A doctor who has never been to school. A solar engineer who has not studied beyond eighth grade. An accountant who could never read or write properly. Sounds bizarre? All of this is happening and happening very well in the Barefoot College, Tilonia in Rajasthan. A brainchild of Bunker Roy, the Social Work and Research Centre, better known as the Barefoot College trains and nurtures professional doctors, solar engineers, accountants, water management persons, handicraft manufacturers and so on, out of people who may never have had proper formal education in their life.
As Tata Jagriti Yatra progresses towards Tilonia, the group is warmly welcomed with creative puppetry. Jokhim Chacha (the puppet) introduces the yatris to the concept of the Barefoot College and invites them all to discover this unique initiative started in 1972. As if giving just a slight peek into the wonder land, Ramniwas ji from the media team at Barefoot College shared his experience, “When I had first heard about the Barefoot College, I came and dropped in my application. I was told that I will be looking after the accounting work. I did not know anything about accounting, or even simple math. Soon, I started seeing 8 and 5 as 13 and not 85! Now after ten years, I have moved into media and puppetry, promoting this unique art with a social message.” The Yatris also hear about the wonders Tilonia has done for women, from getting them out of their houses to learning new skills and gaining the much deserved respect and equal status in their communities.
As buses take us from Kishangarh station to Tilonia, the feel of the fa scinating desert and vast lands with sparse plantation becomes more and more evident. With the growing mystery of the deserts, the need to unfold the mystery of Tilonia’s story also builds up. As we reach, the first sight is a cluster of brick structures, built at comfortable distance from each other interspersed with greens. These structures represent the various arms, be it the ‘Saras Doodh Dhaba’, the dairy or the medical centres, libraries, childcare centre, etc. Inside the Barefoot College, one tends to forget that it is Rajasthan. There is plenty of greenery. What’s the secret? Ramniwas ji tells us how the entire campus has a water reservoir of 4 00 000 litres capacity, built underground for storing rainwater. It is this water that is used for maintaining the plants. The judicious use of resources is futher highlighted by the fact that the entire campus runs on solar energy!
On the first floor, we visit workshops and training centres for women of various nationalities who come together and learn circuitry, both lab circuits and lantern circuits, their assembly, maintenance, etc. These women come from the poorest of areas in Congo, Jordan, Kenya and other such countries to learn these skills for 6 months. They, then, go back and provide electricity in their own villages. Even though the number of women trained at any one point is fairly small, the success of the model relies on how many go and make a difference with what they’ve learnt. I meet Walri from Columbia and Tinga Sama, two women who re undergoing these training programmes. They are least bothered about the language barriers. They pick up colour codes used in circuitry quickly and then all they need is an ‘okay’ or a ‘not okay’ from their trainers, to know if they are on the right track. Imagine teaching a child who doesn’t speak or understand your language. The women trainers at the Barefoot are teaching women, even in their forties, who’ve come from countries they’ve never heard of and speak a language they can’t hope to decipher. Yet, there is a feeling of never giving up as they overcome these barriers. Probably, that is also the reason why these programmes are run for such a closely-knit group and not thousands of women at once.
We then move on to another innovative programme of the Barefoot College, the production of sanitary pads under the brand name ‘Sathan’ meaning ‘together’. A group of 5 women making about 400 units every single day, after only a week of training is definitely a case in point! Shanti, one of the women, explains, “I was earlier working in the farms. For the past five months, I have been here and I am very happy. It did not take me much time to learn.”
What makes the Barefoot College what it is, is the people and their warmth. Here, a complete stranger would not hesitate to show you around or help you find your way. Their love for their villages is unmatched. Meghraj, who has been working in the medical section since 1984, comes from the humble village of Chota Narela. He has studied only up to eleventh grade but today, he is more than happy to work here. His wife also works in the Barefoot College. I ask him whether his children want to grow up and go settle down in the cities. He exclaims, “No! They want to be in the villages. They like it here.”
A day in Rajasthan is incomplete without a cultural touch. As if in response to my thoughts, the stage is set and young kids from the village sing their traditional songs. Later, the yatris join in and dance away to the folk tunes! Tilonia couldn’t get any better.
- Unnati Narang