Kerala's unique plan for the next disaster: Train the kids

Pala Kottaramattam junction in State highway 32 was submerged during 2018 Kerala floods. Photo by: Praveenp / CC BY-SA

BANGALORE, India — When 15-year-old Mohammad Shameem awoke in the early hours of Aug. 9, he found his home filled with water, reaching halfway up his shin. He, his mother, and grandmother set to bail water out of their one-room house located at the base of a hill in Wayanad, Kerala, when a loud noise that Shameem felt was like a “helicopter flying very close,” shook the building.

“I looked out and saw a haze of muddy land moving toward us,” Shameem recalled. He ran out with his family and didn’t look back. Within minutes, their brick and stone home was hit by the approaching landslide and reduced to rubble.

Kerala, which lies on India’s southern coast, is recovering from its worst monsoon in a century. The August floods and landslides killed nearly 500 people and caused $2.7 billion worth of damages, including 50,000 partially damaged homes.

“I’d read about landslides in school, but who could imagine they could be so massive?” Shameem said, with a mild tremor in his voice. The grade 10 student who lost all his belongings is now living in a guest house of a nearby tea estate where his mother works as an agricultural laborer.

No one ever told Shameem that he lives in a landslide susceptible area, and management skills and preparedness were never discussed in his classroom. “A few mock drills in school would have given me some confidence to face this terrible calamity,” he said.

Disaster management has not been given its due in the Kerala state board school curriculum. While a few chapters in textbooks of senior grades provide information about earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and fires, there is little practical knowledge about dealing with them in the current textbooks, said S. Raveendran Nair, curriculum head at the State Council of Educational Research and Training — SCERT is an autonomous government body involved with the formulation of the curriculum.

In light of the recent floods, Kerala’s education department has been working to quickly modify the school syllabus to integrate ideas for long-term mitigation and management of disasters. The suggestion came from the United Nations Children's Fund, as a part of its work on post-disaster rehabilitation.

“This is the right time because children are curious to know more and ready to imbibe the information,” Nair said.

The education board handpicked 50 teachers from the curriculum writing team and invited them to SCERT’s Thiruvananthapuram office in September. Experts conducted workshops on how teachers can incorporate disaster management, life skills, and psychosocial care into classes. The writing team then brainstormed ways to update textbooks for a complete perspective on natural and man-made calamities.

The five-yearly curriculum revision was already underway and the new modifications had to be submitted for approval early October for the books to be ready in time for the next school session, beginning June 2019.

As the state struggled to rebuild its damaged schools, the educators amended lessons for children, at a rapid clip.

“Our policy was to modify existing lessons and not create new ones,” Nair said. This would ensure that no extra time is spent teaching new concepts. The information would become a part of their graded subjects, and therefore, get more attention. A good mix of leading information, extra boxes, images, follow-up questions, and activities have been added without affecting the continuity of lessons.”

One of the teacher trainers, Anshu Sharma, an urban planner and co-founder of Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society, a nonprofit organization that worked on school safety, including education and training of children, focused on hyperlocal topography and green solutions for slope stabilization, which are now being considered for the new curriculum.

“Children like Shameem need to know about cheap and invaluable methods of stabilizing hill slopes, such as planting native species,” Sharma said. “But first, children need to be familiar with their surrounding landscape.”

The August floods are said to be the worst in the state since 1924 and have caused great economic losses. Sharma said that it is critical for schoolchildren to understand why the scale of impact rose this time.

A 2011 study reveals that deforestation, rampant illegal stone quarrying, and sand mining on riverbeds, among others, have reduced Kerala’s capacity to deal with such a flood.

“Urbanization and inappropriate construction in unsafe locations have also added to the problem,” Sharma said.

The new social science syllabus for grade 9 will discuss the history of Kerala floods and steps that can be taken to mitigate such a disaster in the future.

Vineesh T.V., research officer and UNICEF program coordinator at SCERT, notes that during the recent floods, some people were overconfident in their ability, unable to sufficiently gauge the risks, and not willing to cooperate with rescue teams. The new curriculum, he said, should be able to sensitize teachers, children, and parents.

Two men in the middle of the flood in Kerala. Photo by: Akbarali / CC BY-SA

In the first phase of the revision, additions are being made to grades 1, 5, 9 and 10 in science, social science, physical education, and eight languages. The rest of the grades will follow subsequently. The goal, educators said, is to incorporate the lessons holistically.

“The biggest challenge for us teachers was to creatively merge information within the existing lessons,” said K. Santhosh Kumar, a Hindi language teacher who contributed to the new curriculum.

Kumar found a grade 5 story about a young boy whose boat topples after banging against a rock, an opportunity to slip in some questions on empathy and life skills. The boy was saved when a passerby saw him drowning.

“At the end of the story, we ask: What helped the passerby save the boy? Why should you learn to swim? In which situations would you get a chance to help others?” Kumar said. “The questions are likely to evoke empathy and emphasize the importance of swimming as a life skill in 10-year-olds.”

Another grade 10 Hindi poem that discusses receiving timely moral support, while the recent anecdote of a blanket seller who donated his entire stock to flood survivors has also been tied in. “We want the kids to understand civic consciousness by reflecting why the man donates everything, knowing it was his only source of income for the coming months,” Kumar said.

Teachers have picked a few more real-life stories, particularly those of children who were astute and heroic during a disaster. In August, Zen Sadavarte, a 10-year-old from Mumbai used her knowledge from a school project and helped 16 people in her building save themselves from smoke inhalation when it caught fire. Tilly Smith, a British girl of the same age had put her knowledge from a geography class to good use when she recognized the signs of a tsunami in 2004. When sea waves started receding on a Thai beach she was visiting, Smith warned others and saved about 100 people who evacuated the beach in time. 

“These incidents are significant as they show children can be leaders, not merely recipients of knowledge,” Sharma said.

Physical education would fill the gaps in the syllabus with drills on using fire extinguishers and managing gas leaks, road accidents, and riots. Life skills such as trekking, tree climbing, swimming, which build stamina, are also being added.

Public health is incorporated in biology lessons in grade 9 as epidemics related to disasters, with special emphasis on the recent outbreaks of leptospirosis or rat fever. Aspects of psychosocial care have also been built into language lessons.

“Children can be leaders, not merely recipients of knowledge.”

— Anshu Sharma, urban planner and co-founder, Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society

“We have found that most children affected by the floods face some kind of stress,” said Kavitha Manoj, project coordinator with National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences who conducted workshops on psychosocial care. She said that if kids could read the signs and understand that stress is an aftermath of a disaster, they could stamp out the stigma around the subject and help convince relatives and friends to seek help.

Sharma is hopeful about the impact of the changes in the curriculum.

He has conducted activity-based education on disasters in numerous schools, and created handbooks for teachers and games for children, but has found that project-sized initiatives cannot hold children’s interest for long.

“Systemic changes are more sustainable and have a far deeper impact; putting it in the curriculum would mean that every kid would learn the same concept year after year,” Sharma said.

Sikkim, in the Northeast, has also begun to push for disaster management education. This September, on the seventh anniversary of an earthquake that struck the state in 2011, the chief minister announced that all school and university courses would have an appropriate component on the subject starting next session.

“This is one of the wisest decisions taken by the state,” said Vinod Sharma, vice chairman of the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority.

“It is way more cost effective to educate the kids now than to bear the losses of disaster later.”

About the author

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    Priti Salian

    Priti Salian is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist covering culture, health care, development, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, the BBC, National Geographic, NBC News, NPR, PRI, CityLab, and many other publications. Visit her website at www.pritisalian.com.