Udupi's changemaker-headmaster Murali Kadekar found a unique way of celebrating his school's golden jubilee anniversary — reviving over 70 acres of defunct paddy fields.
A school’s golden jubilee celebration is usually a run-off-the-mill affair involving alumni, teachers, and some prominent figures as chief guests. However, Murali Kadekar (59), headmaster of Nittur High School in Udupi, Karnataka, had a rather unique idea to celebrate this significant milestone for the school. Instead of going down the beaten path, he decided to do something that will make a difference.
Speaking to The Better India, Murali says, “When I started my teaching career, almost three decades ago, I remember cycling to school through the paddy fields. Slowly, as the years rolled by, the paddy fields became defunct. Many of my earlier students also remember the green paddy fields all around.” That is how Murali thought of reviving the paddy fields to celebrate 50 years of the school’s existence last year in June 2020.
His idea snowballed, and today, almost 70 acres of land in and around the school has been transformed into lush paddy fields.
On 5 March 2020, a meeting was called for by Murali to brainstorm on what could be done to celebrate the school’s anniversary. “We had as many as 40 participants, former-students, parents, teachers, and farmers who attended the meeting. It was decided during this meeting to launch a campaign, which we called, ‘Hadilugadde Besaya’ [which meant — re-cultivating paddy on fields left uncultivated],” he says.
“It wasn’t an easy task at all,” says Murali. Each farmer came up with their own set of questions, having to find ways to clear the field of all the debris and plastic waste. But Murali was convinced of the idea and urged the farmers to try and see things from his point of view. He says, “I requested them to visit the lands, assess the situation, list out the problems, and then find ways to resolve them.” With a few farmers agreeing, the process got a little easier for Murali.
Meetings were conducted in five zones surrounding the school, which included Karambally, Perampally, Kakkunje, Nittur, and Puttur to get everyone on-board.
Each zone was to be handled by one former-student who was given the title of ‘assistant warrior’. “Getting this going was a feat for warriors,” quips Murali. Most of the defunct paddy field owners were senior citizens and were not keen on reviving the fields. When Murali and his team tried to contact their children, they found that they had all migrated to the cities and not invested in the fields in any way. With one former-headmaster Bhaskara D Suvarna, and four former students, Dinesh Poojary, Ranjan Shetty, Harish Acharya, and Sudhakar Kotyan, the campaign and the campaigners got a much-needed push.
The idea was to try and revive the fields and encourage as many farmers in the region as possible. While the group was all set to start their work, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown was declared on 22 March 2020 and the work had to be put on hold.
A green signal for growing paddy
With some of the restrictions being lifted, the group was finally allowed to start work in June 2020. The former student body got together and collected close to Rs 14 lakhs for this paddy field revival programme. What’s truly heart-warming is how all these people came together, most of whom had no background or prior knowledge in farming.
Dinesh Poojary, who runs a real estate business, tells The Better India, “I have been a businessman for a long time and without any knowledge of farming, I took a plunge. I can say that it has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. Not just me, it has also given my young children so much perspective about where our food comes from.” He tells me how his children have understood the value of hard work and almost always finish all the food that is served to them now.
Not just the former students but also students from classes 10 and above participated in the field work. Murali says, “So far, 300 students have had hands-on experience of working in the field. Our education system, which unfortunately has become all about rote learning, does not give students a chance to experience and learn. Harvesting the paddy that they planted gave them a fulfilling experience and a different perspective.”
For every farmer who agreed to give their land for paddy cultivation 10 kgs of organic rice has been provided by Murali and his team.
When asked how they plan to recover the investment costs, Murali says, “We are now selling the rice at Rs 50/kg and are confident of recovering our costs soon.”
This isn’t the first time that Murali has won hearts. In 2020, he handed over the keys of his new house, which was built using his retirement gratuity, to one of his underprivileged students. “I have been working as an honorary secretary at the Yakshagana Kalaranga and through that organisation we have been helping students from the economically backward class to provide quality education,” he says. Murali has been involved with the organisation for over 16 years now.
These are our real life heroes that ought to be celebrated.
Working very hard for nine months towards one headmaster’s vision, the team of students, alumni and teachers breathed life into the defunct paddy fields and also harvested close to 27 tonnes of rice. If you are keen on supporting this venture, you can reach out to Dinesh at +91-9945681710 to place your order for organic rice.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)