The Luminous People of the Barefoot College: A travelogue

Maja Kuzmanovic and Sanjeev Shankar

The Barefoot college in Rajasthan, India is a unique place, run by unique people. It is rooted in tradition, with a vision that reaches far into the future. It is an embodiment of Gandhi’s philosophy – a place where education is distinct from literacy, where women flourish, children run a parliament, and people with handicaps are not disabled. On Barefoot campuses there is no waste, water is harvested and sunlight turned into power (literally and metaphorically). In Barefoot campus programmes traditional crafts meet information technologies, while environmental and ethical sustainability are at the core of everyday life. Our opportunity to visit the Barefoot College emerged from a chance meeting between Maja and Mr Bunker Roy, founder and director of the College, at the unlikely venue of the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At a session Bunker happened to be presenting the impressive results of the College’s solar energy programme. This programme gave illiterate and semi-literate women from around the world the chance to become educated solar engineers within six months.After the meeting Bunker invited Maja to visit Tilonia, Rajasthan, to experience the Barefoot approach firsthand. Sanjeev came on board several weeks later in New Delhi where he and Maja were attending “Juice,” the most recent Doors of Perception conference.

Initiated in the early 1970s, the Barefoot College has had a strong impact in the local community and continues to inspire similar models worldwide. The College thrives due in large part to being founded on the principles of self-respect and dignity for all; be it poor women, physically challenged people, or small children. Barefoot College welcomed us with its quiet, rustic setting, which was here and there interrupted by high-tech looking solar panels, medical equipment, IT facilities and – donated by one of their previous visitors – a fighter plane. Our tour commenced with a walk-through of the “New Campus,” which houses the office, computer and internet centre, electronics lab, night school, library, medical facilities, canteen, phone booth, shop, open-air theatre, residences, guest house, and a massive underground water tank. After a delicious lunch we visited the “Old Campus,” situated on the other side of Tilonia, about a ten-minute drive from the HQ. The Old Campus is home to most of Barefoot’s production facilities, the rural handicraft’s section, carpentry, ironwork, recycling and weaving workshops, many residencies, and, last but not least, the Barefoot bank. What we discovered was the successful implementation of a system that truly empowered those at the very base of the demographic pyramid: over the last 30-odd years people belonging to the poorest communities and most marginalized sections within India and abroad have become a part of a sustainable, ethical and democratic community.

We walked through a beautiful and vibrant landscaped area on the New Campus – a lush green and bright red contrast to the arid planes surrounding the College. Next to the older trees, the Barefoot horticulturalists dug large pipes more than half a metre under the ground to prevent wasting water on the surface, where it would evaporate before moistening the roots. The plants that do not survive are mixed with organic waste in a large container, providing the College with compost and a valuable fuel – biogas. Our guide pointed out the repurposed medical glucose-drip bottles, supplying the plants with water directly where it’s needed – close to their roots. Several bottles contained an almost fluorescent green liquid, which we assumed was some kind of fertiliser, but were quickly corrected – no fertiliser of such colour would be used here – kids had poured some non-toxic Holi dye into the bottles! The Barefoot college is teeming with plants, despite being situated in the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, where water shortage threatens many lives. We discussed this with the head of their water harvesting programme, a young, radiant woman who explained their efforts in making other communities in Rajasthan as green as the Barefoot Campus. Delivering water more efficiently to the roots of plants is only one of the issues. Groundwater levels in that region have dropped and are still dropping, due to extensive private and industrial exploitation. In order to work around this issue, the Barefoot college promotes rainwater harvesting, in addition to (or sometimes instead of) hand pumps that siphon the scarce ground water to the surface. The water engineers help the villagers redirect rainwater to dry open wells, thereby not only providing a cost-free source of drinking water, but also replenishing the ground water basins. They are also involved in bi-weekly water mapping throughout the region, testing for the existence of toxic chemicals and monitoring the overall water quality. In the hills, where groundwater is too difficult to reach, large water harvesting tanks are installed on rooftops of schools and family homes.

The Barefoot college looks towards the future by embracing the past. Centuries-old traditions passed through the hands of many generations, becoming more sophisticated and effective as people tried, failed, learned and tried again. The Barefoot rural handicrafts centre provides a wealth of knowledge and techniques to manipulate and transform local materials – from textile fibres to metal, wood, paper, and even recycled composites. Plastic flip-flops are made into colourful toys, old ropes knotted into new ones, an empty toothpaste tube becomes an animated puppet, and discarded textbooks are turned into sturdy snack-bags. We met the chief tailor and several designers, who worked on on weaving, printing, quilting and beading of textiles and textile goods that adorn many houses in Rajasthan and beyond. Their fabrics storage area was a visual and tactile treat. Wherever we looked there were (often recycled) raw materials, along with prototypes, still-to-be-assembled components and, finally, stacks of finished products. We observed that while natural resources might be scarce, productivity and inspiration were very much in abundance.

Some of their products are sold easily, others have a smaller market; the more marketable lines subsidise the less profitable works. Everyone is paid equally, providing workers with an adequate living standard. We talked to a young social entrepreneur who recently started a business making wooden teaching aids and toys. The college buys his products for a year, while training him in business development, accounting and marketing, as well as providing a start-up loan from the Barefoot bank. This mentored start-up process allows his business to grow while at the same time teaching him how to become independent and self-sustaining.

At the entrance of the New Campus we found Barefoot’s Internet cafe (dhaba), run by a local woman in her late forties. Dressed in a colourful Rajasthani attire, she sat on the floor in front of the computer and demonstrated her abilities. After an initial training period of three months, she is now comfortable with administering the online systems of the college and assists her colleagues with emailing, surfing websites, typing letters and faxing documents. All this in spite of the fact that she doesn’t understand, read, or write any English (they are unfortunately not using a local distribution of Linux that would allow her to operate the computer in her own language). She uses her strong visual sense to identify words and letters by relating them to the alphabet on the keyboard. She is now responsible for carrying out the College’s online activities and also training new members. Accustomed as we were to many young, male and grumpy system administrators, we found here on the contrary a smiling and skilled woman who took pride in her work and gladly shared it with others. May there be more of her in our world!

One of our most inspiring stops was the education department. We could have stayed in this small but cozy office/classroom for hours. What we learned in the short time that we had at our disposal convinced us that the Barefoot education system has what most of our schools lack – roots in the local context, participatory teaching and learning methods, students’ involvement in the design and the running of the schools, etc. Out-of-school learning is valued as highly as in-school teaching. We realised this when we visited the Barefoot library, packed with people browsing magazines and reading books in English, Hindi and several other languages. It also became clear how important the solar lanterns are for rural education: most children and especially girls work with their families during day, which makes the hours after twilight the only time they can afford to go to school. Without artificial light, learning how to read and write would be close to impossible. The collaboration between Barefoot’s solar engineers and teachers makes night-schools a reality in more than 150 villages across Rajasthan (and from a few years ago, also in other parts of India and the world).

Having light is certainly an essential and indispensable infrastructure for schooling, but what makes Barefoot education truly unique is its philosophy. At Barefoot a distinction is made between literacy and education; night-schools are designed to make children literate by teaching them to read, write and calculate, while traditional, hands-on forms of daytime education takes place in the community itself among families and through apprenticeships. The night-schools provide primary education (up to the fifth grade), after which students are able join other Barefoot programmes. The principle that everyone can be a teacher means that villagers are heavily involved in educating their youngsters, thereby gaining the respect and understanding of the whole community. Most importantly, they treat children as thinking and acting human beings, capable of making decisions and dealing with the consequences.

Syllabi are customised to suit the needs of the local community, tailored to feed the aspirations of people coming from that region of India. The textbooks might have illustrations from a particular village, a mathematical problem might include the name of a local barber, or attempt to solve a real issue of water distribution. In this way, abstract knowledge is directly embodied in the physical reality of the students, encouraging them to translate the material they learn into everyday situations. Furthermore, it prepares them for life in their village and region and all the while imparts an awareness of the value of this world and its opportunities. This kind of education allows communities to become much more sustainable; it obviates the need for children to migrate to the cities for jobs and schooling. To coordinate the night-schools and their programmes, a democratic voting system is put in place, in a manner more effective than most democracies of the world. The school is designed, owned and run by the students, for the students and with the students. In order to for this system to function smoothly, the children form a governing body. Students are elected from the entire state in a well-planned manner with special ballot papers (which use visual clues and symbols, instead of words) and proper accountability.

This team of elected members, aged 9-13 years, constitutes a “Children’s parliament,” which then selects a “prime minister” from its midst. Interestingly, for the last twelve years – which is about five terms of office – the prime minister has been a girl. The current prime minister takes care of a small herd of goats during day and presides over a cabinet of ministers at night. Her cabinet consists of fourteen members who handle different portfolios: agriculture, water, education, etc. For a child to be eligible for parliament, the entire village community presents the school with a letter of approval, taking into account the requirement for a certain minimum of villagers to attend the meeting. There is a constant monitoring and reporting system in place, with the elected members visiting other schools and villages to apprise themselves of real issues and opportunities. We were told the story of a child MP who realised how acute the water shortage in his village was and consequently created a movement to mobilise resources, which resulted in a new well. This was an impressive account of the vote of confidence which this system gives to the students. They can fire and hire teachers and coordinators, including the director of the whole Barefoot College (luckily, we were told that Mr Bunker has a very good relationship with the current cabinet, although they did call a meeting to warn him that he’s travelling a bit much!). We realised that this might be one of the important reasons why every single girl and boy in Roopangarh is so confident and fearless in expressing their opinion about any issue – they are aware, knowledgeable and able to act on their own, as well as on the community’s behalf. When they grow up their life will be in their own hands, no matter which government, religion or economic system is ruling their large country.

Our next stop was the Barefoot electronics assembly lab, where (among other things) the printed boards used in solar lanterns were being made. People are trained here to assemble (pre-designed) electronic circuits, using a simple “look and match” technique. We witnessed how people with no prior education could execute a whole series of tasks, from putting together component parts (such as inverters and transistors) to completing complex PCBs. All tasks are planned to provide a rapid, comprehensive and hands-on education and production; more experienced students mentor the novices. This lab focuses on designing and developing systems which utilise solar power to provide ambient lighting and cooking facilities for remote, off-the-grid villages. Lighting, one of the women engineers told us, is the most crucial part of their work, as it allows for night-time education, an important aspect of self-empowerment for the villagers in poor rural areas of India and other parts of the world.

The process of selecting people to be trained here is quite thorough and involved. The priority goes to the commonly disadvantaged groups – the poorest of the poor, women, children, the elderly, and people with physical or mental disabilities. We talked to their head engineer, a woman who has become the coordinator of solar electrification for more than twenty villages and is able to share her knowledge with new generations of young women educated through the Barefoot programmes. She and her colleagues have a practical and positive attitude towards everything from the simplest to the most complex of problems, and they go about their work with much passion and determination. The numerous awards displayed on the walls of the electronics lab bear witness to the importance of their contribution to a wider community around the world. After browsing through charts and diagrams used in the courses, our guides showed us the results of the lab’s efforts. There were numerous products on display, including portable solar lanterns, varying in size and brightness and using LEDs or CFLs. When completed, these products are sold to villagers at affordable rates. The exact price of the lanterns is determined on a case-by-case basis according to local conditions – for example, it could be based on a family’s average yearly expenditure for lighting, cooking or heating. We couldn’t resist purchasing the smallest and lightest lantern. It has a simple but effective design, providing enough light (using a super-bright white LED) for at least one person to read by. It comes with its own tiny solar panel and both easily fitted in Maja’s already over-stuffed luggage. Now it illuminates the FoAM studio, half way across the planet.

Later in the day we visited the solar cooker fabrication facility situated on the Old Campus, entirely run by women folk from the nearby villages. It was a treat to see an entirely indigenous mechanism – one that uses bicycle gears to turn the solar dish and follow the sun. This ingenious system was developed by women for whom the Barefoot College was the first stop after leaving their family homes. They were guided by diagrams in books showing images of how to create a mechanism that could be used as a sundial. For Rs 10.000 (which is approximately what a family would spend for fuel in a year), the cooker can be purchased and used to prepare food for a group of ten to fifteen people. The larger cookers can serve groups up to sixty people and are often collectively bought and used in communal kitchens. The women showed us the fabrication process, which involved drilling holes in mirrors, stringing them together, producing the metal stands, and assembling the gears. We were even given an impressive demonstration of the effectiveness of the cookers when one of the girls placed a sheet of paper in the cooking-oven. Once the dish was turned to the right spot the paper burnt to ashes in a matter of seconds. This demo drew our attention to the beautiful but lethal reflections of the thousands of tiny mirrors covering the walls of the open-air workshop – as well as the women’s flowing saris and Maja and Catherine’s fragile pink skin. Again we were struck by the technological savvy of the women. They were true princesses of the kitchen, now not just in charge of food preparation, but also of designing and constructing the very tools with which to cook. Under their skilful hands, their kitchens became portable, self-sustaining and environmentally friendly.

Another awe-inspiring women’s workshop was the multicultural solar lantern fabrication lab. Throughout the world, from the most disadvantaged and remote communities, a Barefoot committee and the villagers select the poorest person (usually a woman) with the least opportunities for development, but with a strong mind and motivation. This person leaves their friends and family for six months and moves to Tilonia to join a team of like-minded people, eager to become solar engineers. Upon completion of the course, these individuals will return home and electrify their villages and regions; they will become entrepreneurs and teachers, creating a ripple-effect within their own communities. We met women from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Guatemala and Ethiopia, learning together with people from different parts of India. These women were winding transformers, soldering PCBs, operating a test setup and signing off finished products. They were surrounded by colour-coded charts in more than five languages, semi-assembled controllers and lanterns, numerous drawers stuffed with a myriad of components, and a snake-pit of cables and wires. On the blackboard, an electric diagram reminded them at all times of the most important inputs and outputs, the voltage and “wattage” of a solar panel, its connection with a charge controller, with a battery, which then links to the CFL to complete the electrical circuit for a solar lantern. Simple tech, profound results. The image of an Ethiopian making an effort to understand instructions from her Indian counterpart despite language barriers remains etched in our minds. Girl power at its most electrifying!

Even though our visit was short, our hosts took time and effort to offer us a delicious lunch. We ate at the Barefoot communal kitchen, where food is made and served by everyone. A simple, participatory and sustainable method which brings the entire community together under one roof, several times a day. We enjoyed tasting everything, under the watchful eye of a proud cook. We were allowed to serve food ourselves, have seconds and thirds of a tasty tomato-based vegetable stew, fresh curd, spicy pickles, Basmati rice and whole-grain chappatis. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands, trying to guess the ingredients and the preparation methods. Curiously, the food reminded Maja of her mother’s and grandmother’s Balkan kitchen. The whole milieu, although soaked in many different cultural details, was familiar, warm and welcomingWe felt at home and wanted to stay and contribute, but there were trains to catch, families and obligations waiting on the other side of the world… We thanked Mr Vasu for the rare and thrilling experience and offered our collaboration wherever and whenever needed. We rushed into our Jeep and soon the Barefoot College had disappeared in a cloud of dust. What remained was our determination to spread the word about this amazing place and our personal hope to infuse our own fields with some of the ethical and environmental principles that govern the Barefoot College.

From our first encounter with the Barefooters (be it men, women or children), we were amazed by their competence, confidence, hospitality and most of all – their pride. We discussed later how we had rarely seen women radiating such power and quiet happiness. These people appeared more fulfilled, accomplished and joyful than any jet-setting CEO we had ever met. Which in itself gave us much hope for the future, in which the majority of our global society will be the world’s financially poor. While the “developed nations” panic about changing lifestyles, business practices and social orders, to become more sustainable and survive the current ecological, cultural and economic turbulence the people at the Barefoot College quietly find their way to the future. It is practical and hands-on, rich and imaginative, inspiring and empowering, and tightly woven into the fabric of the local community. For the people, by the people and with the people. Shrouded in red dust, the Barefoot college is the most luminous green world we have ever experienced.

With many thanks to Mr Bunker and Mr Vasu for inviting and hosting us, and to everyone in the Barefoot College who took their time to answer our numerous questions, guide us around, drive and feed us!

Community Controlled Monitoring and Evaluation - A Barefoot Approach. Talk Transcription of Srinivasan Soundara Rajan, given at the Luminous Green Symposium in 2007

On Women Empowerment. The Women Engineers of the Barefoot College and the Women of Tilonia. Article written by media artist and activist Annemie Maes, who developed a project on the Women Engineers of the Barefoot College and the Women of Tilonia.

Tangible Achievement PDF: Facts and figures about the Barefoot College

Official Information Brochure Barefoot College PDF

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