How Barefoot College Trained 700 Rural Grandmothers to Be Solar Engineers & Electrified 20000 Homes


This article is part of a series that covers the finalists of the HCL Grant & made possible by HCL.

A vocational training college in Rajasthan, started by well known educator and activist Sanjit Bunker Roy, is responsible for lighting up the homes of thousands of poor villagers across the world.

Tilonia is a small village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. On the face of it, Tilonia is like any other village in India. One can see large tracts of semi-arid land, flocks of sheep on the roads, and women whose heads are covered with the pallus of brightly coloured sarees.

However, what sets Tilonia apart is that it is home to the Social Work and Research Centre, popularly known as Barefoot College. This institute is known all over the world for training rural people in vocational skills.

In the 1970s, Sanjit Bunker Roy, an educator and social activist decided to give something back to society and set up Barefoot College in Tilonia.

bunker roy

Photo source: Youtube

The college is spread over eight acres and runs completely on solar energy.

Bunker, who studied at Delhi University, says: “My elitist education almost destroyed me. In fact, the biggest reasons why the poor will always remain poor are the literate man and woman — products of the formal education system. This system makes you look down on villages.”

According to him, the formal system of education demeans and devalues the traditional knowledge and practical wisdom that the poor value. He says his real education started during his initial years in Tilonia when he was working as an unskilled labourer — blasting wells for water.

“I lived with very poor and ordinary people under the stars and heard the simple stories they had to tell of their skills, knowledge, and wisdom that books and university education can never teach you. My real education started when I saw amazing people – water diviners, traditional bonesetters and midwives – at work. That was the humble beginning of the Barefoot College,” he adds.

Though the college started with the aim of providing solutions to the water problems of rural India, its mission soon changed to sustainable development and empowerment of the marginalised. In fact, the courses offered at the institute are rooted in the Gandhian philosophy of making villages self-reliant.

“But it was not Gandhi or Marx who inspired the work of the college, but very ordinary people with grit, determination, and the amazing ability to survive with almost nothing,” says Bunker.

Students, primarily women, are selected from the poorest of villages and are taught vocational skills in different areas like solar energy, healthcare, education, handicrafts, and so on. The college provides basic health services to the villages through a team of doctors, midwives, and dentists.

It imparts education to women and children by keeping their different needs in mind. There are crèches for small children whose mothers work all day. There are night schools for children who help in the fields or tend to animals during the day. And bridge courses for those among them who wish to join day school. There is an emphasis on hands-on learning. Even the lessons offered are practical in nature. The children are taught about how democracy works, how to take care of a sick animal, how land is measured, etc.

Barefoot College is probably best known for producing hundreds of ‘barefoot’ solar engineers.

The Better India (4)

In 2003, the college decided to train illiterate rural women as solar engineers. The biggest challenge at the time was to convince donors, policy makers, as well as the male members of the community to accept the ‘impossibility’ that these women could be trained.

“Do you know why we insisted on women? Because training men is pointless. They will grow restless and go to big cities in search of jobs. Women have more patience to learn the skill. And especially since they are from poor families, they will stay back home and prove their worth to their communities,” says Bunker.

This training of women — to teach them how to install, repair, and maintain solar lighting units — did not stop in Rajasthan. Today, the institute trains women from countries like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Fiji, etc. It boasts of having over 700 solar ‘mamas’ in 70 of the least developed countries in the world. These women, from isolated and non-electrified villages, congregate in Rajasthan for a few months. To overcome the language barrier, they are taught through sign language.

They memorise the permutations and combinations of wires through colour codes.

The Better India (3)

Barefoot College brought three women from Afghanistan to Tilonia and trained them. After they went back, their village became the first ever solar-electrified village in the country. These women went on to train 27 others and now there are over a 100 solar-electrified villages in Afghanistan.

The College also trained grandmothers from Sierra Leone. They lit up the first village in the country with the sun’s energy.

The idea caught on and now there is a Barefoot Vocational Training Centre in Sierra Leone.

Under the India Technical Economic Cooperation Programme of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Barefoot College has trained nearly 700 rural grandmothers to be solar engineers and electrify over 20,000 houses in different countries.

Barefoot College is funded by various organisations and grants. Barefoot College applied for the HCL Grant and through this grant, it wanted to implement the Barefoot model of alternate community-based education and skill development in the five districts of Rajasthan, by empowering and educating children, women, and youth and setting up 25 crèches and 50 bridge schools in these districts. To know more about Barefoot College, contact the team on their website.

About HCL Grant

There are about 3.3 million NGOs in India doing commendable work in various areas aimed at inclusion and development. The HCL Grant has been launched to support the institutionalization of the Fifth Estate comprising individuals and institutions formed and led by the citizens of the country through the creation of strong governance frameworks and management capabilities. An endeavour of the HCL Foundation, HCL Grant envisions to build sustainable communities by supporting NGOs and individuals who are doing path-breaking work towards high impact transformation in rural India. In the first year, HCL Grant has identified the best NGOs in the area of rural education. To know more about the HCL Grant: http://www.hcl.com/hcl-grant

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: [email protected], or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter (@thebetterindia).

Like us to get inspiring news daily


Subscribe for awesome videos