By Uzair Belgami:
The Barefoot College
What is ‘education’? Is it the same as ‘schooling’? Do modern schools/colleges which most of us have attended distort our understanding of an education by imposing unwarranted structure and rigidity?
Bunker Roy seems to have a different perspective on the above questions than many of us have perhaps and what he is doing about it deserves special notice. In a country where attending a proper school is still a privilege for thousands of people, his ideas and actions on education are nothing short of revolutionary.
The Barefoot College is an extraordinary place in Tilonia, Rajasthan where something amazing happens on a daily basis. It is a college which teaches rural women and men — many of them illiterate — to become “solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors in their own villages”, that too in a sustainable and energy-efficient environment. In 1972, Roy established The Social Work and Research Center, now called the Barefoot College, to educate and train rural people and empower them with skills and knowledge needed for occupations which range from healthcare to engineering — all without a “college degree”. These rural people, whose livelihoods and lives were at stake due to the influx of ready-made, mass-produced goods, have now gradually became ‘educated’, empowered and self-sufficient.
Here, having a professional degree “disqualifies” you from coming, and it is for the poor — who according to Roy, have all the skills and resourceful-ness needed to change their own lives, but are just never given the knowledge, training or opportunity to bring them out. His model and his ideas are now being emulated, not only in about 15 states in India, but even in Africa and the Middle East.
Tribal Health Initiative
What is ‘health’? Is it the absence of disease, or is it something much more than that? Can healthcare professionals and especially doctors play a much larger role in social change than just prescribing medicines and conducting surgeries?
Dr. Lalitha and Dr. Regi started the Tribal Health Initiative in 1992 to help the tribal communities living in the Sittilingi valley and surrounding hills lead a better quality of life. For them, doctors from CMC Vellore, health was more than just a physical absence of disease, but also involved mental, social, economic perspectives. In the absence of interventions in these aspects of life, just physically treating a person is not at all a ‘cure’. Their initiative amongst the tribals in Tamil Nadu embraces this comprehensive meaning of health and has brought in hope and change to the previously bleak lives of the ignored and invisible tribals of this extremely remote area.
Starting out as a small, thatched hut and running a simple Out Patient Unit — they have now grown into a full-fledged 24-bed hospital with an OT, not to mention initiatives and facilities for health education, farming and crafts. The results, in the form of betterment in lives of the people, have been dramatic and remarkable. The THI has received international acclaim and support and its symbolic message of an urgent need for re-imagination of health and healthcare are critical for our society.
Prahlad Tipanya & The Kabir Project
Shall our country ever heal itself of the scars of exploitation and polarization under the pretext of religion? When shall our artists and entertainers begin to adopt a more responsible and constructive role in society — especially in the above context?
Prahlad Tipanya, a folk music singer from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, uses his magical voice as a soothing medicine to heal old wounds and spread values of peace, equality and spirituality among thousand in rural and urban areas across India. Prahladji was a school teacher in a small village in MP, who had never sang in public, until he came across a ‘tambura’ and heard the words of the great Indian poet, Kabir. Now, due to his voice and songs, he is a household name in large areas of Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring states, not to mention having toured across UK, Germany and USA.
Prahladji combines his powerful art with values for the betterment of society. His concerts are more than entertaining music and glamour and are rather sessions educating the men and women attending in values of peace and love. Perhaps they are something that our society, which is starving in the shallowness of what we are fed to in the name of entertainment, needs desperately. His concerts are deep engagements with the spiritual and social thought of Kabir, who strived to reform his surrounding society many years ago. They “stress the need to rise above petty divisiveness, sectarianism, empty ritualism and hypocrisy, and the need to adopt love as the ultimate religion.” In our country, where we have insensitive films, songs and portrayals in the name of entertainment, and people who are striving to create communal tensions and polarized mindsets for their own personal ends, artists such as Prahlad Tipanya are precious few. It seems the urban stars of our entertainment industry can learn a thing or two from him.
What is ‘development’? Can we imagine development in India in terms other than industrialization, urbanization and development of infrastructure? Should India strive to be an example of a different model of development? What shall be the fate of the ‘casualties’ of our furious march to ‘development’ and being a ‘super-power’?
On 22 June 2005 Pohang Steel Company (POSCO), a large South Korean corporation, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Orissa. This understanding outlined POSCO’s proposal to invest USD 12 billion (around 54 thousand crore Indian rupees) and build a 12 Million Tonne Per Annum (MTPA) integrated steel plant, capturing port and mines in a large rural area of Orissa known for its fertile land and thriving ecosystem. This is tipped as the highest FDI to India. The project requires 4004 acres of land, of which about 2900 acres are forest land, not to mention land for railways, road expansion and mine development. Three panchayats will be affected by the steel and power plant project, namely Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang.
The people of the area, along with many activists and concerned citizens from all over the country began to raise their voice against this move by the government, against all odds and with great risk to their lives for standing up to express their rights and opinions against the perceived “benefit of the many”. The POSCO Pratirodha Sangam Samiti (PPSS) was set up to oppose this project and spearhead the movement against the acquisition of the unusually fertile land of the area, the destruction of the forests and nearby eco-system and the ruining of the people’s lives and homes. Over the past years, the PPSS has been immensely successful in withstanding against the huge corporate and the intentions of the state and central government. Though there have been numerous bogus cases filed against large numbers of villagers, deprivation of basic amenities amidst an almost siege like situation around the villages, and even the arrest of the leader of the movement, Abhay Sahoo — the people have not relented. Every single day there is a dharna organized, even under the hot Orissa sun, and villagers attend in turns. The children of the area are some of the most active and vocal, and their participation is very inspiring. As a result of their struggle, a stay order was passed on acquisition of private land, though the government owned forests are still being furiously cut down, and the MoU which expired in June 2010 is yet to be renewed. How long these people will dare to raise their voices against being unwilling “collateral damage” and deprive us ‘privileged others’ of the fruit of development, is yet to be seen. Yet for what they have achieved so far, and the questions they have symbolically raised, they deserve to be commended.
Are there two different “India’s”?Â Â The urban, developed and privileged India and the rural, poor and deprived India? Where are all these people we sometimes read or hear about? How and why, should an urban youth like us strive to meet, understand and explore the society that comprises the ‘other’ India out there somewhere?
“Samvada”, a group from Bangalore started out in 1989 in response to such questions. The members of Samvada are dedicated to building “a humane, just, safe, sustainable and peaceful society”. Samvada is a special organization as it helps students from urban and privileged backgrounds to encounter and understand other sections of society that one would otherwise not have a chance to. According to their website, the “remote corners of the country became new learning environments for urban college students as they were sent on exposures to NGOs, trade unions and social movements.” It gave students the opportunity to meet for the first time, marginalized communities like “fisher people, forest dwellers, construction workers, bonded labourers, devadasis, weavers, artisans, scavengers and other forgotten people”. This interaction led to paradigm shifts and turning points in the lives of many Samvada students, who can be read about on the website.
Such exposures helped urban students realize that there was “another India out there”, which we often tend to dismiss as marginal and unimportant. This led students to question views on “development”, “justice”, “equality”. Some of these experiences have been so meaningful that some students have even made a commitment to work with NGOs and movements, to change society by “changing their lifestyles, educational preferences, social relationships, and political affiliations.”
In our unequal and compartmentalized society, where there exists extremes on both ends of the social spectrum, movements such as the one which Samvada is a part of — to help reduce the ever widening gulf of inequality, lack of exposure and dialogue between the urban and rural, are of immense importance for us to grow and develop together.