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Mainstream, VOL LX No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2022

50 year Journey of the Barefoot College Celebrates Hidden Abilities and Great Potential of Ordinary People | Bharat Dogra

Friday 18 March 2022, by Bharat Dogra


The Barefoot College, which has emerged as one of the most creative institutions in the field of rural development, discussed and admired at world level as a symbol of the often hidden but great abilities of ordinary people, particularly women and weaker sections, is completing 50 years of its eventful journey this year. Its experiences are important in the context of its own very creative achievements of course but even more so in the context of the support this provides to the idea of ordinary people having a much greater say in evolving their development path, as opposed to over-centralized, impositional models.

Several inspiring stories of women and men from very modest backgrounds overcoming many constraints and difficulties to acquire important skills and then using these to help their community have been a very important component of this 50 year, (1972-2022), continuing journey. Take the example of Sita Devi (Tyod village of Ajmer district) who grew up without receiving any formal education. However as a young woman when she got an opportunity to learn the repair and maintenance of hand pumps, she mastered the new skills so well that other villagers who had doubted the ability of women to take up this work had to reconsider their opinion. As a ’barefoot’ hand-pump mechanic, Sita covered an area of about 6 villages, which had a total of around 100 hand pumps.

After some years another opportunity came Seeta’s way in the form of training for installation and repair of solar energy systems in rural areas. Following this training. Seeta teamed up with some of her colleagues like Shahnaz, Shyama and Kamla to form the Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers’. Society - a registered association of rural women who complete the full fabrication and production of parabolic solar cookers. When I met this group in Tilonia village (Ajmer district), they explained to me the working of the parabolic cooker installed there, including the precise measurements needed to ensure that the cooker is able to track the sun.

When Leela first came to Tilonia campus following her marriage, she did not know even the ABC of solar energy but she was keen to learn and also interested in this subject while the more traditional work such as sewing did not interest her. Her initial progress was good, but when it came to calculating values she faced a lot of problems. "But where there is a will there is a way", she says. With the help of trainers she evolved her own methods of learning as the training proceeded. To consolidate her training she continued a little more than the normal period of six months. After this she was not only able to do the assembling work in the campus workshop but also went to the field to carry out essential repairs (for example at night schools run by the Barefoot College).

The next big challenge came in the form of a training programme for rural women from several other countries (mainly from Africa). A major difficulty here was the language gap. With sign language and a few key Hindi and Engish words, this difficulty too was overcome. This training proved highly successful as women from various countries could install solar systems in their villages after returning from Tilonia. The team of Leela, Magan Kanwar, Nazma and Gulab as well as other trainers deserve a lot of credit for this

Fatuma Ababker Ibrahim came from Beyahile village in Afar (Ethiopia) for training in Tilonia as a barefoot solar engineer. Despite language and other problems, she made remarkable progress in learning new skills and returned to her village with essential equipment from Tilonia to install 90 fixed solar units. She also helped to start a rural electronic workshop in her village.

Gul Zaman, a 26-year old woman from Afghanistan came to Tilonia with her husband Mohammed Jan for training in installation and maintenance of solar energy systems. They returned to their community to provide solar electricity to their village of around 50 houses in year 2005.

The common link-point for which all these inspiring stories is the Barefoot College situated in Tilonia village of Ajmer district. Directly the Barefoot College works in about 200 villages, but in terms of the reach of its training programmes, replicability and in other ways, it reaches many more villages in India and abroad. (particularly Africa). Started as the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) in 1972, the Barefoot College (B.C.) from the outset has been guided by a firm faith in the ability of ordinary villagers to provide effective solutions for their problems. This faith only got strengthened during the course of the last five decades in the process of the implementation of its various programmes and its daily experiences.

Bunker Roy, the Director of B.C. who came to these villages around year 1967 and founded the SWRC in 1972, says that even though established approaches have failed to achieve sustainable improvements, there is reluctance to turn the top-down process on its head and start from the bottom up. "Few operational models provide a contrast that demonstrates the alternatives. But outside the usual box are other more cost-effective approaches that draw more on the grassroots. There are ways to build on local knowledge and skills. And these approaches can be replicated on a large scale by taking the poor into confidence and reducing their dependence on inappropriate knowledge, skills and expertise from ’outside’."

It is this approach which BC has followed steadfastly. "By giving the responsibility to choose and apply and adapt technology to rural communities, "Bunker adds, "by handing over total control to barefoot educators, health workers, water and solar engineers with roots in the community, and by showing respect in the faith and competence of ordinary people to provide tangible benefits to their own people, we’ve shown there is a better way."

"Underlying the Barefoot approach is a firm belief in the knowledge, creativity, practical wisdom and survival skills of the rural poor - possibly the only answer to making communities self-reliant and sustainable." This is why people in B.C. are not judged by any paper degrees or diplomas but by their attributes of "honesty, integrity, compassion, practical skills, creativity, adaptability, willingness to listen and learn and ability to work with all sorts of people without discriminating."

Bunker Roy, who was educated at some of the most sophisticated educational institutions in India, says that in the course of the work at the BC "what we have ’unlearned’ is our gross underestimation of the people’s infinite capacity to identify and solve their own problems with their own creativity and skills, and to depend on each other in tackling problems." "On the other hand, the learning has been "that empowerment is about developing their capacity to solve problems, to make choices, and have the confidence to act on them."

The firm faith in the ability of ordinary villagers also gave BC the confidence to hand over very challenging tasks to them. For example the planning and building of the new campus of BC or solar electrifying it. The campus is spread over 2800 square meters of buildings which have to meet various kinds of specifications. The campus needs electricity to power 500 lights, many fans, a photocopying machine, more than 40 computers and printers, a pump set, a small telephone exchange and a milk booth with freezers. But barefoot architects and solar engineers who were given these challenging tasks lived up to their responsibilities. Visitors have often expressed surprise at the low costs of campus buildings (while maintaining good quality of construction) and the wide range of applications of solar electricity.

However for such achievements to be possible other important values had to be added to the basic concept of a faith in ordinary people’s ability to solve their problems. Evolving a highly participative system was very basic to operationalizing BC’s key values. The work in various villages is taken up only when the need for this is felt by villagers and a request comes from them. Village communities take the initial decision and then implementation is handed over to various village committees. Generally there are water committees, education committees and energy/environment committees. These committees handle the project funds and the bank account. Here people share responsibilities with each other. The work is never considered complete without approval by the village community and signature by committee members. Transparency and accountability are the key aspects of this entire process, as well as of the overall functioning of BC.

Another key value is to prioritize as much as possible the weaker, poorer sections of rural communities. As Bunker Roy says, it is the illiterate, semi-literate or barely literate who have been most frequently trained in the BC to become ’barefoot’ educators, doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, designers, communicators, hand-pump mechanics and accountants. They have demonstrated that ’experts’ from urban areas with paper qualifications are not required to make villages self-sufficient and sustainable because these trained ’barefoot’ experts can do this work themselves.

Along with this prioritization come very strict requirements of equality and absolutely no discrimination (on caste, religion, gender or other grounds) within the BC community. In the initial phase of BC, there used to be murmurs of protest on issues like handing over cooking to someone from the so-called ’untouchable’ castes. But the founder director was firm that equality was a non-negotiable value for BC and ultimately this was accepted. Now this value is deeply entrenched and special efforts are being made to enroll those communities who have been considered the ’lowest of the low’ in rural society here.

This emphasis on weaker sections makes it easier for BC to practice its other cherished value of austerity. Even the director takes just the legal minimum wage and income differences within BC are kept as low as possible.

Guided by these values, BC has been able to come up with surprising achievements and these too on low budgets. Its educational effort concentrated on the needs of poorest children - several of these shepherds or cattle-grazers - who could not attend regular day time school due to several reasons. BC’s night-schools provided innovative education to thousands of these children, and also helped many of them to integrate with mainstream education with the help of bridge courses. This was done with the help of ’barefoot teachers’ selected from within the community.

BC’s renewable energy program has helped to provide solar electricity systems to hundreds of villages in many parts of India and many other countries. In the process hundreds of barefoot solar engineers have been trained, creating a model for decentralized energy systems for rural areas which is of great relevance in these times of climate change and the resulting need to shift to renewable sources of energy.

BC’s water harvesting and recharge schemes have helped hundreds of villages and schools to meet their water and sanitation needs. In addition BC created the model of barefoot hand-pump mechanics (mostly women) which was later used on a vast scale in Rajasthan and elsewhere.

BC’s health program and the network of trained ’barefoot’ mid-wives, pathologists and doctors created by it as well as its child-care centres helped to bring down infant and maternal mortality rates significantly in its work areas, as shown in an analysis of the mortality data by ’Ekatra’ organisation.

Many artisans associated with BC created products in their villages which were appreciated and found a market even in the most prestigious urban markets and exhibitions.

Women’s groups associated with BC won widespread appreciation and acclaim for their dedication and commitment to fighting gender injustice as well as wider social problems. Violence against women came down drastically and educational opportunities for girls increased significantly in BC’s work area.

Aruna Roy made a particularly significant contribution to the formation and progress of women’s groups during the period of her full-time work with the Barefoot College (1975-1983). She also contributed in many other ways and even later also she continued to help.

The overall thrust of all these activities is to increase the potential and self-reliance of villagers, particularly weaker sections, to meet their basic needs and improve their quality of life in sustainable, ecologically protective ways. All these activities are pursued in a transparent and participative and decentralized way. Various sections, and centres have a lot of freedom and autonomy in carrying out their work and responsibilities within the framework of the core values of BC. Their representatives meet regularly for sorting out problems, evaluation and planning.

Over and above all the project and programme based work, BC and its affiliates are committed to the wider issues of justice, equality, democracy and communal harmony. Hence they regularly link up with wider campaigns, be it a campaign for right to information, rural employment guarantee or legal minimum wages. BC has made a significant contribution to all these campaigns. The judgement of the Supreme Court of India in the case fought by BC activists and its director Bunker Roy has made a lasting contribution to protecting the minimum wage rights of workers all over the country.

The value of this work has increased further due to BC’s concern for the weakest of the weak - it is people with multiple vulnerabilities whom the BC has sought for particular attention. Thus within a typical rural community the BC is more concerned with the dalits, within dalits it works more with women and within dalit women it would take special care to find out if there are any disabled women who need special attention.

A particularly heartwarming aspect of Barefoot College’s encouragement of hidden talents is the tremendous faith reposed in the abilities of physical challenged persons. Most visitors to the Tilonia campus take back memories of physically challenged persons moving around with confidence and fulfilling important responsibilities like managing the telephone exchange, screen printing unit, water mapping, photocopying and lab tests.

A separate unit for making science toys out of waste materials was started in 1990. This unit in turn has trained hundreds of persons in this creative work. This unit has been particularly successful in obtaining the enthusiastic participation of many physically challenged youth. At a time when plastic bags are being rightly discouraged due to environmental reasons, this unit has also provided the alternative of well-made, sturdy paper bags.

The spread of the idea of BC has been helped by the encouragement and help given by BC to its members and friends to start their own efforts and organizations incorporating the essential precepts and values of BC. Thus around 20 colleges "in the barefoot mould", as Bunker puts it, have been established in 13 states of India, providing a fair degree of nationwide reach to the idea of the barefoot college.

Hence the work, ideas and concept of the Barefoot College have travelled much beyond Tilonia and its nearby villages where they started their eventful journey 50 years earlier, and as the 50th anniversary is observed now, one can only hope that this work and the basic idea will travel much further and to many more areas.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine, Planet in Peril, When the Two Streams Met and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food)

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