Gulab Bai like many other women of her society used to sit for an afternoon chat in her courtyard because after finishing her daily household chores she had enough time for it. Her husband used to toil hard till late in the evening to make ends meet but the challenge of feeding the family was always there and this used to give many agonising moments to Gulab. She wanted to contribute in the family’s earnings but there was no other source of employment available in Tilonia, a small village of few hundred people near Ajmer in Rajasthan, unless one day when someone told her about Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), which is now popularly known as Barefoot College.
Started in 1972 as a non-governmental organisation by Sanjeet Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College imparts vocational training to illiterate men and women and so far has produced hundreds of ‘Barefoot Professionals’ like Gulab.
She was trained in solar engineering and now proudly earns her living through it. Several illiterate women like Gulab who, before joining Barefoot College were leading their lives without any purpose have found a way to utilise their traditional skills and knowledge. Turning women especially grandmothers into solar engineers is one of Bunker Roy’s favorite jobs and for the credit he has turned so many of them already.
Apart from turning these old and young men and women from economically weaker section of society into solar engineers, he also promoted Indian traditional art and thus turned these peoples’ hobbies into a source of earning for them.
In these professionals there are doctors, school teachers, midwives, dentists, health workers, balsevikas, solar engineers, solar cooker engineers, water drillers, hand pump mechanics, architects, artisans, designers, masons, communicators, water testers, phone operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, computer instructors, accountants and kabaad-se-jugaad professionals.
MAN ON A MISSION
Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, the founder of this college, is no ordinary man. He got his education in some of India’s top schools and universities and ‘was supposed to be doctor, engineer or a diplomat’ as his parents dreamt of him for. But he decided to tread a different path and ‘thought of contributing’ something back from whatever he got. The worst Bihar famine, as he says, moved him and he decided to live in a village for the rest of his life to give something back to the society. The decision came as a shock to his parents as well as to his colleagues, who wanted to see him in some top-notch job.
But he remained committed to his decision despite the fact that his mother had decided not to speak to him. He headed to this small village and with the help of the villagers, among whom he spent several nights and days, formed the Barefoot College. The formation, according to him was not that easy as ‘there were several challenges before us’. “Here teachers are the learners and learners are the teachers”, says Bunker Roy. The college from the very beginning does not employ any teacher with professional degrees, and those who teach here are from ‘their own community’ and have been trained by the college to impart their acquired knowledge to others.
The college came as change-maker in peoples’ lives and the impact of it is visible in and around Tilonia where people from other parts of the globe are coming to learn. The villagers are no longer unemployed or illiterate. With the help of this college, they are now making good money and have access to some of the modern facilities like internet, FM Radio etc.
There is no dearth of good and skilled artisans in India but due to illiteracy and lack of employment opportunities, these people are now gradually shifting to some other professions to earn a better living. Rajasthan was no exception. Many such artisans were migrating to cities to get better employment opportunities, leaving behind their traditional art and craft. In 1975, the college realised the need to revive the rural
craft production and started promoting it to address the problem of unemployment.
With the help of an US based non-profit organization Friends of Tilonia, the college helped these people in improving designs and techniques, creation of marketing outlets. Training and materials provided by the college also enables women to work from home, helping them to generate income from their needlework or other handicrafts.
Today village artisans have a dedicated website to help them sell their products in the international market through it and now their turn over is above Rs 60 lacs annually. The crafts are also sold through retail shops and other outlets in India, Europe and Canada, generating US $ 250,000 in income for more than 400 rural artisans in 50 villages. The college has participated in international trade shows and other markets.
Products range made by these rural artisans include clothing and accessories, decorative home furnishings, furniture, rugs, textiles, handmade paper products, puppets and other toys, metalwork, and leather goods.
EXTENDING TO A POINT
The Barefoot College till date has trained over 3 million people for jobs in the modern world, in buildings so rudimentary that they have dirt floors and no chairs. This bottom-up approach is designed to make poor students feel comfortable. The college’s “barefoot professionals” then return home to use their new skills. The main attraction of the college is its solar engineering workshop. Here people, mostly old women are trained in the art of fabricating solar energy panels. These women who get three months hands on training in making photovoltaic plates are from many countries including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Gambia, Mali and Sierra Leone. The global response received by the SWRC is worth acknowledging. The college and its founder Bunker Roy have won several accolades from both domestic as well as international leaders for the noble work they are doing to transform the lives of so many rural people.
The college’s major emphasis is on the holistic development of women by empowering them economically and financially. Kailash Kanwar who is the crafts coordinator at Barefoot College says, “The financial condition of my sasural was very bad and the home front was precarious so my father-in-law brought me here in search of some employment. With the help of the college and people, I learnt sewing and different forms of designing and patterns.”
Now she, like many other women in Tilonia makes good money. Initially there was resistance from the family and they wanted that Kailash should return to her in-laws home to live like other women in the Rajput community live. But she refused and now leads a happy life with support from her family.
“I feel proud that I am self dependent and can financially help my family. My suggestion to any woman of my community whom I meet is to come out of the veil and learn something worthwhile to stand on her own feet.” She adds further.
TURN INSIDE OUT
The education has brought so many changes in and around Tilonia. Now women like Nourti Devi who is 60 years old, can aptly use computers. She has been trained in one of the night schools of the village and now works as a data resource centre and computer teacher for the college.
These night schools, open from 4.30 pm to 7.30 pm are meant for children who are busy doing fieldwork in the morning. The students study under solar-powered lanterns and they are welcomed to pursue education till primary level. SWRC Tilonia has 150 such night schools in 150 villages and 250 across India. SWRC has already provided solar lighting solutions to 500 villages and clusters not only in India but also in Bhutan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, covering 12,000 households, 870 schools and 300 adult education centers. Women solar engineers from 26 African countries have already been trained.
Bunker Roy has turned a village into a modern day wonder for the world through his sharp intellect and humanitarian approach. Venting his anger against political unwillingness to eradicate poverty, he wrote in the New York Times, “The intellectual activists behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) who sit in New York are making sure the goals will remain unreachable. Over the last 34 years, having lived and worked with the rural poor earning less than a dollar a day in India, I have ceased to be surprised by the incredible ignorance, stupidity and hype that’s generated to tackle extreme poverty. Ever so often, jobless politicians find themselves heading Commissions.”
He asserts that genuine efforts in the right direction are always paid and Barefoot College is one of the best examples of it. India’s diverse community base has strong traditional knowledge and art to show to the world but lack of efforts from the government have proved perilous for some of the excellent art forms of the country and many of them are now extinct or are on the verge of it because people who were apt in it have abandoned these art forms. Initiatives like Barefoot College, should be replicated in other parts of the country so that many dying art and craft forms can be saved. Through such models, not only women are empowered but the communities become self reliant and economically stable.