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Vicky Rossi 2007
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Interview with S. Srinivasan
- "Vasu" - of Barefoot College


Vicky Rossi
TFF Associate and Board member

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February 16, 2007

Interview with S. Srinivasan, Facilitator, Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, India. Interviewed in Tilonia inJanuary 2007

The Barefoot 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.

In addition 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.

Barefoot 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 with?

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.

"Vasu" 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 the organisation.

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.


Solar 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 systems.

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 here?

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 educational process.

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 so on?

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.


The Children's Parliament 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.

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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 against women.

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 too.

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,
District Ajmer
Rajasthan 305816,
Tel: +91 (0)1463- 288206
FAX +91 (0)1463-288208


1. Global Exchange, Gandhi Legacy Tour

2. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence

3. “Gandhiji” is a term of respect and endearment for Mahatma Gandhi.


Fighting Poverty in India”, BBC News, 27 December 2001

The Global Rain Water Harvesting Collective,
UN Partnerships for Sustainable Development

Barefoot College award will train village women SUCCESS STORY”,, 27 May 2003

“Poor and female but smart”, GoodNewsIndia, 21 October 2003

Best Practices of Non-Violent Conflict Resolution in and out of School, UNESCO (PDF format)

Children’s parliament boosts India health”, BBC News, 26 August 2002

Bal Sansads: Members of Parliament at 11”, by Lalitha Sridhar, InfoChange India, May 2004

Agfund Prize 2001

Indians win two of the four ‘Green Oscars’”, ,19 June 2003

Tyler Prize 2001



Copyright © TFF & Rossi 2007


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