Updated: Jun 15
Is the Indian school system teaching environmental apathy to its students?
In the past few years, the threats to our environment have become exigent. Natural catastrophes are occurring all over the world, and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2020. Now, as per the latest calculations in 2021, it is likely that the Earth could cross global warming thresholds as soon as 2027. However, these threats to our environment have been around for much longer – and so have environmental education efforts.
Environmental education across the globe
In the late 1960s, the term environmental education started appearing in developed countries. It consisted of teaching about natural resources and working towards a better-quality environment. In 1970, at the Stockholm Conference, the UN stressed establishing an international programme in environmental education that was interdisciplinary in nature. As a result, children have been critical in the efforts to conserve our environment. It is not just Greta Thunberg, who leads the action against climate change today. A teen from Texas figured out a way to turn carbon emissions into oxygen, and another managed to create lighting without electricity. Azza Faiad, an Egyptian teen, discovered a method of breaking down plastic for biofuel, and Fionn from Ireland found a way to extract microplastics from water. In India, we have very few young adult climate activists and inventors who aim to raise awareness about environmental issues; and the average Indian is woefully uneducated about major ecological problems. Only 3% of Indians are aware of the current environmental problems, and most of the population is apathetic towards such issues.
In 2003, the Supreme Court of India directed every single school in the country to educate its students about the environment and sustainability. Under an ideal situation, this would help tackle India’s many severe environmental problems like pollution and water shortage – but the reality falls short. In a country that struggles to educate the poor and penetrate rural areas, and with severely underfunded and understaffed public schools, merely introducing an environmental programme in schools has absolutely no impact. It seems like a pipe dream to aspire to teach environmental studies to children that don’t have the adequate resources to learn how to even read, with teachers who are undertrained and severely overburdened.
Such large-scale, ambitious projects face many other obstacles too. After the court directive, it took three years for Indian schools to even receive textbooks with environmental content. Twelve years after the order, the government still hadn’t managed to train teachers to incorporate sustainability issues, and even then, only 10% of India’s schools taught environmental issues to their students.
(Also Read: Meet The Indian Youth Fighting Air Pollution)
Conservation and education in India
India has a unique advantage when it comes to environmental conservation. Indian culture and traditions are rooted in the preservation of our resources. The inclusion of local communities in education efforts could help catapult these ideas of ecological education into success. Outstanding innovations in rural India are now bringing about economic change built on the good management of land and water resources. Villages have come together and regenerated dead rivers in the middle of deserts with rainfall harvesting structures and have made seasonal rivers flow throughout the year. In such communities, the children do not need to be preached about the importance of our natural resources; they already experience the impacts of resource scarcity. The government can utilise this dynamic to its advantage and instead, aim to educate students through integration with local communities and efforts.
For example, in fringe villages of Andhra Pradesh, awareness about the conservation of mangroves was addressed through an educational programme about the degradation of mangroves due to shrimp culture and the fire-wood collection rampant in the area. Students prepared an in-depth survey on mangroves and the formation of task forces where the students participated in mangrove and marine ecology conservation activities. In Nagpur, groups of students worked with the local government on environmental planning and management of the area, soil and biodiversity conservation, and sustainable agriculture. Their fieldwork not only led to increased personal involvement in local environmental issues and encouraged adults to understand the importance of a healthy environment, but it also had direct positive impacts.
Uttarakhand is a fragile ecological zone where the occupants are heavily dependent on forest resources for their livelihood, which has caused extensive land degradation. To combat this, the State Education Department and an NGO introduced an environmental education course focusing on land rehabilitation and sustainable management. The course had been specifically designed to address the issues raised by women’s groups in the area, and it utilised the village as a laboratory, where the students could experiment and learn with the community. While the older students learned by interacting with the community, younger children went to “balwadis.” This was a substitute for preschool, where the curriculum was founded on the idea of learning while playing. The children were given direct exposure to aspects of their surroundings, and Paryavaran or environment was the most important topic included in the Balwadi syllabus and was integrated into every aspect of the course. These students were found to have exceedingly sufficient knowledge about their environment and the issues plaguing it.
These case studies make it very clear that a blended approach is the most effective when it comes to environmental education, wherein the students are well-versed in both the local and the global perspectives. Moreover, as is the case with most of the Indian education system, the environmental syllabus is taught straight from the textbook, and students simply rote-learn the content and regurgitate it during exams. In such a case, there is no real absorption of valuable knowledge, and the environment becomes another subject where students merely strive to attain great marks. Thus, it is even more important to take environmental lessons beyond classroom walls, in both rural and urban areas.
Additionally, the existing environmental education concentrates only on surface symptoms such as air and water pollution, solid waste, and overpopulation. However, the roots of the environmental crisis are driven by human attitudes, and systems. Simply providing information to students will not change prevailing attitudes. The current superficial environmental education will only help solve short-term problems and foster no conversations about sustainable living. So, it is crucial to also educate children about the root causes and, more importantly on sustainability, if the real issues are to be solved.
What does the future hold?
Currently, India occupies the 117th position among 192 countries on the progress list for the SDGs and no state is on track to meet all the SDGs by 2030. We are on the verge of an extinction phase amongst our flora and fauna biodiversity. Instances like The Draft EIA Notification 2020 and the Rs 230-crore reduction in the budgetary allocation to the environment ministry have made it startlingly clear that the people in power currently do not care much about the environment, and now, it is more necessary than ever to educate a generation of citizens and leaders that care about the environment on a fundamental level and can steer India into a sustainable future.
(Also Read: Breaking What is Already Broken: EIAs in India)
A Million Mutinies: Raising India’s Environmental Awareness. (n.d.). Asia Society.
Budget 2021: Experts “disappointed” over reduction in allocation to the environment ministry. (2021, February 1). Www.Newindianexpress.Com.
Gardiner, B. (2015, September 21). How India Is Teaching 300 Million Kids to Be Environmentalists. Smithsonian Magazine.
Gerretsen, I. (2021, January 11). The state of the climate in 2021. BBC Future.
Jackson, C. (2017, June 27). 14 Child Inventors who just Might Save the World. | elephant journal. https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/06/14-child-inventors-who-just-might-save-the-world/
State of India’s Environment 2021: People and planet in peril. (2021, February 24). Www.Downtoearth.Org. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/pollution/state-of-india-s-environment-2021-people-and-planet-in-peril-75661
When will global warming become irreversible? (2021, January 7). World Economic Forum.
Is the Indian school system teaching environmental apathy to its students?