“Barefoot College” Empowers the Rural Poor

rainwater harvesting system
Building a rooftop rainwater harvesting system.
Photo courtesy of Bunker Roy

Since 1972, the “Barefoot College” in Rajasthan, India, has been a technical resource for the “washouts, copouts, and dropouts” of rural villages around the world, as founder Bunker Roy put it in a May 2006 article in Fast Company. The alternative learning institution was established to demonstrate that solutions to rural poverty lie within the community and do not have to come from urban professionals from the outside. Through a range of programs including training villagers in solar electrification and rainwater harvesting, the college has demonstrated that any village member can acquire the knowledge and skills to make his or her community technically and financially self-sufficient.

The college has an informal learning setting, and it awards no certificates or degrees, based in part on its philosophy that “in development there are no experts—only resource persons.” Villages from around India select under-advantaged community members—many of them women—to attend the college, where the trainees receive a small stipend to develop skills they can then take back to better their communities. “The idea is to use local wisdom before we involve expertise from outside,” Roy told the UNESCO Courier.

Two women who were once stone-crushers, and two others who were once maids, took “courses” in solar engineering at the college. They have learned to fabricate, wire, and set up solar energy systems, according to Outlook India, and have helped 124 households in nearby villages obtain solar power, while earning a better living for themselves. The college’s rooftop rainwater harvesting program, which uses local materials and skills to efficiently collect rainwater for drinking and sanitation, has led to the construction of more than 1,000 collection structures in 17 Indian states, serving over 220,000 people. And the college has set up more than 200 health centers where trained health workers can aid in emergencies and teach about health issues such as hygiene, vaccinations, and other preventative care.

The success of the college is being replicated, and its impact extends beyond India’s borders. There are now at least 20 Barefoot College field centers scattered throughout the country, and semi-literate middle-aged women have traveled from places as divergent as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Gambia, Mali, and Sierra Leone to develop the skills to solar electrify their own villages.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.