Korakati: where learning happens against the odds

Korakati is well off any popular tourist trail: to get there you have to spend many hours on the road, take a boat up the Ganges and finally, a very bumpy van rickshaw up a dusty track passing huts, chickens and children along the way.

There’s an ‘other worldly’ feel about the place, which adds to its remoteness and is one of the reasons Sugata Mitra chose it for one of the TED Prize research labs. He knew just how hard it would be to create, but also just how much untapped potential there was here.

One person who probably questioned Sugata’s sanity on more than one occasion was project manager Ashis Biswas, whose job it was to sort out the logistics involved in constructing the building and getting it up and running. For example, when you look at the glass sides of the lab and then back at the only track they could have come along, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they got here in one piece!

The children at Korakati use the Internet to learn many things: for example, we were presented with beautiful handmade paper boxes topped with a rose when we arrived last month and inside were an origami flower and a jumping frog! The children had taught themselves how to make them using YouTube, with a little help from granny Jackie Barrow.

Natural challenges

There are, however, times when nature gets the better of this lab: the Internet connection, which is made possible thanks to a large bamboo pole erected on the roof, can be unreliable due to the distance from the hub, so a dongle has to be used instead, dangled from an open window. Water is also often scarce, and when there isn’t enough, it’s not safe to open the lab.

The solar power works well most of the time, but as co-ordinator Ankit Bubai Mondal (who runs with lab with Milan Mandal) told me, it’s not as effective at night! He once got stranded at Korakati and had to sleep in the guest accommodation with no power. This left him with the unenviable decision between being ‘eaten alive by mosquitoes with the door open or boiled alive with the door shut!’

Due to the limited bandwith, there is often just one computer connected to the Skype screen, but this alone has made it possible to have nearly 40% of all the granny sessions scheduled, which is no mean feat when you consider the challenges involved in making this happen.

“The impact of the lab and granny sessions is very visible, not only on the children, but even the co-ordinators,” explains research director Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. “The change in Milan’s (the local co-ordinator) English comprehension and ability to speak in it were quite remarkable when I met him again last month.

“Attempting to run regular granny sessions in these remote places can be frustrating for those on the other end, but even if the interaction with grannies and access to the internet isn’t as much as we would hope for, it still makes a huge difference.”

A subsistence life

Life in Korakati is hard. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations, but making a decent living from either is increasingly difficult. Most people will barely earn the equivalent of £20 a month and children often have to work with their parents in the fields. When Cyclone Aila came through the area in May 2009, it brought with it winds of over 120kph and devastating tidal waves which flooded miles inland. This saltwater turned much of the land already badly hit by previous storms such as Cyclone Sidr in 2007 into dry, saline deserts that will take decades to become fertile again.

There is saying in West Bengal that the people are lazier than elsewhere in the country because you only have to drop a fruit stone on the ground and it will grow because the land is so fertile. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case here.

Many of the villagers also used to farm fish in small ponds next to their homes but these too have been turned into saltwater, so they have had to diversify and grow shrimps instead.

Ranu Ghosh, a Kolkata-based filmmaker who works on Jerry Rothwell’s TED/Sundance film about the School in the Cloud project, likened this research lab to ‘an alien thing, dropped into the middle of the Sunderbans’ and it certainly feels that way, nestled as it is between traditional village huts, surrounded by fields. However, the community are embracing this ‘alien’ in the same way they welcomed the recent Granny Cloud tour: with open arms and a sense of nervous anticipation for what is to come.

Korakati lab is in the heart of the Sunderbans, close to the Bangladeshi border and surrounded by rivers, canals and deltas. It was inaugurated on 9th March 2014, but had to be closed for a few months afterwards to address connectivity and construction issues. The climate is governed by the monsoon and the majority of people live below the poverty line, with limited sources of income. There are nearly 600 households and 300 children in the village, which has three primary schools and two secondary schools but no medical amenities or other facilities.