Friday, October 10, 2008

Barefoot College

photos from BBC photographic gallery and Barefoot College's web site

You might think a person has to be able to read to go to college. You might assume students need to understand the language of the teacher, or of fellow students, to succeed in school. You might envision that children who herd cattle by day would be too tired to learn how to build water pumps at night. You might just think that a woman who didn't finish primary school could not possibly become an engineer in six months, or teach someone else to become one, and you might be wrong.

When Don and I watched a piece about India's Barefoot College on the PBS Lehrer Report the other night, we sat dumbstruck. (Please, if you have 9 minutes, click on "a piece" in the previous sentence and watch the streaming video.) Maybe you've already heard about it. All notions about illiteracy and education are turned on their head in the 20 Barefoot College field centres around India started by Sanjit "Bunker" Roy.
Bunker Roy himself was born in what is now West Bengal and schooled at Doon School and St. Stephen's College in Delhi. He has won several awards for Barefoot College, including the Schwab (for social entrepeneurship) and the St. Andrew's Prize (Britain's largest prize for the environment).
photo of Bunker Roy, right, from Unesco site
He was influenced by Gandhi's philosophy of sustainable development. Roy said:
There is a mistaken belief that illiteracy is a barrier to the rural poor developing themselves with skills of their own. In other words a rural poor farmer, weaver, potter, leather worker, blacksmith and other artisans, because they have never been through a formal education system are not capable of producing high quality products with a marvelous eye for aesthetics and form. In the rural areas of India today, for instance, there are endless examples of rainwater harvesting structures for drinking water and sanitation still being used today that are hundreds of years old - constructed when there were no architects and engineers.

Bunker Roy started the first Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, in 1972 after the 1966-67 famine killed thousands in Bihar state. Since then his colleges have trained villagers without paper qualifications to install and maintain solar electrical systems, hand pumps and tanks for drinking water. I could not believe my eyes as I watched village women work on intricate solar panels, taking meticulous detailed notes to study the codes and tiny parts, simply by watching their teacher do it and communicate with hand gestures.

Barefoot solar engineers have installed solar photovoltaic (SPV) home lighting systems and fabricated produced solar lanterns across 10 states of India. The results include:

  • Solar electrifying 870 schools across the country.
  • 3530 solar lanterns manufactured at the College.
  • 28 remote and inaccessible villages in Ladakh have 40 Kws of solar panels that provide three hours of light in the bleakest winter to 1530 families.
  • In Leh and Kargil districts, solar energy initiatives have saved a total of 97,000 litres of kerosene.
  • 392 rural youth including women trained as barefoot solar engineers with absolutely no aid from urban professionals.
  • 350 villages and hamlets(clusters) have been covered where a total number of 12000 households have been solar electrified.
  • 195,000 litres of kersoene saved, by replacing generators and oil lanterns with solar power.
  • All solar panels have been installed, maintained and repaired by the village people without the assistance of any paper qualified engineer.

The college has also instigated vibrant health care centers administering biochemic medicines (developed out of, but different from, homeopathy):

Since 1986, the Barefoot College has been using biochemic medicines. Many village men and women, most of whom have just a primary education, have been trained to administer biochemic medicines. This is fairly easy and does not need advanced academic qualifications. And since biochemic medicines have no side effects, these medicines are also quite safe.

in Tilonia, it is the children’s parliament, an elected body of girls and boys between 10 and 14 years of age that is responsible for making sure that schools are run properly—an ingenious way of giving children a hold on their own lives—and that of their villages.

Women have been empowered to participate in the local economy and infrastructure, and to lead other women.

Women are very active in the college. Here women gather in a village square to raise their voices in protest against cases of rape. Girls heavily outnumber boys in the night schools and many of the engineers trained in the college are women. One of the most successful solar lamps in use in villages in the area was designed by a woman using local material going to waste. Women have been going from village to village to gather support for developmental measures such as building local dams.

I am deeply impressed with Roy and his vision for helping people help themselves, including setting up rain water harvesting systems in many Indian villages. But I am flabergasted - and humbled - by the women, children and men themselves who learn and build the mechanics of these and solar electrical systems, and serve each other in order to strengthen themselves, their families, their communities - and the environment!


Ingrid said...

Ruth- I saw this story and was moved as well. This is an inspiring philosophy and pragmatic program. We have a lot to learn.

Loring Wirbel said...

This is a powerful reinforcement of the belief that no global system, natural or artificial, is too complex for people to understand, even if they have little formal education. The trick is to be curious about the world around you, to want to understand the interconnectedness.

Rural Indians, rural Mexicans, rural Asians have the motivation of needing to eke out a living in a modern world that would just as soon declare them surplus. By necessity, they find ways to integrate sustainable technologies into older ways of doing things.

Advanced cultures provide citizens everything on a platter, and there's no motivation for learning things or adopting a DIY culture. If there's any bright side to the current economic collapse, I hope that people everywhere, including in the so-called "developed" world, will recapture a sense of ingenuity.

Loring Wirbel said...

And I like Bunker Roy's comment that men are virtually untrainable. Yikes, we'd better get our act together, or women will be holding up all the sky. If they don't already.

Sharon said...

Thank you Ruth. That really was heartening. Such a beautiful example of the yin and yang nurturing one another and of the human spirit at it's best. Very humbling.

Ruth said...

Hi Ingrid! So nice to see you. A lot to learn, I'm embarrassed at my lack of mechanical understanding.

Ruth said...

Loring, that's the thing, isn't it? We're handed everything. I think Ingrid wasn't just saying we have a lot to learn about mechanics, and I'm not only embarrassed by that lack either. It's not understanding the whole system around me, the intricacies of my locality.

Have you read James Burke's Connections, or seen the PBS series (from the 1970s)? He starts out standing in a meadow with no human structures around, and he hypothesizes about the world if all computerization shut down, all technologies, electricity, etc. Then he traces the major inventions (seven I think) and what necessitated them. It's fascinating - and frightening - to contemplate what state we would be in without our platter of comforts.

Ruth said...

Oh, and yeah, that about men.


Actually, I'm married to a highly trainable man (read that as you will), and I know many men who are well trained, erm, trainable.

Ruth said...

Yes, Sharon. I feel a mix of elation and sobriety witnessing this.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Thank you Ruth for explaining the Barefoot School and providing the link..
.. Most people are quite eager to make their lives better.. all they need is a guiding hand, a little patience and care.. wonders will happen.. not to mention the self esteem these women now have... They must feel so happy being able to make an impact to the betterment of there family and community..

Water and Light... so important and things we so easily take for granted...
This is good!

Loring Wirbel said...

I love James Burke, but has he been up to much lately? It was great the way he used to show how the inventor of DC current carriers was the brother-in-law of the woman who led the revolution that stopped Thomas Edison from killing dogs, etc. etc. Stephenson uses a lot of that kind of connectionism in the Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Ruth said...

Gwen, I think you're right, that most people would prefer to participate in a system such as this than in a welfare system.

As for water, my friend who lives on Samos with her husband had to dig their own well. She had to keep the sand and dirt from falling on her husband's head as he dug, and he felt he was going to be buried alive. And they still didn't have enough water, had to get it from the village, which decided they didn't want to share it. Had to lug in a tank of water on their neighbor's truck. This is now, and these are modern people in a non-3rd world country. These things don't even occur to me in my circumstances. Where does my water come from? The tap.

Ruth said...

No Loring, I haven't heard "boo" from James Burke since that book and PBS series.

What was Edison doing with dogs?? I don't remember that. Was he experimenting with them? I hope he wasn't experimenting with them and DC!

Vasu said...


The timing of this article is so interesting. Here we are, such advanced nations with seemingly unlimited financial resources, where "smartest people" have become too smart with money for everyone's good. And we are now scared about financial catastophe across the globe. Arguing about various forms of energy and bottom line orientation, rather than show enough concern about the well being of entire humanity for generations to come.

Yet, at the same time, there are people with very humble means, with very limited "education", improving their own lives, through very simple means. At the same time, using sustainable forms of energy.

What struck me was Bunker Roy's statement about decentralization, with no dependency on anyone outside.

One shows intellect.
The other shows wisdom.

Just a random ramble...

Loring Wirbel said...

Edison used to tour the chatauqua circuit in efforts to discredit Nicola Tesla, putting DC wiring near the ears of dogs to kill them, saying, "See how dangerous DC current is?" Edison was really a very creepy, selfish man in many ways.

Ruth said...

Oh Vasu, what a joy to see you here. I really appreciate your visit.

I had planned this post a little before the s**t really hit the fan in the marketplace, and when I posted it, I agree, the timing felt so right, like a lesson from somewhere beyond the 'smart' systems we've set up. It does drive home the point that we have to do for ourselves, and ignorance gets us nowhere fast on a bridge someone else built.

Living circumspectly is a requirement of all citizens. But we forgot about it.

I love your 'random ramble.' Thank you.

Ruth said...

Loring, oh! I thought Edison wanted DC!

Loring Wirbel said...

Ruth, there you have a case of me writing too fast again. Tesla and Westinghouse were promoting AC, Edison wanted DC, and would kill dogs to make his point. Thanks for catching that!

Rauf said...

There was a fashionable ad campaign by Times of India to take one illeterate and educate him or her. The idea was noble but in my opinion it was stupid. We would just be imposing our ideas of education on them like learning to speak English, which will make me more useless in the village. i tell you Ruth, i don't want to know about the earth's orbits. The sun rises and sets, i know that and i don't want to know more. What i want is some means to earn a living, some novel ideas, how to conserve energy, how i can utilise the available resources to the maximum. The education i have received in school and college is so useless Ruth.

the video clip was very enlightening. Now Karthik tells me that LCD monitors consume less power. i am buying solar lanterns with next money i get. Now suddenly i feel that i can do something. Thats when disaster strikes Ruth, when ever i get bright ideas. i am dangerous.

Sharon, are solar lanterns available in your area ?
They are not available in the cities, Actually they are manufactured in a small scale. they can't fight the giants.

Sharon said...

Hey Rauf!
I'm not sure. I would bet they have them at our local ranch/feed store in the camping department.

There are very few people where we live and the culture tends to be more backward than most of America (except maybe the south). In fact the mindset of most people here is frustratingly aggressive and hostile toward environmental issues.......cut it, shoot it, drill it seems to be the native motto. Perhaps it's because there is so much wilderness with virtually no urban issues that they are so short sighted. Luckily 60% of Wyoming's land is owned by the government and somewhat protected.

A relative gave us 4 solar landscaping lights as a gift a couple of years ago. Unfortunately we live so deep in the woods that we don't get enough sun to use them (or any other solar power for that matter). So we are completely dependent upon the power companies for our lights and computers.

As for useless education and degrees you can add my name to that list......what an expensive waste of time that was (for me)!

I've been wanting to ask you something but have been to shy to ask......sometime if you are willing and have time I would like to hear your uncensored thoughts about whether or not child sponsorship programs are beneficial for individual children and their families or if they are just as ineffective and patronizing.

John Ackerson said...

One day (not recently) I sat in my banker's office and on the wall displayed behind her was an amazing plethora of framed certificates ( there was not an empty spot available) assuring me (her customer) that I should feel confident as I was obviously in very safe, and extremely well trained hands.

Or, so I thought. Upon the conclusion of our business, I nodded towards the wall and mentioned all the in depth training courses she had been on.
For a moment she appeared as if she was going to say something else, but then smirked, shrugged her shoulders, and said,"They force us to stay ahead. If I don't, I could lose my position here. A long time ago, I thought I had a career, but there's always another body that can do the job."

I was surprised to say the least at this bit of uncommon candor. However, this experience along with many others, point at a system failure in our western structure that we humans are considered like other trash; just so much waste in the system.

We are overly managed and manipulated, and all too often spend too many years clamoring to receive entrance to the best schools where we can be artificially buried in unnecessary studying so we can become overly qualified.

Ruth said...

Dear rauf, Sharon and John, hear hear!

As you know, I'm an academic adviser to students getting just such a degree. I know, and they know, this piece of paper is necessary to getting certain respectable jobs. Now a master's degree is the new bachelor's, and prerequisite to getting certain types of jobs.

I was lucky getting my job, since they wanted someone with a master's degree. I sat in my job interview listening to my former English professor and future colleague argue the reasons they should hire me: because of my 10 years experience on campus (as a secretary), and having graduated from the department that very year. He argued that these things, and my age (implied experience and profound wisdom, haha) were a good substitute for a master's degree.

Daily I face the challenge of guiding students through their degree requirements while also encouraging them to engage with the world. I tell them there is no subtitute for experience, and critical thinking skills that can be developed in an English degree are next to useless if they are only applied to literature.

rauf has suggested that students in degree programs such as mine be required to spend summers living with tribal types who live by their own hands. We've let our children down by developing only their minds (and to what degree are they developing them and not just repeating what they hear?), and not their great capacity to live with the land, create simple sustainable systems, learn how things work.

Rauf said...

Hi Sharon, lot to say, long story, i'll write in the morning.

Sharon said...

No hurry Rauf. It's something I've wanted another (non-American) perspective on for a long time, so write only when you have the time or feel like it. My email is
Thanks, sleep well.

Ruth said...

rauf, of course it's up to you, but I hope you'll post your response to Sharon's question here, because I'm very interested to hear what you have to say.

Ruth said...

Oh but rauf, I think you are preparing to leave on a long trip, so you may not have time for this now. We can wait until you get back if you don't have time before you leave.

Sandy said...

Fascinating post and filled with lots of wonderment about human nature.

If I have time tomorrow I'll check the video out.

I really really enjoyed reading this.

Gwen Buchanan said...

My brother , (who has the band) just came back from a Nations Wide Scientific Conference in Saskachewan..
he is an Environmental Toxicologist and has his own Lab, "Buchanan Environmental" in Fredericton, NB... he said the Major topic was Water.. how it is diminishing... and the chemicals they are finding in it particularly the estrogens and antibiotics.. and how the Estrogens are affecting the males of almost all the species and turning them female.. .. how to recycle it and what we have to do about it.. major scientific research is needed and quickly... he always comes back from these conferences with warnings about what we as humans have to do...

...a thought about wells.... I had an experience of going down a well once... an old hand-dug well in an old house we were exploring.. after a while we couldn't find our little dog Ziggy and we looked everywhere... he was a quiet dog.. he disappeared and it seemed he was plucked off the earth... for the millionth time of searching everywhere, we went back to the well again... and tried to see down it and call him and see if we could see him.. at long last we heard a whimper.. yep a way down the well.. thankfully there was not much water in it and with our eyes adapting to the dark we thought we saw a bit of his blonde nose and foot sticking out from a small ledge... but the circular hole opening was narrow.. we dropped down a little box affair and coaxed Ziggy to get on it.. but it was too unstable and there was no way he was going to leave his safe perch for a wobbly tray....the well's circumference was too small for John to go down..and if he had gone down I don't know how he would have got back up as the rocks were very slippery and I certainly was not strong enough to pull him back up.. We could not let one of the kids go down... never... So I frighteningly offered to go down.. we had to go back home and get some gear.. long ropes and John's motorcycle helmet .. I got all geared up and John lowered me down into the hole about 12' - 15'.. it had a slight bend so that part way down I could not see up and John could not see me very well but finally there was ziggy.. I grabbed him and john carefully and amazingly pulled us back up... scarey but happy ending...

But when I was inside the well I realized how much work it must have been to actually have built this well..such close quarters... all hand dug out... so carefully shaped with rocks stacked one upon the other... we really need to learn so much just to be a portion as self-sufficient as our ancestors were even 100 years ago...

I can't imagine digging one in sand...

Ruth said...

Diminishing water, contaminated water, it will get ugly, and expensive. I saw a guy on Jon Stewart one night with a water filtration system that seemed like a miracle. You could literally put anything into it and it would come out pure water. How is that possible? I can't find a link to it now, and I don't remember what it was called.

Gwen, that story of Ziggy and the Well. It takes a lot of love to face the claustrophobia of that space. It reminds me of the little girl in Texas in the '80s who got stuck in the hole in the ground. Not to make light of it at all, but it would make a wonderful picture book, since it has a happy ending. So much suspense. I'm glad you all came out of it fine, oh dear.

I talked with my friend in Samos today, she happily has had at least a few hours of water a day, but it's coming from the village, not the well, which isn't deep enough.

I just found

* 220 million urban residents in the developing world lack a source of safe drinking water near their homes.

*Ninety percent of urban sewage in the developing world is discharged into rivers, lakes, and coastal water ways without any treatment.

*Agriculture consumes 60 to 80 percent of the fresh water resources in most countries, and as much as 90 percent in others.

Gwen Buchanan said...

I'm glad to hear your friend has access to some water... so precious

Ginnie said...

What I am reminded of, Ruth, is that we are now living in the Age of Aquarius, where humanitarian enterprises and the world being connected though brother/sisterhood will continue to grab and mold how we think as we move forward in our fragile world. This is the kind of example that will inspire many of us to be more creative in how we live our lives!

Ruth said...

Gwen, it had created great animosity between my friend and the village, such resentment! Imagine, withholding something like water.

Ruth said...

So Boots, is this the age of water? I hadn't thought about it until the juxtaposition of yours and Gwen's comments. Maybe it is the Age of Aquarius for more than one reason.

Fiber Focus said...

I saw and liked your tree over on Morna's blog, so I came over to check yours out and was very glad to see this post here. I wish I had known about the PBS show! I posted about the Barefoot College awhile back and was so impressed with the whole program, its vision and its success. I hope it becomes a model replicated all over the world!

Beautiful blog and stunning photos!

Ruth said...

Rachel, I really appreciate your visit and comment. Which blog of yours has the Barefoot College post? I'd love to see it. I browsed your beautiful blogs for a bit and I'm very impressed, and I'd love to go back and see the Barefoot College post. I just found an organization yesterday called Practical Action that I'm also interested in, based in the UK.

Anonymous said...