical capital of the state and our rivers are facing its consequences. Also, our cities are expanding, and the expansion is taking place without considering the damages. We are wiping out natural environment to build concrete jungles. We create synthetic ponds while our natural ponds are dying. The damage is done, but it’s important to mitigate it if not reverse it completely. That’s where education comes into play.

AM: What is your vision for KEDI?

HP: The vision is to touch as many hearts and make them sensitive towards the environment. The tree museum and more green surroundings are definitely on the cards as we move ahead. KEDI is open and everybody is welcome to be a part of it, to impart and share knowledge about the environment and help the initiative grow and reach out.

All images provided by author.