By Shreyasi Ghosh:
A small town called Tilonia in Ajmer in Rajasthan is in global spotlight for the extraordinary work that started here in 1972, lifting thousands of illiterate impoverished villagers out of their misery and helping them lead a life of dignity, that grants them access to basic amenities of survival and more. The Barefoot College which was founded in 1972 by Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy is the beacon of hope in these dark and difficult times for rural India. The organization has made the villagers aware of their own potential and problem-solving skills, and is making them socially and economically self-reliant every day.
Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, a Doon School and St. Stephen’s College alumnus, had it in him to make a successful career in civil service or in the private sector. But instead of looking for a cushy job in the cities he decided to contribute his skills and knowledge to nation-building efforts.
Thus, in 1972, the Barefoot College was born out of the ideas and enthusiasm of educated social activists and urban professionals. They had themselves registered as the Social Work and Research Centre which eventually came to be known as the Barefoot College. They leased about forty-five acres of government land along with some buildings in the former Tuberculosis Sanatorium from the government and started the college with about 2000 villagers.
The aim was simple and direct — make the villagers aware of the fact that theoretical education is not necessary to solve their problems. The solution to their problems lies within themselves in their villages. The college has dispelled the notion that theoretical educational qualifications are a must to make the villages a better place to live in. It has imparted the necessary practical education to the villagers, thereby empowering them to solve their own problems without depending on external aid, which is sometimes difficult to obtain and often gets delayed in coming.
The Barefoot College got its name from the term ‘barefoot professionals’ coined by Bunker Roy himself who realized the potentials of the barefoot marginalized sections of the society. Being a social entrepreneur who believed in sustainable development and self-sufficiency, he felt the need to teach people to use their traditional knowledge to create solutions for their problems. The building itself was constructed by barefoot architects and workers who made use of their traditional knowledge of construction works.
The college has taught and helped the villagers to find solutions to their energy and power requirements, problems like lack of education, healthcare and clean water. It has various programs which are run by the villagers themselves and act as a source of income for the entire rural community. The villagers have been taught to identify their own problems and find a solution; the college provides them with the necessary education, funds and facilities to implement them.
The college focuses on education but instead of the usual classroom education it believes in imparting a more practical and hands-on education that will help the students to learn about the environment, their problems and various political and socio-economic aspects that affect their lives. The aim of the education system is to make the villagers literate and at the same time, make them realize that they are needed in their villages to work for their development and welfare and help them gain practical knowledge and skills. The teachers are chosen from the rural communities themselves with the belief that rural children can connect with someone from their own background easily than a city-bred scholar with no insight to their conditions and requirements. It also helps to create employment for the villagers.
The college has also taught the villagers rainwater harvesting in order to provide fresh and hygienic drinking water for themselves and their livestock. The villagers easily make use of traditional knowledge of rain water collection to meet their needs.
Solar Electrification of villages
The Barefoot College has won international acclaim for its effort to make solar electrification technology accessible to the common people. Hundreds of illiterate people have learnt the methods of producing solar electricity and are lighting up hundreds of homes in the remotest of the remote villages. The villagers are first made aware of the benefits of eco-friendly solar energy. A few members of the community are trained in solar electrification process who in turn spread the knowledge. The villagers are encouraged to pay in cash or kind, whatever they can afford, to run the solar energy production units- this way they feel a sense of ownership and are responsible for ensuring the installation, maintenance, repair and proper running of the unit. The process is not initiated till the villagers who have agreed to obtain solar powers pay for it. Their money goes into paying for spare parts, factory rents, batteries, salaries for the solar engineers etc. This creates new employments for the villagers without relying on outside help.
The college especially encourages women to take part in this process to empower them economically. Hundreds of illiterate women from different underdeveloped parts of the world travel to Tilonia every year to learn the process of solar electrification and use this knowledge in their own villages. This is sustainable development in its true form- the villagers can solve their own problems instead of having freebies handed out to them by patrons, social workers, charities and the government. The solutions are handed down from generation to generation for future implementations.
The college has been providing basic healthcare facilities to about 150 villages and creating social awareness about health and hygiene. Health programs have been introduced to equip thousands of villagers with basic healthcare knowledge. It also creates a team of Barefoot communicators who in turn make people aware of issues of mother and child care, importance of nutrition and clean water, oral health, immunization, HIV/AIDs, family planning, cough and cold and other usual health problems. Women are trained in midwifery too.
Encouraging Traditional means of livelihood
Thousands of traditional craftsmen have been encouraged to engage in their trade using their traditional skills. The potters, weavers, carpenters, builders, farmers etc get help from the college to upgrade their skills, and their products like clothes, toys, metal and woodworks, paper products, rugs, furniture etc are sold in national as well as international markets. Friends of Tilonia is an organization that collaborates with the craftsmen and help to increase their sales and marketing globally. This has solved the problem of unemployment and migration of youth to the cities for job opportunities. The people, especially women, can now generate their own income sitting at home and using knowledge handed down to them by their fathers.
The Barefoot College has especially won laurels for its efforts of women’s emancipation. Today hundreds of women have specialized as solar engineers, thereby lighting their homes and in turn, their villages. They are trained in construction works, metal works, healthcare, water testing, handicrafts etc so that they are financially independent and can live a life of dignity. Women who were so long deprived of education are encouraged to attend night schools where they learn practical skills and gather enough knowledge to use them for the betterment of their villages. They train as midwives in the college and are responsible for creating awareness about basic health amongst the villages’ women. They are encouraged to break barriers and report occurrences of rape, abuse, gender and caste-based discriminations.
Ideology and Approach
The Barefoot College thrives on the fact that it is run by the people who are its intended beneficiaries. No outside interference in the name of aid is allowed to disrupt the development process. No government initiative or undertaking, no expensive and elaborate surveys, no false promises could delay or stunt the development process. But contributions from the government, international funds, private funds, corporate or individual sponsors are often used to implement the Barefoot model in other countries. The money goes into education, solar power generation, computer education for women, construction of rainwater harvesting tanks etc.
Every individual, irrespective of his/her caste, religion, gender, age, receives education and employment opportunities. It is mandatory for everyone to eat together in a common dining hall, sitting on the floor and wash their own dishes. In a society where casteism and untouchability are rampant, it is indeed unthinkable. Everybody’s opinion is taken into account and considered when important decisions are being undertaken. The villagers are encouraged to lead a simple and balanced life.
When the project took off, it was ridiculed as ‘impractical’ and it was predicted that it won’t last long. The Barefoot College has gone through a vortex of changes in its management and administration to adapt itself to the changing needs of the villagers in a rapidly changing world. Hardships were met with and tackled. There had been periods of despair and hopelessness when various projects ran into troubles or met with stiff resistance.
But the college ushered in hope amongst the thousands of exploited toiling rural masses of India and introduced the world to a new and sustainable way of rural development and fighting poverty. It involves the ideas and efforts of rural communities thus making them realize that they too are an important part of the society and can change the world for the better.
Tilonia Barefoot College nudges us to look beyond the comfortable environs of our plush air-conditioned houses and cushy jobs and do our bid for the society so that the world becomes a much better place to live in. It makes us feel that all is not lost in this world- there is still hope for a better future.