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How ‘Illiterate Women’ In Rural Rajasthan Are Being Trained To Become Solar Engineers

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By Lea Goelnitz

Photo courtesy: Florian Lang
Photo courtesy: Florian Lang

A village that is a six-hour train ride from New Delhi has been realising a sustainable and innovative lifestyle for almost 40 years already. Tilonia is far off the electrical grid, yet fully solar electrified and self-sufficient. As if this would not be enough, the local Barefoot College trains illiterate women to become solar engineers and spread the light.

Local Problem, Local Solution

In Tilonia, a village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, Bacchi from Bihar is soldering the charge controller, which is later attached to a solar panel.

She is one of about 300 million people in India who are still without power.

Bihar is one of the poorest states of India. Its social and economic development lags behind other states for decades already. About 85% of Biharis live in villages and according to the 2011 census not even half of the women in rural areas are literate. Before she came to Tilonia, Bacchi had no idea about solar energy.

The Barefoot College, located near Kishangarh, the marble city of India, has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities for more than 40 years, with the goal to make them self-sufficient and sustainable.

Since 1989, the unusual college focuses on using solar energy to provide access to electricity in remote and isolated parts of India.

The philosophy of the Barefoot College, where only illiterate and semi-literate people are allowed to study, is rooted in the Gandhian model – the control, management and ownership of technology should be in the hands of the people. In order to fight poverty and mass migration from villages to the slums of big cities, the life in villages needs to be improved. Ordinary village people should be trusted to have the competency to offer local solutions to local problems.

College-educated people cannot attend the classes. “Educated people disrupt our system. They ask too many questions. Like, what is inside the charge controller? How does it work? We do not know. And for this purpose we do not need to know,” explains Ramniwas, who works for the Barefoot College for almost 30 years already.

The puppeteer grew up in a village in the area and was an accountant before he joined the project in Tilonia. He tours the villages with a puppet show, explaining equality and raising awareness against discrimination. There are still villages in which the lower castes are not allowed to share the well with the higher castes.

Ramniwas proudly declares: “But here in Tilonia, there are no caste – or gender barriers. Here, we are upholding the constitution,” which prohibits any form of discrimination based on caste.

According to Bunker Roy, the founder of the Barefoot College, it is important to concentrate on practical skills that will make a visible difference in the lives of people.

Tilonia demonstrates how solar electrified villages can be totally self-sufficient and environmentally friendly. “Instead of subsidizing the rich indirectly, subsidize the solar systems directly on the condition that the poor pay for the repair and maintenance. This will generate over 50,000 jobs in the rural areas and prevent migration. This is not a dream on paper. It is actually happening. But Piyush Goyal, the minister for new and renewable energy, has not had time to hear how it could be scaled up all over India,” Roy told The Indian Express in April 2015.

One Panel On One Roof At A Time

Bacchi Devi does not know exactly how old she is, she assumes she is over 30 maybe older than 40. She came to Barefoot College with her son, who is either eight or twelve years old and attends school in the village while his mother is trained to become a solar engineer.

Her husband is an auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi. She has been to the capital before, but still she was anxious about coming to Rajasthan 1.200 km away from her home in the district of Beethia near the border to Nepal.

But six weeks into the program, she is relieved, the food – roti and rice – is the same as at home and she is amazed about her achievements so far. She says, she is learning engineering, like children learn to write, slowly, but getting there. She learns through repetition, trial and error. She sets up the charge controller as many times as it takes her to remember how it is done right. She figures out the resistance through colour-codes.

As all graduates from Barefoot College, she will be equipped with all the tools and material she will need to set up, maintain and repair the solar panels in her community

Bacchi’s remote village is very poor, like most people there she has no work. But being in charge of solar electrifying her village will provide her with income, paid by the district government. She expects her community to be supportive and happy about her return with panels for each household. She wants her village to be the same as Tilonia. She wants more than light.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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