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(Neelesh Misra, is a journalist based in New Delhi, India)
Educator Sanjit Bunker Roy has found that tapping local wisdom and initiative can help villagers achieve empowerment
When Sanjit Bunker Roy came face to face with a devastating famine that killed thousands in the Indian state of Bihar over 30 years ago, his vocation was suddenly sealed. It would not be in the city but in the countryside, it would not be in the upper echelons of the civil service but at the grassroots, with the village people.
Since founding the Social Work and Research Centre in 1972, Roy has been living in Tilonia, a village in one of India’s largest, driest and poorest states, Rajasthan. Better known as the Barefoot College1, the centre has trained two generations of villagers without any formal paper qualifications to become health-care workers, solar engineers, hand-pump mechanics and teachers in their communities.
Thanks largely to its efforts, over 100,000 people in 110 villages now have access to safe drinking water, education, health and employment. Rural youth once regarded as “unemployable” install and maintain solar electricity systems, hand pumps and tanks for drinking water. At special workshops, young artisans upgrade local skills acquired through generations. And on an average evening, about 3,000 children (60 per cent of whom are girls) who spend their days grazing cattle and helping their elders make their way to night school (there are now 150 of them around Tilonia), taught by local residents with rarely more than eight years of schooling.
The project’s success is proof that sometimes an outsider’s view can be a lasting catalyst for development. Since graduating from New Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, one of India’s most prestigious educational institutions, Roy has devoted his life to Tilonia and bettering the conditions of the rural poor. It was a radical move: “If someone wants to do work in a village, the formal education system discourages him,” asserts Roy. “The mindset that this system inculcates in students is that going back to the villages is a losing proposition. Remaining in the city is considered a success.”
Roy looks upon the Barefoot College as a multiplier force that uses traditional knowledge as a tool to reach the goals that conventional government policies have often been unable to achieve. Twenty Barefoot College field centres can now be found in 13 of India’s 26 states, and the expansion is set to continue. “The idea is to use local wisdom before we involve expertise from outside,” states Roy.
In Tilonia, education and development are inextricably linked. Youth are trained to use technologies that serve their communities while children learn about environmental themes such as solar electricity, which is used in most of their schools. “Night school students learn from resource persons who are not only their teachers, but also farmers, policemen, or local officials,” explains Roy.
For Roy, taking some of the responsibility for education out of the hands of government could speed up progress towards universal primary education in his country. “Encourage private initiative without commercializing education. Give private initiative more responsibility, more space, more freedom,” he says. As things stand now, the formal system alone cannot answer the challenge of rural education. “It destroys initiative and creativity. It expects you to do everything the way they say, the way they do,” he says. The starting point is to understand the reality of the rural poor—“about 60 or 70 per cent of children never go to school in the morning because they are supposed to work and rear cattle”—and to channel these children into vocational training at an early age so that they can gain new skills while continuing to help their families.
If Roy feels that creativity is not always the strength of government, the Barefoot College is breeding its own generation of committed and politically minded individuals: 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.
by Neelesh Misra
Barefoot College

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