with S. Srinivasan
- "Vasu" - of Barefoot College
Associate and Board member
Comments directly to
February 16, 2007
with S. Srinivasan, Facilitator, Barefoot
College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, India. Interviewed in Tilonia inJanuary
College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, is located on 2 interconnecting campuses.
It has 10 outreach field offices which are instrumental in the coordination
of the activities it carries out in over 150 outlying villages.
The Barefoot campus is entirely powered by solar energy. Barefoot
shares its know-how of solar technology not only with local villagers,
but also with people from other countries like Afghanistan, Bolivia
and Gambia, who visit the campus for a 6 month period during which
they learn how to assemble and repair the necessary solar equipment
in order to bring electricity to their home villages.
to this important work with solar technology, Barefoot runs night
schools for children who are unable to benefit from mainstream education
because of their family duty to work in the fields or to look after
livestock. Fifty-seven children from these night schools are then
elected as representatives to a Children’s Parliament, which
meets once a month. One child from these 57 is elected as Prime
Minister of the Parliament for a two and a half year period.
is also active in rain water harvesting, weaving and clothe making
as well as in the manufacture of wooden toys for children. It runs
clinics providing medical services based mainly on homeopathic remedies
and it addresses important social issues in the villages through
the performance of puppet shows.
Vicky Rossi: When was the Barefoot College first established and
what was the main motivation of its founders?
S. Srinivasan (commonly known as “Vasu”): The Barefoot College
was founded in 1972 by Mr Bunker Roy and two others. It was a voluntary
organisation specifically formed with the belief that in order to work
with the poorest of the poor in the villages one has to base oneself
in the village. Only in this way can one uncover the problems faced
by the communities there, as perceived by the villagers themselves.
In the initial 1-2 years, the set of objectives held by the organisation
became more concretised and more specific. This led to initiatives being
started with regards drinking water. Access to drinking water was a
problem for the poorest of the poor in the villages and linked to that
was health – access to health services was almost nil.
When the founders of Barefoot progressed
further in their series of village meetings, they realised that although
there were schools, children were not going to them. They discovered
too that there was hardly any employment in the villages that could
sustain the people there, so villagers were migrating to nearby towns
and cities in search of labour. The founders of Barefoot understood
the needs of the community because these needs were spelt out by the
communities themselves. Barefoot College became a fora for urban educated
professionals, graduates and post-graduates to work with the rural youth
in the villages. That’s how it all started.
Vicky Rossi: You have already mentioned a few of the very important
initiatives carried out by the Barefoot College, for example, with
regard to drinking water, night schools and employment opportunities.
Can you indicate some of the many other activities you are involved
Vasu: Well, as I just mentioned, in the beginning, we started tackling
the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor in terms of access
to drinking water, education, health and livelihood; these were integrated
with one another and the overall objective was to improve the quality
of life in the villages. We found that with regards access to drinking
water people had to go – or rather women had to go – kilometres
away to fetch water. In the same way, they also had to go far to fetch
fuel wood for energy.
There was a myth at the time, which has
been perpetuated, that the poor cannot pay for services. This was something
that the Barefoot College felt that it had to demystify. In the beginning,
when we started installing hand pumps - which we stopped after a few
years because we got involved instead with rainwater harvesting systems
- we realised that we should not duplicate government services, so instead
we mobilise people into becoming aware of which of their perceived needs
can be obtained through their own collective lobbying. When we began
work with rainwater harvesting, we saw the potential for wages for the
community if the local government took up this work, which is labour
intensive, and could therefore provide employment within the villages
so that people there didn’t have to go to the cities.
facilitator of the Barefoot College, India
Copyright © 2007 Vicky Rossi
When the organisation did a survey in 1973 on the state of electrification
in the villages, it was also discovered that there was a great concentration
of artisans i.e. they were doing the survey on the state of electrification,
but they also found out that in the localities there were many weavers
and leather workers. This led to our involvement with artisans.
In the same way when in 1979, a study was
conducted by the organisation into drudgery and its impact on rural
women, we discovered that something like fetching water was considered
drudgery according to the specialists, but for the women themselves
when they went to collect water it was the first and only opportunity
they had to get rid of caste and to talk to one another. So when we
went into the nitty-gritty of it, we saw drudgery from a different perspective
to that normally portrayed by specialists, sociologists and anthropologists.
We saw drudgery according to the rural women themselves and discovered
that because they went to the same place, they had the chance to discuss
their problems e.g. if a woman’s mother-in-law is beating her
up or her sister-in-law is ill-treating her. Fetching water was the
only time and place where they could communicate. When
we did this study, then, we realised that communication was important
and we began to work with traditional methods of communication like
puppet shows and songs.
When we started working with the artisans,
the teachers in the night schools and others, we realised that a lot
of fossil fuels were being burnt by lanterns. We asked ourselves how
we should go about solving this problem because every month people had
to buy kerosene. When solar technology was in its infancy in the early
1980s, there was a young man who worked with the teachers here, who
suggested using solar electricity. That’s how we got started,
in 1984, with solar technology.
Vicky Rossi: Where did you get the know-how for the solar technology
from? Was this man an engineer? What was his name?
Vasu: His name was Chandok. Yes, he was an engineer, but he had never
thought of applying his knowledge in the villages. Then he interacted
with one of the teachers here, who was in charge of the night schools,
and trained him in how to repair and maintain a solar system: understanding
the solar photovoltaic panel, the batteries, etc. After a month or so
the engineer had to leave Tilonia and the teacher was left with the
technology and the proposition of, “How do we go further?”
That’s the position that that teacher was in in 1984 and yet today
he has trained more than 400 women Barefoot solar engineers.
Vicky Rossi: You are saying that the teacher received the knowledge
with regards solar technology from Chandok and then went on to spread
that know-how to over 400 other people?
Vasu: Yes, that’s right. The important thing for us here at the
Barefoot College is implementing your knowledge. In a similar way, we
have had experiments with bio-gas and wind energy. When people come
to work here in Tilonia, we feel that the crazier the idea the more
welcome they are to try it out. Many people for want of a place to start,
think that their idea will never be recognised. We have had many ideas
tested here. Some have not taken off, not because of lack of opportunity,
but rather for lack of perseverance - if it’s not working you
need to find out if there is some other way of doing it.
Gradually from the 4 main initiatives of
water, health, education and livelihood, Barefoot College gradually
got involved with the physically challenged and in a big way with the
women. Further, we got involved in establishing reading room libraries
and wasteland development. In 1993, we went into computerisation of
accounts, documents, etc. What was important was to find out what the
community needed and if it could be integrated into the objectives of
Vicky Rossi: With regard solar technology, the Barefoot campus is
totally run on electricity from solar energy. Are you also cooking
with solar energy as I was shown some solar ovens yesterday?
Vasu: The solar cookers are more of a phenomenon from 5-6 years ago
when a man called Wolfgang Sheffler was interested in finding out if
he could install such a cooker here. Five years ago he stayed with us
for a month. His interactions with youth and women from the campus encouraged
him to return to Barefoot the following year and the year after that.
He has been able to interact with and motivate these women in such a
way that they have now formed and registered their own association that
makes these parabolised solar cookers. We have one solar cooker in the
new campus which has the capacity to cook food for about 40 people.
Then we have such cookers in all our outreach
field centres. The objective is for this association to become self-supportive
in another 3-4 years by getting orders from institutions that have residential
facilities. Self-supportive in the sense of providing a livelihood for
the women, giving them the self-belief that they can do things on their
own and forming a company that is able to make profits. Not profits
in the traditional sense, but rather profits in the form of money generated,
which - beyond the manufacture of additional solar cookers - they could
make available as wages for the women in the association. This is an
objective for the future.
cooker at Barefoot College, India
Copyright © 2007 Vicky Rossi
Vicky Rossi: You are already sharing the information and know-how
you have on solar technology with communities in, for example, Afghanistan,
Bolivia and Gambia. Is this something which is important to Barefoot,
namely, the sharing of information?
Vasu: Yes. We believe that the Barefoot approach, which we have evolved
in Tilonia, needs replication, but if it is taken up by other countries
and other communities it has to have first the endorsement of the communities
there. Over the years, we have created a process whereby we train people
only if there is strong endorsement by the local government, community
and voluntary organisations.
In most cases either Bunker Roy has gone
to different villages in these countries and talked to the rural communities,
through interpreters, to find out if they are prepared to send 2 of
their villagers to Tilonia to get trained; or there have been instances
where the village leaders have visited Tilonia as a first initiative
– like Ethiopia – and then their political leaders, their
presidents, have visited Tilonia and made a declaration that, “Yes,
we want to implement this” and later on they have sent women and
men to become Barefoot solar engineers.
By the time the solar engineers go back
to their homes they have enough skills to solar electrify their villages.
Their know-how also includes writing co-funded proposals and writing
a MOU with the government so that all their expenses are covered. Only
9% of expenses incorporated in the MOU go to cover administrative costs;
the remaining 91% is earmarked for the purchase of the solar equipment
as well for the honorarium of the solar engineers whilst they undergo
their training in Tilonia.
In the period when they get trained, the
Barefoot College tries to help either by finding out how much the government
is prepared to contribute to their expenses or by providing some funds
of our own. We feel this is a step we need to take if we want to try
to replicate our approach in a bigger way. However, once the Barefoot
solar engineers are fully trained and they return to their respective
countries, they can support themselves because they are paid a monthly
wage by the members of their communities in exchange for the services
they provide in installing, maintaining and repairing solar lighting
Vicky Rossi: Have the results been good, I mean, when the solar engineers,
who have been trained in Barefoot, have gone back to their home countries,
have they successfully implemented the knowledge they have received
Vasu: Very much so. For example, we trained 6 women from Afghanistan,
who were the first women solar engineers in the whole of Afghan history.
They returned to their home country and solar electrified their own
villages. That is only one example. We feel that all the women and men,
who have gone back to their home countries, have earned credibility
within their own communities. They are even able to plan for other villages
in their areas.
Let’s take the example of Ethiopia
– we have had up until now around 40 people from Ethiopia come
to the Barefoot College and now the women have formed a Women’s
Barefoot Solar Engineers Association there. What is important is that
this initiative is seen to be a joint effort between the voluntary organisations
in that area and the Barefoot College; and that the policy-makers and
the government system also take up the idea.
Vicky Rossi: I have been quite surprised
being here that the Barefoot College is much more than a school; it
is actually a community in the sense that people are living and working
together. I was wondering then why you choose to call yourselves a
college as opposed to a community. As a second part to this question,
can you tell me if you have any cooperative initiatives in place with
other communities that are implementing sustainability and peace in
a similar way?
Vasu: Let me start by saying that the Barefoot College became prominent
because of its social and research work. Normally the paper qualification
is the point on which everybody’s value is judged in terms of
a job and remuneration; however, what is unique about the Barefoot College
is that it does not give a diploma; it does not give a certificate;
it does not have blackboards. It
has a process whereby people learn and teach.
Secondly, since the people have no resources
and since they have no alternatives, they have to acknowledge the interdependence
of one another, so they are both a teacher to one another and a learner
to one another. Thirdly, because the Barefoot College is an educational
process which is capable of mobilizing people, it’s like an open
Fourthly, why Barefoot College? Well, because
the word gained more and more prominence when we realized – and
other people realized – that we work with the poorest of the poor.
In a way, the poorest of the poor have no chance to go to a college,
have no chance even to complete their schooling. Metaphorically, Barefoot
is a college with a difference because it is where people do voluntary
work, where people sit on the floor and take decisions, where people
have tremendous faith in decentralization and a sense of equality. They
try to see if they can internalize this process and strengthen one another,
which itself is an educational process.
Vicky Rossi: Going back to the topic
of a community, are the people who are living on the main Barefoot
College campus the teachers from the night schools, the solar technology
engineers, the people responsible for the rainwater harvesting, and
Vasu: Yes, but every one here is at the same time a teacher and a learner;
there is no “us” and “them” in the community,
for example, children get educated in the night schools and then many
of them become part-time, or full-time, volunteers with Tilonia. We
very much encourage here the idea that I can learn from somebody but
I can also try to impart my own knowledge to that person, whether this
is in terms of the solar technology, or a decision that needs to be
taken within the village, etc.
Vicky Rossi: We have touched on the subject of the empowerment
of women, but Barefoot College is also working hard to empower children.
This is done through the 150 night schools that you have in outlying
villages as well as through the Children’s Parliament. Can you
expand a little on this topic?
Vasu: In 1975 when Barefoot College started, the government handed over
to us a number of day schools because there was chronic teacher absenteeism,
which they couldn’t do anything about, and only few children were
attending. In fact, we were given 3 government day schools to run. What
we did was to use the existing curriculum, but we ran it in 2 shifts:
one was a day school and the other was a night school. That’s
how we started the night schools. Both these schools were the result
of a meeting in a village where the whole community selected 2 people
– one man and one woman – to replace the original absentee
teacher. These 2 teachers considered their work as a responsibility
rather than just a job. We continued
these schools for 3 years, but after that the government withdrew and
we continued only with the night schools.
The night schools were important because
we found that there were a lot of children in the villages of school-going
age, who grazed cattle and goats in the morning, who helped their families
to cultivate plots of land, so it was not possible for them to attend
a day school. The innovative concept of a night school appeared a little
more stimulating for the children. We realised that the timings of the
school should be according to the convenience of the children, who after
a hard day’s work could still find time for a night school. The
teachers should be from the same village where the night school is run
so that the community can put pressure on its regularity, and the administration
of the night schools should be done by a village education committee.
In this innovative concept of night schools
we realised we had to provide the children with an educational process
that had some relevance to their lives, therefore, in addition to reading,
writing and arithmetic we also provide them with information on what
a water revenue official does – in the sense of land and land
records; a little bit about veterinary science because they are involved
in animal husbandry; and information on agricultural crops and diseases
because they are subsistence farmers.
Interestingly, in the process of setting
up the night schools, we hit upon the idea of promoting their responsibilities
as citizens. We realised it would be good to include political thinking
in the curriculum, for example, information on the electoral process
and how the children could use this in the future to become responsible
grown-up citizens capable of taking part in the political process itself.
We realised that if children could take
part in a process in which they could vote every 2 years for a parliament
– together with its prime minister and cabinet – and give
them responsibilities, the monitoring of the night schools could be
done by the children themselves. This has been an innovative process
which has given us many, many insights. The desire to share in these
insights led the election commission and the government of Indian in
Delhi to give a budget of about 50,000 Indian Rupees to the Children’s
Parliament in a bid to find out what kind of voter awareness they
are able to generate.
at Barefoot College
Copyright © 2007 Vicky Rossi
In a sense the Children’s Parliament
is not a mock parliament. It has regular and actual powers. The Children’s
Parliament’s MPs can fire teachers if they are irregular. They
can hold to account the solar section in Tilonia if the solar electrification
is not taking place properly. All this makes them involved in a process
which aims to prepare them to be grown-up citizens. In this way the
Children’s Parliament is important.
The village education committees - in which
8-10 villagers [adults from the children’s families] become members
- assumes the responsibility for keeping simple accounts, dispersing
the honorarium of the teachers, purchasing educational materials, ensuring
that the greatest number of children possible attend the school and
mobilizing the people to understand the significance of educating the
girls. Night schools have been a pivot from which we have learnt a lot.
Vicky Rossi: Through the work of
the Barefoot College has there been any change in the attitudes of
people towards the caste system?
Vasu: In the night schools we have found that most of the teachers belong
to the lower castes but the children who attend belong to all castes.
In the classroom, the children all sit together, drink together, eat
together, etc. We try to address the whole question of caste through
puppet shows, interactions and role models.
For example, most of the workers here in
the Barefoot College, who belong to the lower castes, have become very
senior persons in Tilonia and have tremendous credibility in the villages.
They have become role models that people can look up to. Some of the
indicators of positive change include the fact that many villagers are
no longer marrying off their daughters at a young age – child
marriage is a big problem here; they are seeing to it that the children
receive sufficient education; and they are making sure that they don’t
have highly expensive weddings; etc. This change in attitude has to
come from the people themselves.
Vicky Rossi: As you know, immediately prior to coming here to the
Barefoot College, I took part on the Gandhi Legacy Tour (1), led by
Arun Gandhi (2), during which we visited various sites related to
Mahatma Gandhi as well as organizations that are running their projects
in accordance with Gandhian principles. It seems to me that the Barefoot
College is very similar in that respect. There is also this emphasis
here on the importance of the villages, which is a concept that Gandhi
very much emphasized. I was wondering if it is a conscious decision
to integrate Gandhian principles in the running of the Barefoot College.
Vasu: When the organisation was founded, the Barefoot College here in
Tilonia felt that it could implement many of the things which Gandhiji
(3) said because they are very simple. You don’t have to call
yourself Gandhian, just be the change that you want to see in the
world as he always said. As long as you are trying out what he
said, trying to put into practise what he said, that’s what’s
important. Gandhiji talked about rainwater harvesting 110 years ago
in his Tolstoy Farm in Durban. If the Barefoot College is doing that,
we are only trying to emphasize what he was saying. At the same time
we do not call ourselves Gandhians because we do not have to. What is
more important to us is to implement his ideas, which are so simple
and so low cost. We don’t mind if we are called Gandhians, but
for us it is a way of life – that’s what’s important.
Vicky Rossi: In the talk you gave earlier today, you mentioned that
many of the conflicts around the world are the result of greed over
natural resources, for example you mentioned diamonds in Africa and
oil in other countries. Would you say, therefore, that the Barefoot
College is promoting peace in the sense that it is sharing know-how
in solar technology, which in turn provides independence from other
energy resources that are often points of conflict? Do you see the
Barefoot College as promoting peace and not just sustainability?
Vasu: The day we started living as a community, we created a code of
ethics which includes 3 important points:
- firstly, the moment any volunteer uses
force with another person, he/she is out of the community;
- secondly, in all our initiatives we
will see to it that the laws of the land are followed – we will
not take the law of the land into our own hands, however, we will
use that law to the benefit of the poor, who have been oppressed;
- thirdly, the women’s groups here
have been working to reduce violence in the homes – violence
Through this code of ethics, we actively
check to see if we are practising nonviolence in our own lives. When
you are living in a society which practises violence, but you yourself
are trying to implement nonviolence it certainly has a rub-on effect.
It rubs on to the children and has an effect on so many other things
Our own “non-negotiables”,
which we don’t compromise on, have instilled in us a faith in
sorting out problems without using violence.
*This transcript represents an
accurate but non-verbatim representation of the original interview.
I would like to thank all those who made my trip to India possible through
their moral and financial support.
For further information, please contact:
S. Srinivasan (Vasu)
The Barefoot College
Village Tilonia, via Madanganj,
Tel: +91 (0)1463- 288206
FAX +91 (0)1463-288208
Exchange, Gandhi Legacy Tour
2. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence
3. “Gandhiji” is a term of respect and endearment for Mahatma
Poverty in India”, BBC News, 27 December 2001
Global Rain Water Harvesting Collective,
UN Partnerships for Sustainable Development
College award will train village women SUCCESS STORY”, peopleandplanet.net,
27 May 2003
and female but smart”, GoodNewsIndia, 21 October 2003
Practices of Non-Violent Conflict Resolution in and out of School,
UNESCO (PDF format)
parliament boosts India health”, BBC News, 26 August 2002
Sansads: Members of Parliament at 11”, by Lalitha Sridhar,
InfoChange India, May 2004
win two of the four ‘Green Oscars’”, rediff.com
,19 June 2003
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