Sapna ranch, the world is a laboratory

India, november 2014

For the first time since we left France, we are actually boarding a plane in order to avoid the border area between Iran and Pakistan which is too dangerous for the time being… Strange feeling to be leaping from one country to another: our small snail switched on its turbo reactors! We are soon leaving behind Mumbai’s frantic life to spend a few days in the small town of Alibaug, a little bit further south. There life seems sweeter: less people, less pollution… Why do the Indians feel that crave to move to such huge cities, even if it means they have to settle in the slums? Maybe more so than anywhere else they are in dire need of accommodation. On the road, several adverts for concrete catch our eyes « the engineer’s choice »/ « stronger and longer » are the words on the slogans which are hand painted. Concrete building … is it really the only solution and the good solution ?

Pondering on those questions, we are soon on the way to join the Hasmukh site at the “Sapna Ranch” in a small village in the Maharashtra State, between Mumbai and Pune. Hardly off the bus and already the rickshawala (rickshaw drivers) have guessed where we are heading for. One of them takes us on board and off he cycles on the narrow path winding through the hills. Just like the previous self-builders we met in Italy, Greece or Turkey, Hasmukh has settled in a real natural jewel « I wanted to leave the lights, smells and noise of the city ». And so he did !

Bamboo at all floors !

« You’re just in time to share our meal ! » Hasmukh says to us with a big smile. The atmosphere is friendly. About ten people are there: Indians and foreign volunteers who took part in a ten-day workshop which ended on the day before. We take a seat with all the others on the mat of the big bamboo dome, the living room of the Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh built it together with other volunteers in one month, after lengthy research on geodesic domes. The building techniques are based on an assembling of triangles – a non-deformable geometric figure. It is not only esthetical, but this netting is a favourite of Hasmukh’s who is pleading for the idea of the « forgiving design » : « this type of dome may be erected without any specific skill since its structure can do with small mistakes. Each and every triangle is resting on others, so if some bamboo happened to break, the others would bear the load till it is being replaced.» On this dome, the bamboos have been cleverly joined together through attachments on pans to cook chapatis (small flour and water pancakes, which are very popular in India and eaten as bread) !

Hasmukh proudly shows us the bamboo courtyard, next to the dome : « it has been erected by two women who had never ever done any building before! I showed them a model and in a few days it was up and standing !»

     

Bamboo is the main raw material used in the Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh buys it from local producers and he is planning to eventually grow his own in the future. We are discovering the properties of this incredible material: it grows between 30 and 60 cms a day during the first three days of its life to reach its final size in just one year. Then three years are required so it becomes strong and may be used as building material. After those three years, its mechanical properties become very performing, allying lightweight, flexibility and solidity. For us, it is most probably only the first steps in discovering this material traditionally used in south East Asia, even if, Hasmukh deplores the use of concrete which is becoming standard practice : « This type of dome could very well be transposed in the cities, it would be bigger, but the proportions would have to be calculated with precision. What a pity that people are resorting to concrete so much today when a renewable, economical and quality material is available locally ».

Two other small bamboo houses are next to the dome and are being used as bedrooms by Hasmuk and the volunteers who come and go as well as by those participating in workshops. He called them « casa uno » and « casa dos » referring to a Spanish proverb « mi casa su casa » : your house is my house. Just like the previous volunteers, we combine the pleasant and the useful by increasing the bamboo furniture of the Sapna Ranch. Gradually the place is being furnished by the various people who come and go: we are sleeping in a bed made by the previous ones and are building chairs, ladders, stools for those who will be coming after us, as well as a Molki game. Hasmukh quickly gives some indications as to the dimensions… and soon all that becomes reality. He leaves us a certain amount of freedom and that is an incentive for innovation: the deckchairs are becoming nicer and nicer and more and more sophisticated. Why take two days to build a ladder or a chair when those could be bought in a jiffy ? Maybe because we too often forget the working time which is required to earn some money…

Between sawing exercises, we take advantage of the extraordinary situation to admire many exotic birds and their green blue, turquoise feathers. In the distance we can even see a pair of toucans! Other colourful animals, more or less friendly, also inhabit the place: scorpions, spiders, praying mantises, frogs, chameleons, butterflies and other dragonflies…

A laboratory – ecosystem

Since Hasmukh landed in this wild plot, four years ago, he has successfully built a small ecosystem. First he had to get water: it is actually pumped from a source, then filtered and stored in big reservoirs. Part of it is heated, very efficiently too thanks to a 300L solar boiler « I am happy with this investment, it is far more efficient than solar panels to give everyone hot water ! » The « grey water » of the shower are drained in pipes which are going to water the vegetable garden and the big banana plantation. But the novelty, dating back a few days only, is the installation of the dry toilets the workshop participants have just completed. After several researches, Hasmukh chose separation dry toilets to avoid the smells: urines are drained directly to the banana trees which are resistant to acidity. The faeces are separated giving enough time to dry before being combined to soil and vegetable compost. After several months, this compost may be used in the garden as natural fertiliser. In the long term, Hasmukh is planning to combine them with animal and vegetable compost to produce biogas thanks to their fermentation. He is encouraging everyone to make use of dry toilets. « This is quite a challenge because the Indians are used to water! I keep both types of toilets, but I do hope that the mentalities are going to change through experience. And in the traditional toilets, I would like to set up a flushing system which would use the grey waters as is the case in earthships. Do you realise that in this type of toilets, we are using 10 to 15 litres of water whenever we are flushing the toilets ! »

Later, he introduces us to another realisation elaborated during the workshop: a small homemade geothermal heat exchanging system. A several-meter long trench has been dug to place a pipe. On both ends, two ventilators, one outside the dome to let the air in and the other outside together with a small ventilation turbine. What is the principe ? To make use of the inertia of the ground which remains at a relatively constant temperature all through the year (the deeper you dig, the closer you come to the average earth temperature), to cool or heat the house. Sapna Ranch is still connected to the local electricity grid, but in the long term Hasmukh does hope to become self-supporting thanks to his energy saving, his biogas station as well as his solar panel and water heater. This is an actual experimenting piece of land : « as opposed to Shakespeare who wrote that “life is a game and the whole world is a stage”, I would say “the whole world is a laboratory and life is experimenting ». We soon find out that all those brilliant ideas are no more than the premises for a far more ambitious project that he is actually trying to set up.

The EBHLE project

« After working as a consultant with the most famous researchers, for the most important laboratories on emerging technologies, I realised that all that only benefited the elites. I therefore decided to use what I learnt to help the children in both rural and tribal areas. For me, real technology is the technology that will improve the quality of the lives of those who are closest to the bottom of the pyramid. » Those few sentences read on Hasmukh’s HelpX and Workaway profiles prior to our arrival did not lead us to imagine the huge scope of his alternative school project. During one evening, he introduces the project in detail, which he named EBHLE « Experience Based on Holistic Learning Environnement. » : offering children a way to learn through experience. « For me, education is vital. But there is a difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘literacy’. Today teaching is focusing on giving back knowledge. Worse even, those children who make mistakes are being blamed. In my former job, I worked together with many researchers and I did understand that it is precisely by making mistakes that discoveries are also being made. Unfortunately, a student is only allowed to experiment when writing a PhD. I would like to offer this opportunity from a tender age. ». Quite an interesting finding: read EBHLE aloud and you may hear ABLE.

We also find out that the dome is in fact the prototype of a classroom or rather of the « learning environnement » as he prefers to refer to it. The aim is to build some thirty similar ones and to welcome 300 children by 2020, starting progressively in 2016 ! « Can you see these huge boards? They are in fact chalk boards. But they are not for teachers only. The children are also encouraged to write on the walls ! » They have just been put up and they are already being used: there is a mixture of things on it: the plans to build a chair, a list of common tasks, a child’s drawing, a series of calculations… a genuine think tank. Hasmukh goes on « he first floor of the dome will be a living place, the second one a dormitory. » The other innovating idea is to offer to those parents who want to (or even grandparents) to live on site to help towards a better transmission « there are so many elderly people who have so many thing to teach those youngsters and they would be delighted to be given an opportunity to do so rather than be sitting at home bored to death… » The children who benefit from such a project will come from all walks of life: some will be paying for enrolment, others from poor families will be allowed to attend the lessons for free. « The school will cover the tuition fees with the proceeds of the artisanal and agricultural productions, such as the bananas we are growing. I do not want the children from better off families to feel they are paying for the others. » And he goes on: « This mixed group is essential for me. During the first workshop, I noticed that the children who live in the street are overall far more innovative and resourceful than those going to school. Difference is an opportunity since complementarity is born out of the difference. The allegory of the five fingers of a hand is a good example: it would be a real handicap to have nothing but thumbs! That is why I also hope the school is going to welcome disabled children. They will learn from each other…»

      

The classes will not be groups of the same levels but rather groups formed according to the children’s abilities and envies. The lessons will be an opportunity to acquire traditional knowledge, but through eco-building, eco-energy, ecological agriculture, the breeding of animals… « I wish to base learning on the five senses. I get my ideas from neuroplasticity. The human brain is not used to its full capacity and more specifically because the education system is limiting the possibilities from childhood onwards. Take for instance the example of a flower. In school the children will learn its name and its shape, but that is all. Instead they should be taken on an outing so they can see what it really looks like, but also touch it, smell it, taste it…» Aso Hasmukh’s project is totally in the opposite direction of the Indian system, but also of the globalised school system « The current government is encouraging people to settle in cities to increase the number of urban workers. I went to visit the schools in the nearby villages and the level as well as the resources are a real disaster. There is a rumour that if a teacher is being disciplined, he is sent out here… ».

Building with others

If Hasmukh is at the core of this somewhat crazy project, several other people may be found around Sapna Ranch. « When I arrived I really wanted to work with the people of the nearby villages. I employed some punctually, but it did not prove successful because they did not understand the philosophy behind the project… and it is still like that. Some make fun of my buildings and others think that I do business with the volunteers! I eventually understood that the people cannot be changed if they do not want to. I am not wasting my energy any longer with them, now I try to work with those people who go in the same direction ». Maybe one day, when the school starts, they will understand what I am after. Who knows ? (Erdem experienced the same difficulties for the construction of his earthship in Turkey.) « So I spent three years almost alone, working here with my four dogs and two cats as sole company! But I believe it was important to be by myself in the first days. It was like a meditation period, yet it was action ! » Indeed Hasmukh likes to repeat that he is a person who acts rather than talks. « At the very beginning, I wanted to take part in an eco-village project with several other Indians who were in the same dynamics. We met on several occasions… but it did not take me long to see that we were going round and round in a vicious circle. That is when I decided to start off on my own. We still meet from time to time… For them the building has not yet started, they are still holding meetings (!) »

Even if it takes time, more and more Indians are showing an interest for an alternative lifestyle. The significant number of people who enrol in the workshops offered by Hasmukh is evidence of it all. Most of them are people living in the cities, with a good social position, who wish to see other experiences before taking the plunge and creating something as well. It is the case of Vipin, for instance, whom we meet. He is over the moon with the workshop and Hasmukh’s initiative. « For you Westerners it may be easier to see the failures of capitalism and to try and find other ways because you experienced it. Here most people are still dreaming of the promises of capitalism». For a few months, the Ranch has also had a new inhabitant, Maneswar, a young Indian of 29 years of age. He left his region (the State of Assam, near Bangladesh) and travelled across the country to earn some money. While he was working as a security agent in a neighbouring city, he met one of the future participant in Hasmukh’s workshop, who talked about it to him. He was overwhelmed with the discovery of Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh offered him to stay and render some services in exchange. « I am earning less than in the city, but what I am learning here makes me so much richer: speaking English, meeting volunteers from the whole world, looking after the vegetable garden and the banana trees, building… The members of my family do not understand my choice, they think I am earning a lot of money and that I do not want to send them any… They would like me to send them more all the time, even if I explain that it is impossible for me. But I have made my choice. I have decided to live in a simple way and I am happy here ».

Maneswar cascade

Manoj, a young Indian who is staying for a few days and whom we meet a few days later is also facing the same lack of understanding from his family. Unlike Maneswar he studied and then landed a job in a bank. Gradually he realised how absurd consumerism is and now he is aspiring to live a simpler life. He decided to travel for two years throughout India to find out alternative projects and intends to set up an eco-tourism agency to promote them. « My family, and above all my parents, do not accept my remarks on their lifestyle because I am their son. They feel it is not my place to teach them lessons. There is a sying with us ‘everybody loves Buddha, but nobody wants to host him ! »

Before leaving, waiting for the bus which is late, on the small earth path, Hasmukh asks us : « did you see the film « School of life » ? » We have not… But sometimes realty is just as inspiring as films. Here for sure we are not in a place which is giving a lesson of life but much more in a school teaching life, and we wish it a long lasting future.

To learn more about Sapna Ranch, the coming workshops and the EBHLE project, turn to the :

Website

facebook page

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

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