UDAIPUR AS A LEARNING CITY

“…cities in developing countries are expected to grow by 140,000 people a day for the foreseeable future.” - Janice E. Perlman

“Cities take up 2% of the earth’s physical land space, they consume 75% of the resources and produce 75% of the waste. 27% of India’s population live in cities and produce 64% of India’s GDP.” - Kirtee Shah

“In 1900, just 15% of the world’s population were urban. Today it’s more like 40%. And by 2025 it’s likely to be at least 60%.” - Vanessa Baird (in The New International: Green Cities, June 1999)

“…ecological problems are emerging as a major source of forced migration and urbanisation. In 1996, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that 25 million persons are environmentally displaced world-wide. Slums and squatter settlements are now home to an estimated 25-30% of the urban population in the developing world.”¯ - Gleeson and Low (in Consuming Cities)

Cities are growing, it is quite clear. However, this growth is marked by its quantity, not quality. Within cities around the world, many are facing an astonishing decline of humanness. Trends such as consumerism, corruption, violence, prostitution, pollution, environmental degradation, and drug abuse are increasing alongside economic growth. We feel the fracturing impacts of city life reflected in our selves, in our relationships, in our families and in our communities, as we become more alienated from one another and more dependent on the ready-made world provided by the Market and State. Further, the city as driven by mainstream urban planning cannot grow without feeding off the natural resources, people and wisdom of the hinterland, often to their detriment. Unfortunately, most development efforts are still symptomatic and focused on rural areas with very little attention being given to cities as holistic and healthy systems. 

While the city harbors systems destructive to the human spirit, it is also a precise reason why positive re-generation from within is so important. As the nucleus of educational and developmental decision- and policy-making, the city provides opportunities for closer work on related critique, positive regeneration and other direct, meaningful action. This is the impetus behind Udaipur as a Learning City.

The Sanskrit term, Swaraj can be translated as ‘radiance of the self’ and ‘rule over the self’. It was re-invoked during India’s freedom struggle by MK Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in the early 20th century, as a spirit, sensibility, and form of organization that would value the uniqueness of each individual as well as the diversity of community. Swaraj means that we personally and collectively co-create what terms such as ‘freedom’¯, ‘progress’ and ‘justice’¯ mean, and try to manifest a way of life where one is neither controlled nor controlling. After the British left India, the larger agenda of Swaraj was forgotten amidst the agenda of nation-building. (See Hind Swaraj¯ by MK Gandhi).

Launched seven years ago by the Shikshantar Institute, Udaipur as a Learning City (ULC) is an innovative process to explore what the practice of Swaraj means in the context of urban India today. At the core of Swaraj is a deep commitment for people in all spheres of society to reclaim ownership and responsibility for their own learning. ULC aims to support this by re-valuing and re-connecting the diverse spaces for deep learning within the city of Udaipur, based in the northwest state of Rajasthan, India. It is an open invitation to people of all ages and all backgrounds in Udaipur, to explore ways of living and learning that are more balanced, more meaningful, more just and honest for them.

All of ULC’s processes are geared towards regenerating the local learning ecology¯. By this is meant that the city is a living organism and people are active co-creators of meaning, relationships, and knowledge. The learning ecology approach recognizes that an infinite knowledge exists within people and contexts far beyond what can be documented and stored. It also recognizes that dynamic processes of emergence are taking place within the larger system.

Principles

The four major principles or process-goals behind ULC are:

  1. Developing our own visions and practices of Swaraj in Udaipur.
  2. Appreciating the unique strengths, capacities, potential, talents, skills of each person.
  3. Building feelings of caring and connected communities.
  4. Challenging unjust, dehumanizing institutions, attitudes, structures, plans, etc., particularly those related to urbanization and globalization.

These principles came out of a few years of dialogue with local people, and were articulated by Shikshantar during the process of conceptualizing ULC in the year 2000. They have been, and continue to be, integrated into each activity that emerges under ULC. Given the openness and the spirit of the principles, they have not led to debate, but rather have inspired the community’s imaginations to make them manifest in practice.

Processes and Practices

These principles came out of a few years of dialogue with local people, and were articulated by volunteers at Shikshantar during the process of conceptualizing ULC in the year 2000. Given the openness and the spirit of the principles, they have not led to debate, but rather have inspired the community’s imaginations to make them manifest in practice. They have been, and continue to be, integrated into each activity that emerges under ULC. Such overlapping categories of activities include:

 

Intergenerational Community Reflections and Dialogues: Festivals have traditionally been potent opportunities for deep reflection and social engagement. With this in mind, ULC has hosted interactive dialogues on both local and international festivals, such as Rakshabandhan and TV Turnoff Week. Posters, cooperative games, discussions and hands-on activities are combined to explore the meanings and life-actions of such celebrations. Public dialogues are also supported both by hosting conversations/events on prominent issues, like water conservation/restoration and pedestrian-friendly roads, and by screening thought-provoking films, like Baraka and Modern Times. Producing a variety of community media not only helps Udaipur citizens to critically and creatively look at present problems with new perspectives, but it also builds friendships across boundaries. For example, despite a strong national and international trend toward Hindi and English, ULC offer opportunities for reflection and conversation in Mewari (the local language). This enables a more dynamic sharing of peoples’ stories, songs, proverbs, etc., which in turn de-institutionalizes dialogues and takes power back from professionals and experts.

 

Unlearning and Uplearning Workshops: These particularly relate to critical media awareness and creative expressions -- people making their own music, dance, dramas, films, puppets, masks, sculptures, especially using so-called ‘waste’ materials. The underlying intention of such workshops is to actively nurture peoples’ capacities to say ‘no’ to the consumeristic, competitive and compulsory institutions/ attitudes/ behaviors/ structures that enslave us, and to instead organically construct spaces and relationships that do serve them.  Such workshops predominantly occur within local neighborhoods and are hosted by families at their homes, in empty lots or temple spaces. Questions raised during such workshops include: How can we share our feelings, stories and ideas through our own expressions? How are our creations different from the readymade world of mass media? What do notions like beauty, leadership, success, freedom, justice, peace, security etc. mean to each of us? What are our creative capacities and power (beyond institutions), and how do we unleash them to make the kind of life we want?

 

Natural Living in a City: ULC is currently exploring ways that city-dwellers can reconnect to their hands/bodies and to nature, through organic farming on their rooftops, rainwater harvesting, solar cooking, herbal gardens with medicinal plants, spinning cloth and other such efforts at home. Natural living efforts also give city people a chance to ‘get their hands dirty’. The soil and the sacred get reconnected in the most basic aspects of human life, like health, food, water, clothing and shelter. These processes enable city folks to link local culture with spirituality and the physical ecology; for example, the wisdom in Mewari is intimately connected with an ethical lifestyle and natural balance, which are essential for challenging urbanization. 

 

Learning Exchanges: ULC seeks to move beyond NGO/Government institutional boundaries and agendas and directly involve local artists, organic farmers, artisans, businesses, healers, etc. in questions and experiments related to regenerating urban life. It also encourages youth who are not interested in school or college (or those who want to change their career) to create their own meaningful paths of living, livelihood and learning, by trying out exciting apprenticeship opportunities. We encourage people to reclaim their own learning processes by building their own learning webs (diverse networks of co-learners and spaces) around the city.

 

These different elements of ULC are geared towards regenerating the cultural commons. They stand in direct challenge to the violence of Development, Progress and Modernization, which has severely devalued local people and their knowledges and experiences and has led to high levels of dislocation, isolation and alienation. We are trying to revalue those things which are important to our collective well-being but do not have direct economic value to the State or Market. The activities of ULC are entirely off-line, as internet use and access is quite limited in Udaipur. People meet face-to-face as needed, depending on the activity (whether a publication in Mewari, a rooftop garden, a theater workshop, etc.). No separate building has been especially constructed for ULC; rather, we have chosen to creatively utilize what already exists: peoples’ homes, local neighborhoods, public gardens and parks, art galleries, temples, ashrams, businesses, or local organizations’ offices.  ULC focuses on families and diverse communities. We recognize that intergenerational learning is key if wisdom is to emerge and profound action is to take place.  All of this ensures that the Shikshantar movement, even in Udaipur, extends far beyond one space – and therefore steers clear of the isolation and marginalization that face many alternatives to education.

 

Members

“We don’t want Udaipur to become like a Delhi or Bombay.”                                                                                                                                                          - Many Local Citizens of Udaipur

There are various levels of engagement in ULC. Shikshantar: the Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, an independent not-for-profit applied research institute and open learning community, has been the primary impetus behind ULC. Its local team has supported the emergence of various parts of ULC, either directly by initiating activities, or indirectly by engaging with local people to encourage/involve them in sharing their hearts, heads and hands in a process. Families, friends and neighbors are well involved in different aspects of ULC (depending on their interests).

They have also been able to generate many new relationships with individuals from a variety of local organizations in Udaipur, including artists, craftsmen, healers, activists, farmers, story-tellers, academicians, scientists, etc. They make an effort to partner with individuals, rather than institutions, to stay true to the spirit of ULC. In this way, there are no formal mechanisms for getting involved in ULC, no compulsion and no bureaucracy. People co-create what is of interest to them, thereby ensuring fairly strong commitments to the action at hand.

For this engagement to happen, it has been important to invite each person to be a co-creator in ULC. This means seeing leadership in an entirely different way -- a leadership that every person innately possesses, that builds upon their own strengths, and that is not about having followers. The core team of Shikshantar and the core volunteers in ULC have had to be ready to listen and to ask engaging questions, in order to discover where they might connect with new people. They have had to maintain a high level of energy, as this becomes contagious and excites others to open up and get involved. And they have to keep a creative mind and open heart, in order to support the emergence of multiple processes --farming, Mewari language, music, festivals, etc. -- which often crisscross in fantastic ways.

In this way, people join ULC either through an existing activity, which has been initiated by the interests and questions of others, or by sharing their own curiosities to start something new. It is self-organizing, and the core team of Shikshantar plays a role in fleshing out, supporting, and deepening the emergent activities. This is why the work of ULC is so broad and deep, spanning everything from vermicomposting to anti-globalization campaigns to learning with local artists. 

This is a fundamentally different orientation from many other learning city projects in the West, where the focus is on expanding technology (computers and internet usually). In those cases, the definition, purpose, means, and ends of ‘learning’ are often rooted in the military-industrial paradigm of development and rarely ask questions about the direction of this paradigm. ULC is also very different from the popular notion of public-private partnerships, where ‘public’ only refers to government bodies, and ‘private’ only to corporations. ULC is trying to transcend these categories of public and private and to appreciate and integrate the authentic concerns and strengths of local people. 

The principles behind ULC lie in paradigms of abundance as opposed to deficit and scarcity driven frameworks. In practice, this means beginning with an appreciation of what people have and an openness to any and all to join in co-creating. These activities evolve naturally from ‘ordinary’ peoples’ own unique gifts, questions and dreams, to connect to larger systemic issues and concerns. This approach actively nurtures peoples’ capacities to say ‘no’ to the institutions/ attitudes/ structures that do not serve them, and to instead organically construct spaces and relationships that do serve them. Much of the approach is built on exploring how to do things with as little money as possible. This not only ensures sustainability and honesty of efforts but also encourages innovation and imagination.

In other words, in Udaipur as a Learning City, individual people and intergenerational relationships are the starting point -- not abstract ideas, pre-determined projects or results-based indicators. ULC enables us to be alive to surprises and to feel a constant excitement in journeying into the unknown. 

Udaipur as a Learning City has provided a space and an opportunity for people who have a greater vision of their future and of the future of Udaipur. Both within this city and with others from India and abroad, they have been building a network of concerned and motivated people and organizations, committed to rethinking and experimenting with urban living.

Over the last seven years, the team at Shikshantar have been astonished and inspired by the directions ULC has taken. They have realized that they work more closely with individuals and families in neighborhoods rather than with formal institutions, and that motivation which comes from within is far more invigorating and self-sustaining than forced action. They have found that interactive dialogues in public spaces such as parks have been very effective. It allows them to work at a different scale and increases interaction with a much larger network of children and families (beyond normal NGO circles). They have also been excited by how such resourcefulness of space and materials reminds people that you do not need a lot of money to do wonderful things to start to transform your life and community.

Their stress on the regeneration of Mewari language has helped to build up a relationship with local people (particularly artisans and farmers). The several intergenerational story books they have published in Mewari have been widely appreciated by people especially in the surrounding villages and towns. They have reached around 4000 families and have started to generate a new sense of self-confidence in many people, that they have the know-how, wisdom and capacity to face the challenges before them and create something different from the rat-race. They know there is tremendous untapped potential in self-organizing communities such as local businesses, local community media and local caste groups, and are continuously trying to find new ways to involve them in ULC.

Lastly, ULC is continuously re-energized by a strong team of youth volunteers. Their involvement in many different workshops and activities has helped to shape where ULC goes and how it sustains itself. They have realized that work with youth needs to be more focused on ‘practical activities’¯ that gives them more self-confidence and encourages their creative powers. ULC offers them a space to create their own concrete projects in specific contexts. It is also important to support them with adult and elder mentors/practitioners from their diverse communities.

Overall, Udaipur as a Learning City has been (and continues to be) an exciting journey. Shikshantar invites you to share your reflections on new possibilities for urban living.

Many more details, stories and images, from the Udaipur as Learning City process can be found at www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/udaipur.html