When Suzanna Huses left Uis, a mining town in eastern Namibia in southern Africa, for Raj-asthan in India, it was her first visit outside in all her 49 years.
She arrived at Barefoot College in Tilonia, Ajmer district, in March for a six-month programme in solar engineering. Her husband and in-laws were not happy with the decision, says Huses, a mother of six. “But I told them it was my choice and I wouldn’t get another chance to make a better future.”
At Barefoot College, many semi-literate women, including 26 from Africa, are learning to make solar lamps and portable, energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, which can be used at homes.
While at the college, the women also manage the library, health clinic, dental clinic and the pathology laboratory there, each earning R3,000 a month. What they earn in terms of confidence is immeasurable. “Now I feel it’s possible to come out of the darkness,” Huses, who has studied till class 9, says in hesitant English.
At the workshop, Sandhya Rai from Betia, a village in Bihar, is putting together an integrated circuit board for a solar home light. “I have come here a second time for training. I will teach others so that we can have lighting in our village,” she says.
Another woman at the college, Bhanwari Devi, is cleaning and filling a dental cavity for a patient. She and Kesar Devi, both illiterate, run the in-premises dental clinic. They were trained by an Italian doctor who visited Tilonia in 2009.
“I had never seen any of the equipment and was scared of injections. But the doctor taught us for six months. Since two years we have been managing the clinic,” says Bhanwari Devi.
Barefoot College could well be a national model for women’s empowerment.
It was established in 1984 to provide a platform of learning for uneducated or semi-literate villagers. “The concept was to use traditional knowledge to train local residents to become architects, engineers, designers, health professionals,” says Sanjit Roy, who founded the college.
Twelve years later, Barefoot College began training uneducated or semi-literate women from abroad as well in making solar-based panels, lights, cookers and water heaters. It was empanelled with the ministry of external affairs in 2009 and the Union government sponsors the training for foreign women.
The emphasis on training women, Roy says, is because while “men are untrainable and ambitious, women are sincere. They will never leave the village. If we train them they will keep the skill in the village, empower other women by sharing the knowledge and help the community.”
Over the past 26 years, Barefoot College has trained about 500 women from villages in J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as well as from Africa, South America and Palestine.
“Our centre in Leh has provided solar lights to 5,000 families in Kargil and Leh districts,” says Bhagwat Nandan, a senior trainer who has been with Social Work Research Centre (SWRC), the parent institution of Barefoot College, since 1975. Overall, 662 villages have been provided solar lanterns and home lighting systems made at Barefoot schools across the country.
Roy, a Padma Shri recipient who studied at Doon School and St Stephen’s College, says formal education alienates people and destroys creativity.
“To re-imagine India, we have to re-look at our role models. Success is seen in terms of money, power and position. Very few people return to the villages to give back to the community.”
The separated husband of activist Aruna Roy joined a non-profit organisation called Reward in Ajmer, drawn by a strong desire to work in the villages. There he met Meghraj, a tractor driver, who taught Roy skills like farming and setting up hand pump rigs.
It was after this that Roy established SWRC in 1972. The centre set up schools, preschools and health centres in Tilonia and nearby villages. Barefoot College was set up a decade later as a centre to train villagers in solar engineering, healthcare and education. “It (the centre) could have been any place. It just so happened that I was working as an unskilled labourer and the man who taught me to drill was from Tilonia. That’s how I came here,” says Roy.
His work has won him wide recognition and has fetched him the Swiss Schwab Foundation award, the German Nuclear Free Future Award, the Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, the Skoll Social Entrepreneurship Award and the Arab Gulf Fund award.
BAREFOOT ACROSS INDIA
Barefoot College now has 20 campuses in 13 states, all autonomous institutes that enjoy the freedom to follow their own admission rules and set their own curriculum free of government or affiliate university interference. The funding comes from several Union government departments as well as from domestic and foreign non-profits like Tostan, a similar institution in Senegal, Africa devoted to people with little or no access to formal education.
In its nearly four decades, SWRC has helped provide access to safe drinking water, education and healthcare to more than 10,000 people in 110 villages in Ajmer district’s Kishangarh block.
“We have eight field centres covering 10 villages each. There are 100 people from the villages at these centres who have been trained to install and maintain solar electricity systems, hand pumps and tanks for drinking water,” says SWRC’s Nandan.
SWRC runs balwadis (pre-schools), primary schools as well as 150 night schools in five districts, where about 3,500 children study, nearly all of them girls who work during the day.
But are the villagers, especially youngsters, satisfied with staying back after gaining some skills? “You have to show people that living in villages is not a sign of failure or punishment. If one can acquire skill sets that are required in a community then there is no need for fancy degrees,” says Roy. “Solutions can be found in (the) villages. There is no need to impose them from outside.”