“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
At Barefoot College/SWRC, the dialogue between rural and urban India allows for many points of creative tension. Urban India questioned child marriage, women in purdah, expenditure on funeral feasts and indebtedness amongst many other issues. Rural India reacted with questions about dowry, consumption patterns, unequal access to education and health, caste and gender. Disparities between the rich and the poor were part of the ongoing debate. Some of these conversations ignited a desire to take action and promoted social change. The Barefoot College/SWRC members, both rural and urban, have been catalysts of positive change and have worked toward building a more equal social milieu. The Barefoot College/SWRC has fought several social inequities, including caste discrimination, gender bias, illiteracy and feudal practices.
- Activism began with mobilising rural communities around the issues of health and water. There were innumerable battles with the ruling elite and their entrenched vested interests and hierarchical beliefs. Every new concept meant a struggle. It took a sense of equality and a willingness to listen and change on both sides. It required patience.
- The establishment of crafts as part of the development design was another seminal contribution of Barefoot College/SWRC. In 1975, the first craft bazaar was held, when few craft workers from the villages went to urban centres. It spawned a whole series of such efforts like Craft Fairs, Dastakar and many others.
- The concept of hand pump usage should have been a widely acceptable technological advance. Yet training a Barefoot hand pump mistri became a controversy within the engineering establishment. They challenged the competence of a Barefoot technologist. The location of the hand pumps in lower untouchable caste areas also angered the upper castes. For several years, solely due to their caste and rural location, workers were threatened and attacked. Finally, however, the Dalit hand pump mistri has come to stay.
- “My first acquaintance with the Barefoot College/SWRC began when hand pumps were installed in my village. They chose our area – a Dalit locality – despite the hostility from the upper caste villagers. It was not easy for us Dalits, we could not use any common water source because of ‘untouchability’. I still remember the misery when I could not sit with other children, nor touch the water pot. Curiosity about this egalitarian group which installed the hand pump made me cycle to Tilonia. I was elated by the equality and the lack of discrimination. I joined the Barefoot College/SWRC in 1987 and still work here. I have worked as an accountant, a communicator, as an organiser. I have travelled to carry its message to others. The Barefoot College is working for people like me. It has helped us get dignity.” – Ramniwas Testimonial
- Legal education led to an awareness of minimum wages, a prescribed legal wage for a day’s work. Naurti, now the Sarpanch (elected head of the village council) of Harmara, led a strike in 1980 when labourers working on a government work site refused to take less than their due. This struggle was the basis of a Public Interest litigation filed by SWRC in the apex court, the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court’s judgment delivered in the PIL Sanjit (Bunker) Roy Vs The State of Rajasthan (1983) made history. It has since been a reference point for any struggle for minimum wages for unskilled workers in India.
- Women’s empowerment and rights was a major and long standing concern. The first Mahila Mela (women’s gathering) that took place in 1985 drew 1,000 rural barefoot women from 14 different language groups in India. The Mela ended with women taking to the streets in the very first protest against rape and gender-based violence in Rajasthan. The Women’s Mela on the 8th of March, has become an important annual event. In 1987, women broke more barriers by rallying together and joining the women’s campaign in Rajasthan against the revival of traditional feudal practices, particularly Sati (bride immolation). They were also an integral part of the campaign against the gang rape of Bhanwri Devi, a historic case against violence on women, in India.
- The Barefoot College/SWRC women’s groups formed the Rajasthan Mazdoor Kisan Morcha to fight for their rights. This organization participated in the MKSS Campaigns for the right to information and work. They are members of the National Campaign for the Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Akaal Sangharsh Samiti in Rajasthan.
- The Barefoot College/SWRC’s special contribution to the Right to Information Campaign was the famous “Transparency Mela” they organised in 1997, in answer to false allegations made by the former government of Rajasthan. It set standards for the accountability of funded NGOs in India.