Tell me and I”ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I”ll understand
– old Chinese proverb.
It is this ideal that the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), better known as Barefoot College stands for.
Situated in a scenic landscape surrounded by the Aravalli Hills, in Tilonia village of Ajmer district, about 95 km from Jaipur, this is a college grounded in grassroots” development.
It was begun in 1972 by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, a former national squash champion, who even participated in a couple of world squash championships too. But in the autumn of 1966, he and some of his friends from St. Stephen”s College, Delhi happened to volunteer to carry out relief work among the victims of the Bihar famine.
They raised funds and distributed foodstuff. The experience proved a turning point in Roy”s life; at a time when the acronym NGO had yet to be coined, he decided to devote himself to social work.
With very few resources and no long term ideas, Roy and his friends chose to start a process of re-learning in different rural parts of the country by living in remote villages with the people. There was no fixed agenda.
The term “barefoot” was originally used in the context of “barefoot doctor”, to describe Chinese village residents who were trained to handle the basic health needs of fellow-villagers during the 1960s.
In the case of Tilonia, the term “barefoot college” emphasises the organisation”s commitment to the poor and marginalized sections.
The college – which runs entirely on solar power – trains rural women to work as day and night school teachers, doctors, midwives, dentists, health workers, solar engineers, solar cooker makers, computer instructors, accountants and kabaad-se-jugaad (innovation from waste) professionals.
The women also make handicraft items, some of which are even exported. In 2010/2011, total sales including exports amounted to Rs 78.40 lakh.
Is the model sustainable?
Meagan Carnahan Fallone, who hails from Switzerland, the only non- Indian working in the organization, says: “There is a succession plan in place. We have a 10 member committee which heads the organization even in the absence of Bunker (Roy).”
But a problem which may arise in the future is funding. At present, 40 per cent of funding comes from the Indian Government, 40 percent comes from international donors and 20 per cent comes from its own income by the sale of products made by the rural women like solar cookers, handicrafts, sanitary napkins etc.
This 20 per cent has to go up if the college has to stand on its own. The social transition Tilonia has undergone in the last four decades is likely to make this possible.
Tilonia”s Barefoot College has also silenced critics by the way it has scaled up. Its very existence has encouraged scores of similar other movements across the world and in India. The Society for Activating, Motivating, and Promoting Development Alternatives (SAMPDA) was formed in 1993 by the coming together of 23 similar organisations spread across 14 states.
These initiatives were started by people who were initially trained in Barefoot College and went back to their states to start their own projects.
The college has trained more than three million rural women from different parts of the world. Women from Sub Saharan African countries like Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya and South American nations like Chile and Peru who were trained here to replicate the model back home will vouch for that.