In 1965 a young post graduate student, SANJIT “BUNKER” ROY volunteered to spend the summer working with famine affected people in Palamu District Bihar, now Jharkhand, one of the poorest of India’s states. His urban elitist upbringing had distanced him from poverty and destitution. This experience changed him, and formed the determination to fight poverty and inequality. It became his mission. The idea of the SWRC (Social Works and Research Centre), Tilonia emerged from these concerns.
There was no fixed agenda.
In the late 60’s, a very small group of determined educated youth started looking for alternative ways of addressing poverty in rural India. This search for working models, approaches and strategies led some of them to live and work in villages.
The answer seemed to lie in beginning a dialogue between the specialist and the “farmer” in a relationship born of equality and respect. In 1972, Meghraj from Tilonia village and Bunker Roy a fresh graduate from Delhi University became friends and shared a dream grafting formal urban knowledge on rural wisdom to create a world without want. Anil Bordia the then collector of Ajmer helped lease an abandoned Tuberculosis Sanatorium premises from the Government at Re.1 a month, in Tilonia.
In the beginning the “professionals” were geologists, economists, doctors, social workers, chartered accountants, graduates and post graduates who came to share this dream with concerned villagers. While questioning the system’s sluggish delivery of promised basic services, assumptions of technological competence in development programs were also challenged. For instance, did you need an engineer to repair a hand pump? Cannot midwives be trained to literally deliver better?! Could not the rich traditional folk arts and music be used for development communication? Instead of training women for leadership, could we not identify strong leaders to facilitate their learning about legal and other constitutional rights? Empowering them to question social oppression, the most difficult to confront in any society?
The early 80’s saw a substantial shift in the backgrounds of workers in SWRC. The rural illiterate youth were now the dominant actors, planning, taking charge of activities and initiating ideas. They replaced the urban middle class, transient professional. Gradually, the SWRC became the ‘Barefoot College’.
The term ‘Barefoot’ originated in China and its village health workers. The phrase describes the SWRC ‘s concept of an organisation committed to the poor, neglected and marginalized sections of society. Tilonia’s first ‘Barefoot professionals’ were health workers. Then emerged a community of ‘Barefoot teachers’. The Barefoot concept was further strengthened with the rural craft section, supplementing the income of crafts persons and migrant workers, to sell in contemporary markets. All these were a part of the barefoot solutions in the initial years.
Broad based legal education and peoples’ mobilization, led to protests against injustice. Whether it was land rights for dalits, claiming minimum wages on public works, mobilising against reprehensible social traditions like sati, public protest against rape, and caste discrimination, the SWRC played a role.
The management of the SWRC, and later Barefoot College, has been participatory. We designed a participatory decision making process to implement the Barefoot College’s six non-negotiable values – 1. Austerity 2. Equality 3. Collective Decision-Making 4. Decentralization 5. Self-Evaluation 6. Transparency and Accountability.