In the late 60s, a very small group of determined individuals who came out of a sound educational system in India felt it necessary to look for alternative ways of living, thinking and finding solutions for  rural areas. With very little resources and no long-term ideas, they chose to start a process of re-learning in different rural parts of the country by living in remote villages with the people.

Background of the Barefoot College

The Barefoot College was the coming together of urban educated people and professionals in 1972 including its founder Bunker Roy. The collective registered itself as the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), more popularly known as the “Barefoot College” today. The term originally comes from the Chinese villagers who were trained as health workers to assist their own communities in the 1960s. The name emphasizes the organization’s commitment to the poor, neglected and marginalized in society.

Forty-five acres of government land and an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium was leased from the government to serve as a campus. Barefoot College started working in the village of Tilonia in Rajasthan, with a population of about 2,000 people.

At the time of its inception, the organization was envisioned as one that would attract young, urbanites to come and work with local rural communities in an integrated development process. Most of the people working at the College were geologists, economists, doctors, medical and social workers, chartered accountants, graduates and post graduates from universities.

Members of the College focused their efforts on discovering the needs and priorities of village communities to improve their standard of living and quality of life. The idea was to upgrade their existing traditional skills and knowledge through training, and to help them take control over basic services at the grassroots level. The College struggled and campaigned for justice and what was laid down by law, as well as to bring about transparency and public accountability towards the rural communities in whose name the funds were received.

The early 80s saw a substantial change in the nature of the College workforce, with locals forming 80 percent of the organization. This was partly due to the departure of urban trained professionals who could not stay in rural areas for a long period of time. However, this also meant that the locals, for whose development the organization was set up, were taking charge of activities and initiatives right from planning to completion, thereby learning to be self-sufficient.

Spirit of service

Barefoot College’s aims and ways of functioning have evolved to provide simple solutions for rural problems, sticking with its five non-negotiable values: equality, collective decision-making, self-reliance, decentralization and austerity. These are respected in all matters such as the salary structure of the organization, and the fact that all the workers and visitors, irrespective of caste and class barriers, eat in the same mess and wash their own plates.

What the rural, impoverished and marginalized think important is reflected and internalized in the beliefs of the College. The Barefoot College is one of the few places in India where Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit of service and thoughts on sustainability are still alive and respected.

Gandhi’s central belief was that the knowledge, skills and wisdom found in villages should be used for its development before getting skills from the outside.

The College has applied rural traditional knowledge and skills to build homes for the homeless, collect rainwater in rural schools and communities where potable water sources are scarce, and spread socioeconomic messages at the grassroots level through puppetry. Only technologies that can be understood and controlled by the rural community have been introduced to improve the quality of life of the poor.

The Barefoot College has demystified technologies and decentralized their uses by transferring the access, control, management and ownership of sophisticated technologies to rural men and women who can barely read and write. The College believes that even uneducated poor have the right to use technologies to improve their life and skills.

The Barefoot College believes that literacy is what one acquires in school, but education is what one gains from family, traditions, culture, environment and personal experiences. Both are important for individual growth. At the College, everyone is considered an education resource, the teacher as well as the student and the literate as well as illiterate. Therefore, the Barefoot College is a radical departure from the traditional concept of a college.

Why barefoot?

All over the world the rural poor walk Barefoot. It is a symbol that we elevate to bring attention to the focus of everything we do. The College believes that for any rural development activity to be successful and sustainable, it must be based in the village as well as managed and owned by those whom it serves.

Rural men and women irrespective of age, who are barely literate or not at all, and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job, are being trained to work as day and night school teachers, doctors, 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.

For 40 years our “Barefoot Professionals” have brought sustainable change to their villages all over the world. The demystified and decentralized “barefoot approach” of community management, control and ownership has demonstrated the power of simple solutions.

Why college?

Because it is a centre for learning, with a difference:

• A centre of learning and unlearning
• Where the teacher is the learner and the learner a teacher
• Where everyone is expected to keep an open mind, try new and crazy ideas, make mistakes and try again
• Where even those who have no degrees are welcome to come, work and learn
• Where those are accepted who are not eligible for even the lowest government jobs
• Where tremendous value is placed on the dignity of labour, of sharing and those are willing to work with their hands
• Where no certificates, degrees or diplomas are given

The Barefoot College is viewed as a success story because it is shown as an example of what is possible if very poor people are allowed to develop themselves. It’s a new concept that has stood the test of time. What the College has effectively demonstrated is how sustainable the combination of traditional knowledge (barefoot) and demystified modern skills can be, when the tools are in the hands of those who are considered “very ordinary” and are written off by urban society.

The Barefoot approach may be viewed as a concept, solution, revolution, design or an “inspiration” but it is really a simple message that can easily be replicated by the poor and for the poor in neglected and underprivileged communities anywhere the world.

Watch the video SOLAR MAMAS: Are women better at getting out of poverty than men?

Rafea is the second wife of a Bedouin husband. She is selected to attend the Barefoot College in India that takes uneducated middle-aged women from poor communities and trains them to become solar engineers. The college’s 6-month program brings together women from all over the world. Learning about electrical components and soldering without being able to read, write or understand English is the easy part. Witness Rafea’s heroic efforts to pull herself and her family out of poverty.

From the Barefoot College website: http://www.barefootcollege.org . Please visit this website and see if there is a way you could assist this noble work.

Image by dshah from Pixabay