The Sholai school never goes dark, thanks to the visionary principal and enterprising students who have made a mini hydel project to harness the rains that forever lashes the Palani hills in west Tamil Nadu.
Sholai CLOAAT (Center for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology), started in 1989 based on the visions of Jiddu Krishnamurthy, is now home to about 60 students. The unique school is situated in a forest area off the Palani-Kodaikanal route.
Sholai follows the Cambridge curriculum yet students get hands-on experience in agriculture, animal husbandry and engineering. The school owns 100 acres but occupies only 35 acres for its activities. The rest of the land is also a classroom, where the students learn organic farming.
No one here waits for piped water or water tankers like in the rest of Tamil Nadu. The stream that flows through the school campus never goes dry. The students grow their own food. The 25 cows in the farm provide more milk than the campus can consume. The rest of the milk is sold.
The biowaste is used to generate cooking gas for the school kitchen. Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of this self-sufficient school.
Appearances can be deceptive. Formal class rooms or teachers in suits are missing in this school. Emails and phones are erratic in this remote land tucked inside a forest.
The first room to greet me when I visited the school was a workshop made in wood, not an office room. An elderly gentleman was teaching a small child to manufacture a home appliance. The Britisher introduced himself as Brian Jenkins, the founder and the principal of the school. I was sent on a campus tour guided by two teachers and two students.
Pickaxes and shovels were still covered in mud. The students had just returned from the morning session on agriculture. The school fuses academics with practical training. Students go through a range of topics including organic farming, automobile engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, woodwork, horse riding, swimming, mattress making, theater, bird watching, camping and trekking.
Their work is everywhere. They have built a wooden bridge over the stream that leads to their hostel. They have even installed a mechanism to alert themselves when a wild elephant strays near their quarters.
The Sholai school, situated at 3,800 feet above sea level, may be the only carbon-negative school in the country because it does not have a school bus. The school farm employs about 200 families from the nearby hamlets of Ganeshpuram and Pothupara. It also offers villagers free homeopathy treatment.
The school produces and exports organic coffee by the loads to Europe. They also make an income from pepper and other spices.
The school and the students have turned saviors for the forest around it. Sustained efforts at creating awareness among the villagers have convinced them not to set fire to the forest in the summer. The sholai forest has regained its glory. The birds and wild animals are back. Water is in abundance again.
The school has built an auditorium in folk style using the central government funds received to promote tribal arts. The school has all the geographic information about the land around it.
Jenkins practices what he preaches. The principal still roams around the rough roads in the same car used by his mother in England. The 80-year-old car tells the visitors that nothing goes to waste.