Volunteer story: Engineers Without Borders

EWB_Volunteers

This summer, Pitchandikulam Forest had the pleasure of hosting three UK volunteers from the Bristol based NGO Engineers Without Borders (EWB),  which aims to inspire and support people to respond to global challenges using science, technology and engineering.

Lydia, Bill and Ben are students at the University of Bristol, who spent a few weeks helping to make engineering improvements at Pitchandikulam and its outreach projects in Nadukuppam village. In particular, they focused on improvements to the spirulina production unit run by the women’s cooperative in Nadukuppam. Spirulina is a water algae that needs constant attention in order to thrive, such as regular stirring throughout each day, and Lydia, Ben and Bill designed wind and solar powered solutions to make this process more accurate, efficient and less labour intensive. They designed devices such as electronic timer that automatically turns the stirring motors on and off throughout the day, and a windmill rotation system to achieve the correct PH value and temperature required. They also worked on installing a solar cooker for use in the community kitchen here at Pitchandikulam, where the steam created from a solar heated vacuum tube will be utilised for cooking. The design is based upon the current system at the AurovilleVisitors Centre with some modifications, designed by Alok Mallik, with whom they have been consulting throughout the planning and fabrication process.

We at Pitchandikulam are grateful to Lydia, Bill and Ben for their hard work, enthusiasm and useful practical solutions to some of our engineering needs, and we would love to welcome them here again in the future.

Here are some of their impressions of their stay at Pitchandikulam.

Lydia building a solar cooker
Lydia building the solar cooker

Lydia

“Throughout our stay at Pitchandikulam we were exposed to numerous experiences ranging from learning about how the restoration of the area is being pursued to the many cultural practises in the region. The welcoming attitude of the team made us feel included in the community from the start and the time taken by people to explain their work helped give a more thorough grounding of the constitution of the projects.

We found the diversity of work being undertaken at the forest fascinating; there were many areas relatively unknown to the three of us, such as the importance of the promotion of indigenous species and the extent to which water catchment areas may be utilised, thus providing us with many new insights and the inspiration to continue developing our knowledge with regard to sustaining the ecology around us.

We gained many new skills whilst carrying out our work partly due to the cultural differences which led to alternate methods being employed and a different outlook taken to achieve the same end. One striking difference was the continuous search for the most practical, simple solution, which is an aspect we shall try to continue applying back in the UK. For instance it was very interesting seeing the method of tube leveling being employed to such great effect and upon return, whilst discussing it in admiration, finding it is actually used here too!”

DSCN3754

Ben

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Pitchandikulam. Everyone was fantastic, warm and welcoming. Lydia, Bill and I got on with a variety of activities and projects, such as implementing an aeration system for the pond and building a solar cooker.

One of the main activities I undertook with Siva was designing and testing an electronic timer for the spirulina motors. The purpose of the timer is to turn on and off the motors that agitate the spirulina throughout the day. We managed to build a demo version and test it, it was successful! Siva and I are in the process of building the completed version, we are staying in touch through email.

I am very grateful for the generosity and friendliness I received from the folks at Pitchandikulam. Many thanks for the good times which included days out at the beach and pleasant restaurants. The trip wouldn’t have been possible or as wonderful without Sekar who drove us around southern India for a week where we indulged in the vibrant history and culture of such a wonderful country.

Four days into our EWB engineering trip to India and we already braved the roads on a solar charged electric bike, ate delicious curry with the small community of Pitchandikulam, a tropical dry evergreen forest restoration site situated within the green belt of Auroville and had a glass of the ‘super food’ Spirulina, cultivated entirely by the local women’s self help groups. This vibrant green algea was surprisingly tasty, leaving us invigorated to continue our tour of Pitchandikulam’s extensive social/ environmental projects, even in the midday sun which beats upon the region of Tamil Nadu.

We began our work at Spirulina; with Bill fronting the way we have continued our designs for alternate agitation methods, a key process encompassing exposing the small coils of green algae to the sunlight which also helps to regulate the temperature of the culture. Coupled with the mechanical aspects of the design there have also been many social considerations to account for as there are plans to expand the Spirulina ponds at Nadukuppam, which will be owned by the local women’s groups themselves, thus minimal cost, easy maintenance and an efficient usage of space is required. Whilst determining our designs we’ve taken a few trips out to the site in the bumpy mini bus, either accompanied by a gaggle of school children who experience the benefits of the education centre and nursery at Nadukuppam or by woman from Pitchandikulam’s herbal remedies project; off to gather the wild plants required for their extensive range of remedial products. These coveted recipes have only recently been documented, whereby previously the preservation of knowledge relied purely on word of mouth, passing down through the generations. The poetic nature of the process may be compromised by the documentation however the easier distribution of the recipes and ideas benefit a substantial proportion of the local communities, with the potential for expansion across the region.

The contrast between the progressive, inspiring initiatives pursued by the Aurovillian community, who are striving towards the founder Mother’s dream of a ‘new society: balanced, just, harmonious and dynamic’ and the lack of what we, in the western society, may perceive as basic amenities, in the area, is notable. Could it be the impetus for such projects arise due to the higher level of deprivation, whereby comparatively in the UK, where the immediate need is lower, development of the environmental and social sectors feels somewhat stagnant?! We are, of course, experiencing a unique area of rural India, where over the years the Aurovillian social project has evolved to facilitate the current ventures.

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