In the November 5, 2016 Kuensel issue, a writer wrote about the “FabLab”, a digital fabrication laboratory, and emphasised how relevant it is to a small landlocked country like Bhutan.

The Bhutanese economy has been witnessing significant deficits on both trade and current accounts. Current account deficit in the fiscal year 2015-16 was 29.1 percent of GDP. Digital fabrication, combined with an enhanced telecommunication network, may enable small production of a wide variety of products, and broaden the horizon for local materials to be better utilised for customised production.

But digital fabrication also enhances the capacity of the country to respond to the local needs and address social problems that the people are facing and to improve farming practices. Employment wise, agriculture and forestry is still the primary contributor with 58 percent of total employment in 2015. Agriculture and the rural sector could be the main beneficiary of digital fabrication technology.

Of more than 1,000 FabLabs across the world, there are only two FabLabs located in rural settings. One is the Vigyan Ashram in Pabal village, Maharashtra, India.

Vigyan Ashram

Vigyan Ashram was started in 1983 by a scientist turned educationalist, the Late Dr SS Kalbag. As the word ‘ashram’ rightly describes, it is a hermitage where one strives towards a goal in a disciplined manner. Located 70km away from Pune, Pabal is a drought prone typical Indian village. Kalbag founded the ashram, aiming at finding solutions to problems in education while living a simple life with high thinking. In the ashram, all are equal and are supposed to live a highly self-sufficient life where daily necessities and life-improving products are all produced by themselves.

Vigyan Ashram is experiment-oriented and works towards rural development through a work-centric educational system. It’s an effort to impart scientific temperament to people by demystifying science and technology and empowering people to find solutions to their own problems.

According to Dr Yogesh Kulkarni, director, they have four basic philosophies overarching all their programmes: (i) learning-while-doing; (ii) multi-skill training; (iii) schools as a service centre; and (iv) skills must be demonstrable. There is no textbook. Working on the development of prototypes that respond to the needs of their family and community, through the trial-and-error process, people can learn how to make things, and it’s a good substitute to written texts. Multi-skill orientation enhances the people’s capacity to respond to any kinds of needs.

If these principles are incorporated in the formal schooling system, education could be more relevant and meaningful. So they came up with a programme called IBT (Introduction to Basic Technology), under which socially useful productive work is integrated with secondary school curriculum. Everything related to the rural life can be a part of the IBT curriculum, from agriculture-animal husbandry, energy and environment, to food processing and engineering. As of today, Vigyan Ashram has facilitated IBT implementation at more than 100 schools across four states, and IBT has become the core subject of the state of Maharashtra.

Vigyan Ashram also offers a diploma course in basic rural technology. The youth who want to start their own enterprises learn to work in real life situations, doing things in the areas similar to those in the IBT. After the one-year residential training in Pabal, students will go for an apprentice for another year in the vocation of their choice. There are already more than 1,000 alumni and most of them have become rural entrepreneurs.

FabLab Vigyan Ashram

The self-sufficient nature of their programmes attracted the attention of Professor Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had set forth the concept of FabLab. He proposed that the ashram could be a venue for making almost everything needed in the rural life, and he made the initial contribution of fabrication machines to the ashram.

FabLab Vigyan Ashram was founded in 2002. Since then it has gradually added new machines to the lab, and it has also been the centre of the Fab Academy, where students can take hands-on six-month training on digital fabrication and earn a diploma from Fab Academy. Graduates could be instructors at FabLabs.

With those new technology, the ashram has increased the pace and quality of education delivery. It also enhanced their capacity to quantify processes on the farm in order to understand and improve them, reinforcing their fourth philosophy of skill demonstrability. They have produced precision agri-control devices, sanitary incinerator, plastic processing machines, rice transplanting machines, rice de-husking machines, hearing aids, solar cookers and ferro-cement geodesic domes for housing, farming or the laboratory.

Making rural life more attractive

Gershenfeld writes: “Kalbag’s ultimate goal was to show that rural understanding and application of science was the key to reversing what was perhaps India’s most pressing problem: urbanisation.” When Kalbag founded the ashram in 1983, he must have dreamed of reversing the rural-urban migration by making rural life not only sustainable but also desirable.

Since then, the ashram has received school dropouts who were considered uneducable. By the time they graduate, however, they have strong confidence in their own skills, and start up their businesses mostly near their home villages. Rural students under the IBT receive lots of appreciation from their families and communities for the multi-skills they developed.

The above story gives us significant policy implications. Premier science schools are effective if they are closely linked to the needs of rural life. TVET institutes could also assume the similar function to Vigyan Ashram in Bhutan and they could extend their outreach to the neighboring community as well as the premier science schools. Both should be multi-skill oriented to be able to respond to every need of the community.

The most important message for Bhutan is that we should create among the rural youths a strong sense of belonging to the community. If they feel they are skillful enough and wanted by the community, they may choose to remain and still feel the happiness.

Contributed by 

Koji Yamada, Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office

Krishna Subba, Sr. Program Officer, JICA Bhutan Office