TILONIA, India – It’s the Harvard of rural India, minus wingtips or hocks: a 50-year-old institution called College barefoot that offers lessons to empower people worldwide. Maybe even in America.
Barefoot College is as committed to empowerment as any other institution I’ve ever seen, and this is what it looks like in the rural state of Rajasthan: An illiterate woman named Chota Devi who has never attended a school day sits hunched over a circuit board, carefully using of color-coded instructions to solder resistors and diodes in place.
Chota, who has no idea how old she is, is a Dalit, those at the bottom of the caste system who were once known as untouchables, and from a particularly low-ranking group called the Valmiki who often cleaned up human waste.
But now Chota is learning how to be a solar energy technician. Barefoot College trains illiterate, low-status villagers like her to make solar-powered lanterns and install solar lighting systems. After three to six months of training, they return to their communities and earn a decent living by providing solar power to communities without reliable electricity – upending social hierarchy in the process.
“I shall be more knowledgeable than my husband,” Chota remarked slyly. When she goes home, villagers now call her “Mrs.” It’s part joke, part respect.
With a new income of maybe $80 a month, Chota plans to pay off debt, buy a basic cell phone, and build an outhouse.
Chota has five children, none of whom are now in school, but her trainers at Barefoot College have left an impression. “I work with women who can read and write, so now I want my kids to learn it too,” she said.
Bunker Roy, 77, was a three-time national squash champion in India and an activist inspired by Mahatma Gandhi when he moved to this remote village in 1972 to see what he could do to tackle entrenched poverty. That year he started Barefoot College here.
Roy focused on giving technology skills to the least educated and most despised people in the community – because they were the ones most in need of help and because he believed nurturing dignity and self-confidence were crucial elements in overcoming poverty .
“We wanted to start a college with a difference, where people weren’t punished for being illiterate,” Roy told me.
So Barefoot College takes illiterate villagers – most of them Dalits or women – and trains them in technical skills such as installing solar panels. With funding from foundations, donations and the Government of India, the college also runs literacy classes, health campaigns, a water resources department, study centers and a sanitary napkin factory.
“There are millions of people who are illiterate and they have a lot to contribute,” Roy told me.
The urban-rural divide exists globally, with opportunities lagging behind in rural America and rural India. Those left behind sometimes self-medicate, creating cycles of desperation; in India all this is complicated by caste and gender. Barefoot College nurtures opportunity by offering skills training the way community colleges do in the United States, but here there is a particular focus on the very poorest.
This benefits society as a whole: marginalized people are often a country’s most underused assets. And there’s something delightful about the way low-status people’s success messes with people’s minds.
One of Barefoot College’s first initiatives was to train Dalits to install water pumps. Initially it was in their own communities, because they were not allowed to use the same wells as those of higher castes.
As a result, the most reliable source of water in a village became one in the most despised neighborhood. When high-caste villagers noticed that their wells were running dry, they clumsily fetched water from the Dalit pump. “It’s just for the cattle,” they might say at first.
When their own pumps failed, they also had to call in a Dalit pump technician. Since traditionally Dalits were not supposed to touch food or water containers used by higher caste people, the head toll only increased.
We in America could learn from this approach in rural India. The United States, too, needs to step up its efforts to train those left behind in technical skills so they can earn a living — such as electricians, wind turbine installers, carpenters, and more. And there is a belated admission that we worry too much about formal educational qualifications; bravo to Pennsylvania for that opening state jobs this year to those without a four-year college degree.
Over the decades, Barefoot College has attracted international and local funding to expand. The college now has water programs across India, and the Indian government brings women from Africa and elsewhere to Barefoot College to study solar energy for six-month courses, and they then return home to bring electricity to their villages. Here, ’empowerment’ is not a buzzword, but a way of life.
“The illiterates of the 21st century,” said Roy, “are not those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn and relearn.”