A Visit to the Barefoot College in India — 1

Tilonia 109 Tilonia 257

Last February, along with friends from our humanitarian association, Karuna-Shechen, I visited our friend Sanjit ‟Bunker” Roy at the Barefoot College he founded approximately 40 years ago.

When he was 20 years old, Bunker, who was educated at one of the most prestigious colleges in India, was destined to have a successful career. His mother already imagined him as a doctor, engineer, or civil servant with the World Bank. That year, 1965, a terrible famine occurred in Bihar, one of the poorest provinces in India. Bunker decided to go there along with friends his own age to see what was happening in the most affected villages.

He came home a few weeks later and told his mother that he wanted to go and live in a village. After a moment of shocked silence, his mother asked him, ‟And what will you do in a village?”. Bunker replied, ‟I will work as a non-qualified worker digging pits”.

‟ My mother almost fell into a coma” remembers Bunker. The other members of his family tried to reassure her saying, ‟Don’t worry, he’s going through an idealistic crises just like any other teenager. He’ll lose his illusions after a few weeks of hard work and then come home.”

But Bunker didn’t come home. Instead, he has lived in the villages for the past 40 years. During the first 6 years, he dug 300 pits in the Rajasthan countryside with a drill. His mother did not speak to him for years. When he settled in the village of Tilonia, local authorities did not understand how someone of his social background and education could want to work in a poor village.

At Tilonia, Bunker Roy founded the Barefoot College, in which the teachers themselves have no degree but share their experience based on years of practice. Everyone lives simply at the college like in the Gandhi communities and no one is paid over 100 euros per month.

Bunker realized that he could do more than just dig pits. He decided to start by finding a solution to the water shortage prevalent in that region. He launched a large rainwater harvesting scheme that changed the lives of many women who used to have to walk miles each day to collect drinking water.

He then decided to train young illiterate grandmothers as solar engineers so that they would have the skills to set up and operate solar panels. Bunker was long ignored and then criticized by local authorities and by international organizations, including the World Bank. But he persevered and trained hundreds of illiterate women. These ‟solar grandmothers” have been able to bring solar electrify to a thousand villages in India and 27 other countries. His action is now supported by the Indian government and by other organizations, and is cited as an example around the world.

The Barefoot College and our association, Karuna-Shechen, have developed an active partnership for solar electrification and rainwater harvesting programs in India and Nepal.