x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Gandhian college that brings solar light to the world

Far from India's central bureaucracy, Barefoot College is built on ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainable development and is turning semi-literate African women into solar engineers. Eric Randolph, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

Barefoot College women with their solar cookers. The lady in red is Norti Devi, who has been building the cookers for six years.
Barefoot College women with their solar cookers. The lady in red is Norti Devi, who has been building the cookers for six years.

Far from India's central bureaucracy, a college built on ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainable development is turning semi-literate African women into solar engineers, and bringing light to communities around the world. Eric Randolph, Foreign Correspondent, reports

TILONIA, INDIA // It's not a sight you would normally expect in a remote Indian village, deep in the Rajasthani plains.

But walk in from the quiet, sun-blasted courtyard among old colonial buildings in Tilonia and you discover yourself among 30 African women working away at electrical circuits and soldering wires into solar panels.

These are the latest students learning to be solar technicians with the Barefoot College, a landmark charity built around Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and sustainable development. The women in this workshop have come from South Sudan, Liberia and Malawi, learning to install solar lighting in their homes with skills they can pass on to their neighbours.

"When I first came here, I didn't even know the name of these materials," said Asumta Achan, 35, a mother of two from a village in South Sudan. "Now I have many skills I never thought I would learn, and I can bring electricity to my village, which we have never had."

Since the programme began in 2004, there have been more than 250 graduates from 28 countries, including Peru, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Barefoot pays for their transportation and stay.

The programme has proved such a success that the government of Sierra Leone recently agreed to set up its own version of the college, with 12 women who trained in Rajasthan leading the way.

"These women come from very simple backgrounds, but when they return, they will be leaders in their community," said Bata Bhurji, one of Barefoot College's full-time staff.

Around the corner, women from the surrounding Rajasthani villages were demonstrating their own skills, building large solar-powered cookers.

The disc-shaped mirrors reflect sunlight down towards a small stove, concentrating enough heat to set paper alight in only a few seconds, while a clockwork mechanism rotates the device to keep it automatically in line with the sun.

"In summer, a village can save up to 10 gas cylinders every month by using one of these," said Norti Devi, a 40-year-old from Kakalwadi village.

In a bright red sari, she hardly looks like a master welder and machine-tool operative. But after six years on the job, her years of raising children and herding goats are long behind her.

"I love this work. I never thought I would find myself doing this kind of job," she said.

The solar programme is what brings the most attention to Barefoot College.

There is something captivating about the contrast between traditional village life and state-of-the-art technology, as participants learn to put the pre-made panels and circuit boards and lamps together.

Since being founded in 1972 by Sanjit "Bunker" Roy, a well-known activist, the college has done much more than provide electricity. It has taught an estimated 15,000 rural people to be everything from water safety inspectors to dentists.

From the library to the puppet room - used to teach about government schemes - the college seems to have endless aspects.

One workshop has local women making wooden toys and candles for sale in the college's craft shop, while the next has three Bhutanese nuns learning to recycle paper.

Anyone who raises the question of caste - India's strict system of social hierarchy - is not allowed through the gates.

Down in the basement of the main campus, in a room lined with empty egg cartons, a 62-year-old woman, Ratan Devi, is running the community radio station.

"We try to preserve the traditional Rajasthani folk songs, which are disappearing due to all the Bollywood songs on normal stations," said the DJ, who has an audience of about 40,000 in the station's 15-kilometre range.

In the evening, the college runs night classes for children who have to work in the fields during the day.

About 50 children scamper eagerly into the classroom as darkness falls to learn Hindi and basic maths.

All of them said it was their favourite time of day.

"We don't try to fight the government," said Ms Bhurji. "If they introduce a scheme that overlaps with ours, we withdraw our work and monitor what the government is doing, and educate people about how to use it."

The focus on achieving tangible results is in stark contrast to the distant, centrally controlled bureaucracy and its often slothful representatives on the ground.

"We help communities apply for money for projects, but only if they can prove it is something they need, rather than a way of getting some short-term money," said Ram Karan, a full-time staff member who joined the college in 1975 when he was only 14.

Every member of the village has to be involved in the physical work, just as new staff members of the college have to clean toilets and make food, regardless of their position.

It is all in keeping with the lessons taught by Gandhi as he tried to demonstrate how Indian villages could be transformed into models of cooperation and self-sufficiency - ideas often lost amid the rapid urbanisation and commercialisation of modern India.

"We always ask three questions: Who is the project for? Who will build it? Who will benefit?" Mr Karan said.

"The answer must always be 'the community' or it is not worth doing."

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