Green Equality: Environmental Education Programming for Low-Income Schools in Chennai, India


Students in small group discussions during a CMU-led workshop

Students in small group discussions during a CMU-led workshop

Every afternoon during the school year, about eighty Avanti Fellow students cram into the classrooms of the Chennai Girls Higher Secondary School to strengthen their academic skills. They focus on math, biology, and English to prepare for the ruthlessly competitive exams into India’s top universities so that they can pursue elite professions like medicine, engineering, business and information technology. With these goals in mind, why create a special curriculum about environmental health? Not only does the topic give the Avanti students a fun and engaging break from their intensive study sessions, but it is also relevant to many disciplines: civil engineering, urban planning, chemistry, policy, and human rights to name a few. Environmental education encourages students from all backgrounds and interests to consider how their own capabilities can be used to advance their career and help their communities.


Environmental leaders in the United States are increasingly aware that racial and cultural diversity strengthens movements and better serves public interests (Jordan and Snow 1988 73). Despite campaigns to increase employment and membership of minorities in environmental organizations, their numbers lag behind. This persistent gap suggests that their lack of involvement is rooted in deeper issues beyond a lack of environmental awareness in minority communities.

There are many misconceptions about the relevancy of environmentalism to underserved social groups. Long before the radical movements of the 1960s, environmentalism was associated with the preservation of wilderness for recreational use by white, middle-class communities in North America and Western Europe (Bonta and Jordan). Many conservation groups even had blatantly racist policies that banned minorities from membership in hunting and sport clubs, or leadership positions within organizations (Jordan and Snow 1988 76). While the old environmental justice movement focused on preserving distant habitats, the global environmental movement is increasingly focusing on how actions and behaviors impact the environmental health of local communities.

While the global environmental movement may have historically overlooked developing countries because of economic and social divides, there has been a strong presence of environmental activists within India. Indian communities have redefined environmentalism as the preservation of their traditional livelihoods against problems like “deforestation, landlessness and dispossession, and crop failure” (Dipi 2003 52). Since the 1970’s several movements throughout India have fought against large energy projects and unchecked development. The most famous movements include the Chipko movement to stop deforestation in the Himalayas, the Bhopal environmental movement in Madhya Pradesh, and the conflict over the Narmada river dam in Gujarat (Karan 1994 32).

Formal environmental organizations are commonplace in the US and less prominent in India, where environmental activism has a strong populist ethos. These movements are socially inclusive and involved youth, tribal groups, women, and other underserved demographics (Karan 1994 40). The activists behind Chipko, Bhopal and Narmada had to fight against corrupt government agencies and policies that favored commercial interests. So Indian environmentalism strategy has rejected “individual contact with decision makers (generally a white political strategy)” and instead relies on “mass action (more likely a nonwhite political strategy)” (Jordan and Snow 1988 81).


Water is a contested commodity in the city and throughout the Tamil Nadu region because current infrastructure struggles to manage its erratic scarcity. The city has to capture the great amount of rainfall that occurs on the 63 days of rain in its four reservoirs, which then supplies the city for the next ten months (Vedachalam 2012). Chennai does not have adequate wastewater treatment systems, so sewage overflow caused by flooding taints underground aquifers that supply domestic wells or seeps into the ocean (Vedachalam 2012). A serious consequence of water pollution is an increase of sicknesses, especially diarrhea in children (Mariappan 2009). Decreasing availability to Chennai citizens is also caused by the salination of groundwater.

As climate change increases the intensity of monsoon rainfall and rising temperatures lead to prolonged drought, Chennai’s dwindling water supply becomes more precious and unavailable to low-income households. Political complications have also led to water shortages due to inter-state disputes between Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andra Pradesh over rights to the Krishna river waters (Iyer 2003, The Hindu 2011). These examples indicate that mismanagement of resources, not natural abundance, is the key driver of water resource inequality in Chennai. Such a perspective could change the approaches currently used to counteract these challenges.

Environmental activism in Chennai has inherited the strategies of national environmental movements with a strong focus on water resource rights. The Poovulagin Nanbargal (PN) collective is a prime example of environmental activism in Chennai. Beginning in the late 1980s, the group was comprised of youth who were concerned about a proposed nuclear power plant outside of Chennai. Since its founding, PN has functioned on a tenuous organizational structure so that members could pursue their own environmental interests that range from recycling programs to sustainable agriculture. But members also organize ambitious projects like publishing literature about environmental topics and holding an annual book festival to distribute their literature (Kannadasan 2013). PN is an ideal model for EE workshops because it demonstrates how a small group of young people can positively impact their environment by using non-traditional and informal methods of community mobilization.

More recent protests have emerged to oppose the growing private water supply industry of Chennai. Private water tankers compromise the water supply of low-income residents by extracting water from their wells and transporting it to wealthier neighborhoods throughout the city (TNN 2013). The tankers create resource inequalities throughout Chennai because they disproportionally extract water from the city’s suburbs and rural outskirts. The resulting water shortage impacts farmers outside of the city who supply food for Chennai’s markets, which creates a cycle of food instability as well (Madhaven 2010).

Petitions to government offices have largely been ineffective because the responsibilities of water management have been allocated across different departments. The city and state leaders are slow to regulate the water tanker industry because it generates income for government agencies as well. This chaotic and unfair system stalls the regulation and retaliation against corporations that exploit water resource for profit. Affected citizens tried meeting with city officials to halt this water robbery but have since begun to stage protests because of government inaction. In true grassroots fashion, residents have organized hundreds of their neighbors to block Chennai’s busiest streets to bring attention to the problem (TNN 2013)

Residents in other neighborhoods have been affected by encroaching salination of water supplies and failing sewage lines. The government attempted to resolve the problem by relocating residents to other neighborhoods, but people complained that they still have an unreliable water supply (Staff Reporter 2012). The government also attempts to minimize the effects of contamination by treating water with chlorine (Mariappan 2009). Even government workers are impacted by the broken water distribution system. Employees of the Chennai Sanitation Department have held protests over poor working conditions and discrimination based on caste (Shaw 2012).

But Chennai has taken significant measures to protect its water supplies. The city was the first in India to require rooftop rainwater harvesting for both domestic and commercial establishments, distinguishing it as one of the country’s more environmentally progressive cities (Vedachalam 2012). Two proposed desalination plants, which purify ocean water for domestic consumption, are a long-term investment but prohibitively expensive for many residents. Analysts are also concerned that desalination distracts the city government and the public from greater needs like fixing leaks and illegal connections, and revitalizing ground aquifers (Vedachalam 2012). Srinivarsan (2008) proposes to centralize the drinking water system and leave non-potable water resourcing to residents, but problems like leakages along channels to centralized reservoirs undermine this method. Decentralization might be a more effective means of supplying water to the sprawling and rapidly growing city, especially because certain districts consume more water than others (Narayanan 2011).

Regardless of whatever strategy the city and state government use to bring water resource equality to Chennai, their success relies on the participation and approval of its citizens. Chennai will become the leading Indian metropolis if it can establish functioning a sewage system and sustainable water distribution because resource stability enables a city’s citizens and economies to thrive.


Public policy is “governed by the concept of fairness to future generations, so that our children and grandchildren will have the same access to resource and the same quality of life as we do” (Cutter 1995 112). Environmental education is crucial to teaching young children about their right to a healthy environment and how they can advocate for equal environmental protection.

Students are the ideal target audience for environmental education (EE) because they have a basic awareness of water issues in their communities and could become advocates for resource conservation as they enter university and begin their careers. There are many parallels between the evolution of India’s education system and its environmental movements. India inherited a rigid education system from the British Empire that, like early environmentalism, systematically excluded minorities from gaining access to its elite institutions. Like contemporary environmental activism in Chennai, innovative educational programs are implementing non-hierarchical organizational structures to encourage peer education and critical problem solving. These transformations are critical to renewing a sense of social and environmental stewardship in students.

Many EE curriculums still reflect elitist ideas usually catered to young children from middle-class or affluent backgrounds. These programs focus on teaching participants general information about the water cycle and environmental health in order to convey a message about reducing daily water use. While nearly anyone can find ways to reduce their water consumption, this message is less relevant to students with limited water access who come from low-income families that already struggle to obtain water on a daily basis.

Developing countries like India are home to many environmental movements that were based in the education and mobilization of citizens. Grassroots education recognizes “the relations between knowledge and power, structure and agency, and recognition that adult education can play a part in challenging oppressive social relations” (Dip 2003 47). This has empowered Indian communities not only to conserve their environment but to also reform social relations and cultural values. This is why it is also important to make young students question who has control over natural resources and if they use that power equitably and responsibly.

India’s education system has neglected funding for primary education in favor of university expansion, which disproportionally affects low-income students. Indian public schools generally focus only on hard science, math, and writing, excluding subjects like fine arts and EE. Instructors are then not given the time or incentive to teach environmental education classes because the subject is not featured in national exams used for college admissions, which further demotes its importance.

Environmental organizations have begun to address resource inequality and directly engage low-income and minority communities through educational programs. In the United States, educators are now recognizing that EE is an “effective tool in capturing student’s enthusiasm for learning in subject areas ranging from science and math to literature (Hoody 1995). EE encourages students to apply their academic knowledge to resolving social and environmental problems that are relevant to their daily lives and to comprehend how their actions directly impact the quality and abundance of natural resources.

The challenge for EE is adapting current curriculums to the unique challenges of Indian classrooms. The most basic problem is a lack of basic supplies or funding for EE projects or field trips. Many teachers also have to manage large class sizes, so it can be difficult to coordinate complex activities or facilitate group discussions.


There are a few government-run institutions, like the Center for Environmental Education (CPREEC), that have both nationwide and regional programs for students. The CPREEC is a joint effort by the Government of India and the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation (CPRF), which parallels the work and partnerships of KJBF. Their work focuses on the environmentally focused topics of law, conservation, women, education, and water management. The dedication to water conservation, out of all ecological systems, emphasizes the urgent need for water conservation above all other natural resources.

The Paryavaran Mitra Programm (PMP) is a government agency. It aims to give teachers the proper training and resources needed to use EE methods in their classrooms. It has many culturally appropriate programs, such as having an eco-friendly Holi, as well as pamphlets in almost a dozen languages. Schools can contact and join their local Center for Environmental Education (CPREECC) office to begin programming. However, many of the activities are only designed for elementary students and only have activities like coloring books or simple games.

The USGS Water Science School (WSS) focuses on basic water science and environmental problems and nonpoint source pollution. While the WSS is a program of the United States Government, it provides prompts and valuable information that can be used in other countries. While the activities and scenarios are based on middle class, suburban neighborhoods in the United States, many can be replaced with examples from Chennai neighborhoods.

The larger issue with the USGS, PMP, and CPREEC programs is that they are more likely to benefit schools with wealthier students, which excludes a large community of children. The CPREEC, for example, has published many textbooks and education guides, but these might be difficult for a school to purchase these if they have a low budget and large number of students. Another concern is that the curriculums are designed for children between the ages of 8 and 12. The activities usually focus on asking students what they know about water science rather than what they can do as individuals or communities to resolve current problems. The educator Sugata Mitra has been working to give low-income schoolchildren access to education and technology throughout India. His SOLE program encourages students to teach each other in small groups to answer broad and difficult questions, which allows students to learn independently from a fulltime instructor or classroom. While the SOLE program is intended for children between 8 and 12 years of age, its principles can be used to enrich the independent learning skills of older students.


The Avanti program provides a unique combination of rigor and personal mentoring that is rarely found in Indian schools. It mimics the hierarchical structure of the Indian public school system through its rigorous selection process and intensive exam preparation. The Avanti program also uses personal mentoring, peer instruction, and career advising that were first developed in American universities (Avanti website 2013).

Rather than focus on changing individual consumer behaviors, water education for Avanti students needs to build their confidence so that they can advocate for water rights in their communities. EE is regarded childish because it predominantly is catered towards to young students, so adapting curriculum for high school students is important for raising awareness about conserving natural resources.

The Avanti workshops were designed to make students reflect on the relationship between domestic routines and the social economy of water. Avanti program coordinators specifically requested that the workshops engaged the student’s critical thinking skills. The workshops provided students creative and engaging afterschool programming while also identifying what they already know about watershed ecology and conservation. This type of classroom engagement is also beneficial because it challenges rote learning methods commonly used in Indian schools, which do not enable students to articulate their own individual experiences. The curriculum uses prompts that are specific to issues in Chennai, but these scenarios are interchangeable with other community examples, which is an easy task because issues like water supply and sanitation are universally relevant.

Many Avanti students want to become engineers or government social workers, which are occupations that involve maximizing water resource development and the public distribution of water resources. Because the Avanti students are focused on college selection and entering a lucrative career, the environmental education workshops needed to demonstrate the relevancy of water conservation to their future job interests. But the students already pressured to enter an elite college or lucrative field, so the workshops need to provide a fun diversion aside from discussing future “green” careers.

The Avanti Water Workshops were designed for a classroom with limited materials. Unlike more affluent schools, the partner schools of the Avanti program do not have access to resources like projectors, PowerPoint, large whiteboards, or even a steady electrical supply. All of these factors affect the workshop curriculum and activities. It is also unclear how much support students have at home, so programs have to assume that parents will be minimally involved with their child’s education. The workshops were designed to be implemented in a single session, so it was difficult to stratify concepts throughout the workshop. But this condensed format hopefully makes it easier for other schools to integrate the workshop into their own curriculum.

I had initially planned to incorporate visual art activities into the workshop curriculum, but quickly realized that the students needed activities that encouraged open discussion and problem solving to strengthen their public speaking skills. The most successful Avanti workshops were difficult to end because students had become engrossed in discussions about race, class, and political conflicts. This was best facilitated by following the SOLE strategy of providing provocative discussion prompts and giving students open discussion time. While students have little access to arts education, they have equally few opportunities to engage in this kind of dialogue within an academic setting.

The Avanti students were taught about the concept of “brainstorming” in order to generate solutions to conflicts that involved water supply issues in Chennai and the greater Tamil Nadu region. The workshops found that students already have a high proficiency in basic environmental concepts and are aware of water issues of the Tamil Nadu region. When asked about the water cycle and Chennai’s water resources, students were able to provide comprehensive answers because they had learned about these topics in their science classes.

When asked about water supply problems in Chennai, the students were most interested in discussing the river rights dispute between the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The conflict has been ongoing since the 1980’s (Iyer 2003) and still has a strong presence in news media, which clearly interested the students. This example demonstrates the importance of designing workshop activities that are relevant to the daily life and common interests of students. Asking the students to think of their own solutions to the river rights conflict emphasizes their capabilities to resolve complex resource issues. As I continue to revise the Avanti workshop curriculum, I want to incorporate more current events as examples for student activities.

The EE Avanti workshops might have been more successful if they had been conducted after Daniel’s public speaking class. The students had creative ideas and slowly became more comfortable completing more abstract prompts, but they were especially uncomfortable presenting in front of their peers. With this realization I plan to incorporate public speaking exercises into my EE workshop curriculum. This could be facilitated by modeling the EE workshops as a mock town-hall or NGO meeting and asking different committees to present their arguments to the community.


Before traveling as part of the Social Change semester (SCS), I had wanted to partner with an NGO or government office to learn more about environmental education or water conservation in Chennai. Months of unreturned emails and phone calls indicated that finding partnerships in Chennai would be more difficult than expected. These difficulties taught me that field research is part preparation and part improvisation, especially when it is being conducted transnationally. Despite my best efforts to establish Chennai contacts prior to my departure, these connections were best made once I could travel throughout the city.

While In Chennai I had also hoped to document its water system and the water use of citizens, but I also had to drop this project due to unanticipated complications. India has a simultaneous love and hatred for photography. Passerby will often ask me to snap their picture, even if I am not holding a camera, because the process of taking a photograph is a means of social interaction. A camera is welcome until the photographer begins to pry about more sensitive topics such as poverty, pollution, or violence. Then subjects become more guarded and become less talkative. Government offices that control Chennai’s water distribution are especially hesitant to allow a foreigner with a camera to document highly controversial projects like desalination plants. Language barriers, interview formats and social formalities also contribute to this reluctance.

The key to finding a receptive group of interview subjects was to conduct research within a socially appropriate setting, and Avanti provided an ideal environment. People are most likely to openly discuss issues or voice their opinion in a school environment because they are already expected to participate in group discussions, and it is easier to receive uninhibited responses from a young group. The Avanti experience was then the perfect opportunity to learn about the public’s opinions and concerns regarding water access and environmental health in Chennai. As a partnership facilitated by support staff and talented students, the Avanti workshops avoided many logistical problems associated with scattered correspondence with government offices and NGOs.

While I was unable to contact individuals who were involved in water protests that have been happening throughout the city, I was able to meet college students that were active in social movements on their campuses. Priya, 19, a college student that helped organize protests for Tamil Elam in Sri Lanka, told me that many young people were involved with social movements on campuses throughout Chennai. Avanti students should be encouraged to engage in activism because there is already an established community of citizens that are involved with social protest. Many of the students listed protest as a solution to conflict resolution exercises during the workshops, so the curriculum should include resources and ideas to empower interested students to get more involved.


It would be most beneficial to conduct EE workshops with one group of students throughout their whole participation in the Avanti Fellows Program. This would allow researchers and future SCS students to comprehensively measure the benefits of environmental education workshops for the students. I am also very interested in giving the Avanti students the opportunity to conduct environmental conservation projects in their own communities with a small budget. They could have specific challenges related to water quality or allowed to pursue their own ideas. This kind of project would challenge Avanti students to apply their EE skills outside of classroom setting and (hopefully) bring new relevancy to the workshops.

It might also be beneficial to try conducting these workshops with other schools. SCS is fortunate to partner with Avanti because its students are so receptive and patient during the workshops, so other schools might pose greater challenges. However, students that do not have access to programs like Avanti would likely benefit from EE as well because it provides both recreation and critical thinking exercises.

My experiences leading workshops and preparing this SCS research project will inform how I conduct field research in the future. I am now familiar with the nuanced challenges of cross-cultural research that are impossible to comprehend simply by reading the secondhand accounts of other academicians. I am more aware of the actual time required to conduct in-depth interviews and workshops, and in the future I would plan longer stays at study sites in order to gain the trust of local residents. Even one month is barely enough time to become familiar with one community.

As the SCS alumni base grows with recurring trips, a database of reliable Chennai contacts would be incredibly useful. I also recommend that SCS develop a 3-unit course in the Fall semester to help students develop their research projects, begin learning Hindi, and establish some Chennai contacts. In all, SCS is a bold academic experiment that immerses students in self-driven research, an ambitious program that has grown beyond its Pittsburgh campus.


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