The world thinks of the inhabitants living in the remote regions of India as being – and unfortunately, this impression is not entirely without foundation – the unofficial world masters of petty graft and bribery. The bureaucratic apparatus there is, when one compares global statistics, extremely bloated, and often whatever help streams or dribbles into these regions is mysteriously re-channeled.
Against this backdrop back in 1971 the founders of the Barefoot College of Tilonia, taking a leaf from the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, came up with a simple idea. Addressing themselves first and foremost to those skeptics in the government who were in charge of issuing federal aid, they insisted: “Simple people can do it! Let responsibility and control remain in the hands of the local people.” This elementary precept has helped to thwart the old “Indian disease:” one might cheat people one doesn’t know, but it is a far, far rarer thing to cheat one’s relatives and friends.
Tilonia is a remote village in a semi-arid region of Rajasthan. Aruna and Bunker Roy, who founded the Barefoot College project, have a simple catalogue of “Do’s and Dont’s:”
People with formal qualifications are not needed. Any villager literate or illiterate can be trained to do the job.
Any remote village can easily be made self-sufficient with solar power regardless of the local level of affluence.
The community must be involved in the selection of the barefoot solar engineer, in the transportation of the panels to the village, and in the installation in their own houses. Only then will they willingly pay, only then will “this new contraption” be thought of as “my new contraption.”
The demystification of technology is a process that cannot be hurried. It must move with the pace at which the community moves, slowly carrying everyone along.
“Let responsibility and control remain in the hands of the local people.”
Moving forward slow step by step, the Barefoot College has schooled youth living in rural villages to install and maintain solar photovoltaic units. The Barefoot College is the lone rural educational institution in all of India that is electrified solely by solar power. The solving of one simple problem can lead to amazing things: one finds at Tilonia a computer center with some 15 computers, a telephone exchange with 250 connections, central facilities lit by 500 lamps, and over 100 electrified households. Tilonia’s famous women’s rights groups (who were the organizers of the first demonstration in India against rape – and this in Rajasthan, India’s most traditional state) gather together under the light of solar lamps. But perhaps most importantly, in the surrounding region there are 100 evening schools for rural boys and girls who must work days to help support their families. Light can bring illumination.
The Barefoot College is especially proud of its exports. In Ladakh, Tilonia-schooled barefoot engineers have installed over 1000 solar aggregates. One barefoot solar engineer tells us: “In the process of solar electrifying Ladakh, we managed to prevent 100,000 liters of diesel from being used by trucks to transport fossil fuels to remote places, thus protecting the fragile environment as much as possible.”
Over the course of three decades, the Barefoot College of Tilonia has demonstrated something often held to be correct in principle, but which is put into practice all too seldom: technical progress must pass through the heads, hearts and hands of those who wish to reap its benefits.
English translation: Craig Reishus