October 2007

Campus with no gates

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On the road

On the day of Gandhi Jayanti, 2nd October 2007, which incidentally was the day for local Gujjar community's movement giving mass arrest, we made our visit to Barefoot College, Tilonia, a village in one of India's largest, driest and poorest states, Rajasthan. Since the inception of this unique College in 1972, and due to their concerted efforts, over 125,000 people in 110 villages have access to safe drinking water, education, health, electricity and employment. Calling itself a mobiliser, its a place where no paper degrees or certificates are provided, but real solutions are taught. Founded by Sanjit Bunker Roy a former civil servant and managed by S. Srinivasan along with a brigade of around 250 full time volunteers, about 450 part time volunteers, and  nearly 7000 honorary members, the campus remains not just restricted to an area of 80,000 square feet. Rural youth once regarded as 'unemployable' install and maintain solar electricity systems, hand pumps and tanks for drinking water.

We boarded a bus from Delhi, and as we alighted at Kishangarh, from where we started our journey towards Tilonia village, all was looking very familiar. As we have our typical Indian villages, an apology for a road,  which was metallic for half the way, and rest was a dusty and unmade affair. We reached our destination 'Barefoot College, Tilonia' while making several other observations on our way. We found children attending school, people in  their fields,  grazing cattle, on the hand pumps, couple of PCOs, a post office, a bank, and also worth mentioning is a wine shop (which was closed that day). We actually found nothing very special/outstanding about this typical Indian village side, but the moment of truth had yet to come.

Through the open gates

Srinivasan alias Vasu welcomed us and put us up at the near-by guest house. On reaching our guest house we could not hold ourself and were anxious to see all we had heard or browsed over the net  during our home work for the visit. We were excited so were our hosts Rup Singh and Mohan took us to toys section at the old campus (the place from where the movement took off). There the training is imparted on how to make toys and furniture as well. It is a residential training programme for one year. During the training a minimum wage of INR 73/day is given to all. The young boys/girls who are from poor families or are physically challenged are generally selected for the training. On asking about what these children do after completing one year training, we were told that the organisation also facilitates bank loans for the willing candidates to start their own enterprise. And if required,  further hand holding for 2-3 months is also done till the candidate gets enough confidence. Some of the trainees have engaged few others from their village into their venture and thereby providing employment to them. On an average 2-3 trainees out of a batch of 5-6 trainees continued working in toy making after going back to their places and rest returned back to their earlier business.

Successful failures are the success of Barefoot College. Chaain Sukh who is working for more than ten years and now imparts toy making training to children,   showed us one of his successful failures. We were moved to see that a man with no awarenes of aerodynamics wanted to make a  functional toy helicopter and which could take off using a battery driven motor. The first attempt failed, as he admitted with a smiling face, but was hopeful about the next time, as he will be using a lighter wood material to make the body of the helicopter. We could hear a train passing by at a distance from the college as we moved to visit next unit- the Solar Engineers Section. We met Chheigne Bai, an 8th class pass out and one of the instructors there, who had imparted training to people from countries like Ethiopia, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Mali, Bhutan, Zambia, Cameroon, etc. Chheigne Bai finds it very interested to meet and train people who speak different languages.

It is not limited only to the training, but the night lamps, lanterns, and charge controller which are assembled here and are exported to various destinations across the globe. In 2003, a sale of around INR 50 million was achieved, because of the fifty percent subsidy given by the Government of India. Since now the subsidy has been withdrawn it is really beyond the reach of the common man to buy such solar lighting units, which costs INR 12,000 for an 18 W lantern and the cost of  a 74W unit is INR 28,500. The average life of the system is around 20-25 years. Making a long term cost benefit analysis, the investment can efficiently light up areas with no electricity ever, but the initial investment calls for some kind of subsidy from the government side to make the solar electricity work to its fullest.

The training process starts with understanding of simpler circuits and assembling large components onto the plate and finally the resistances are taught to be placed on the resistance board. A colour sheet is prepared for all the ten colours, which are used in resistances, in the languages of the trainer and the trainee to overcome the barrier of language in the training process.

The six month's training empowers these people in such a way that when they return to their places they can bring light to areas with no transformers, no power grids, and no electric poles in the vicinity. Some of the people who were attending this training told that the road was at a distance of twelve hours on foot from their villages. If these solar lights could reach such villages and these solar engineers can take care of routine maintenance it will be a self sustaining lighting solution for them. The Barefoot College which is completely solar-electrified is a successful model to learn from. By scaling up this model the world can be a much cleaner and brighter place running on the solar energy, as the Barefoot College campus does. The only thing which needs to be taken care of is the initial cost of the solar unit. If state or the central Government can provide, some kind of subsidy or financial assistance, the wish of rural electrification of the remotest of the places is possible as proposed by the Government of India.

Bhutanese girls training to be solar engineers

We were excited to see a team of young women from Bhutan who were being trained at the Solar Engineers unit. All these 24 women were from the remotest and inaccessible villages from Bhutan. We could interact with Sherab Dema, an 18 year old girl from Dologang, a remote village in Bhutan, who hails from a farming family. Her family has to live on her father's total annual income.  She says, there is no electricity and road connectivity to her village and they have to walk one complete day to reach the nearest town. From her village she was the one who was nominated by the headman for this training.

From her training for the past one month, she has learned to make a transformer, to assemble the circuit board of lantern lamp, and has also learned names of all the tools and how to use the voltmeter. She also gets INR 1200 as a stipend which she saves for her future. “We are thankful to Governments of India and Bhutan and Barefoot College for taking such initiative. It is a very useful programme. We will work hard and hope to take back to our villages what we learn here,” said this 9th class drop-out girl. She was very happy with the people of the village and very importantly about the non-examination system of the training.

On completion of their training, these women will be provided with solar units and equipment to establish rural electric workshops, where repair and maintenance will be carried out. These Barefoot Solar Engineers will be paid by each community to maintain the solar units. Nearly 500 families in 28 villages will be solar-electrified by March 2008 when the Barefoot Solar Engineers return to their communities to install and maintain the solar power systems. After this we reached the Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineer Society, an organisation which is doing a wonderful job of tapping the Sun's heat for cooking purposes. The organisation is engaged in the manufacturing of parabolic solar cooker and also imparts training to women on manufacturing the solar cookers.

Shama, who is engaged in the activity since 2003 has little elementary education, who, as some of the other women  have never attended any school. Shama and some others were trained by a gentleman from Germany. They are now disseminating this small but powerful idea further, in which a simple mechanical clock keeps the Sun always into the focus. We were told that a deaf and dumb woman named Sanju Devi was also learning to manufacture the solar cooker. Initially, we had some doubts about the effectiveness of such a cooker, but it was revealed later on that the food in the mess is being cooked using the same cooker. Though according to our planned programme we could not have the privilege to have our dinner cooked in the solar cooker, which is used in the mess, as we had to visit the night school in Panna village and a field centre of Barefoot College at Chota Narena.

Treading onto the information highway

Before leaving to the site we made a quick visit to the Craft Shop. The place is quite famous for its handicraft work and the artifacts are exported all over the world. The college assists local artisans in making their products in India and around the world. Besides the traditional marketing modes of attending fares and exhibitions it was very interesting to know the role of Internet in reaching out the international market. The customer sitting in US or any other part of the world can just browse the website to see the design and make his choice to place the order. One can even send his/her own designs and get the article of his choice.

Friends of Tilonia, Inc. a US-based non-profit organisation is providing marketing and business development assistance to the local crafts and works using the power of Internet. Friends of Tilonia has developed the online craftstore, www.tilonia.com, and is participating on behalf of the Barefoot college at selected US trade shows. The order, which has to accompany half of the payment, is executed on receiving the confirmation from the Union Bank of India, which is in the same village. The organisation realises the importance of digital age and is coping fast with it. “We don't want to be left out on the technology highway” says Vasu and it was evident that the organisation is already on its journey. With the new markets for traditional crafts, the livelihoods of the rural artisan is improved, and the production of the traditional craft is continued.

The whole campus is connected well with intercom facility and has an 'Internet Dhaba' within the campus. We were told that all the accounting work is done and maintained on computers. The organisation has lot of documentaries, short films, CD library, educational and environmental films, which are shown to the community regularly. Geeta, a fourth class pass out who learnt computer operations from Noorti Bai, is now in-charge of the CD library section. Before coming to this place she was a labourer and now we were able to see the confidence, which comes from learning, reflecting on her face. All the Barefoot College's work is very well documented with the help of their video graphers Mohan and Bata Bhurij.

Also the entire communications of barefoot college are being digitalised. This is done to ensure that the communications survive the test of time and are not destroyed by manhandling and other threats. Barefoot College has also applied for a community radio station license, which will most likely be operationalised by next year.

It was time to leave

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