Barefoot College – A back to basics journey

A lot has been written about Barefoot College, Tilonia across various fora on the internet but today I will be sharing the experience and learnings from my recent visit to their campus which was an eye opener. I learnt from the inmates that one can literally reach out to the stars with their feet on the ground and it left me awestruck.

I had read about the college prior to my visit and was expecting to meet few happy villagers who lived a self-sustained life, but little did I know that I will return with emotions so profound, that it would compel me to pause and ask myself some questions…

Is formal education so important in life?

Should we complain about every small thing?

Should we stop trying after few setbacks?

I started my journey from Delhi by a double decker train (something I had not done before) and after 4.5 hours of travel, reached Jaipur where I spent the night. Next morning at 7.30am, I met my co-travellers at a tea shop near Ganpati Plaza. The inspirational journey commenced right from Gulab ji Chai wala, where we met this amazing gentleman, aged 90. He had started this tea stall 70 years back and it was his sheer passion that even at this age, he was sitting there, dressed in a crisp white dhoti and kurta, greeting people. More than the tea, it was my few minutes spent with Gulab ji, that left me super charged.

Gulabji Chaiwala in Jaipur with the 90 year old owner

The 3.5 hours of drive took us through tracts of semi-arid land with hillocks on both sides, occasionally passing flocks of sheep and groups of women in brightly coloured sarees, till we reached the campus of Barefoot college, located in Tilonia , a small village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.

Barefoot college founded by Sanjit Roy (aka Bunker Roy) in 1972, is India’s first and only college built by and for the rural poor working in the fields of education, skill development, health, drinking water, women empowerment and electrification through solar power. The college imparts basic skills to the villagers, skills which help them take control of their lives and requirements without having to depend on outsiders. Strangely this college imparts training but no formal degrees or certificates.

We were welcomed by the administration and given a brief about Rajasthan’s traditional art of puppetry and how this art form is still being utilized by the college to educate villagers about health, education and human rights. After we took a round of their farms, where they grew fruits, vegetable, medicinal plants and even harvested honey , we finally stepped into the Neer jal department and it was the time of the Awakening

It’s a first of its kind of web based water data and information system, at the village level which captures information on drinking water, its source, availability, quality, quantity, ways of preservation and optimum usage.

Zarina Begum in NeerJal Dept

Inside the department, we met a lady working effortlessly on the computer and on speaking to her, she introduced herself as Zarina Begum and told us about her journey since she joined Barefoot College in 2003.She was educated only till the 5th standard,started work at the accounts department and was later shifted to Neer Jal department. It was here when she learnt English for the first time on the computer keyword and today she proficiently works on Tally and Excel. A true example how self-dependence boosts self-confidence.


Bhanwari Devi at the Dental dept

Although we geared ourselves for more surprises, but were bowled over again at the next stop. This time at the dental unit, where we met the granny dentist Bhanwari Devi, clad in a bright yellow sari with pallu on her head. Flashing a smile at us, she narrated her story about how, why and when she joined Barefoot, her experiences, and her training under the supervision of an Italian doctor. Once an illiterate, she joined the training at Barefoot in 2009 and today she can fill in cavities, clean plaque, extract rotting teeth and repair broken ones. Till date, she has successfully conducted 1400 tooth extractions.I asked her if she was ever scared of committing mistakes and her response was “I never doubted by competence and was neither scared. You tend to falter the moment you have self-doubt. I was always ready for the challenges.”  A big life lesson ….Never have self-doubt!

We moved ahead visiting the OPD and laboratory and came upon the sanitary napkin mini factory. The unit was run by both men and women and they had absolutely no qualms discussing this topic, which is still considered a taboo topic in the cities. They explained how the napkins were made from paper that came from Coimbatore and packed hygienically under the brand name of “Sathan”. These women went to the villages and educated both women and men on the importance of sanitary napkins and distributed them packets at subsidized rates. Although the manufacturing cost was Rs.10/- per piece , yet they sold a pack of 6 for Rs.10/- so that women were encouraged towards sanitation and hygiene and more girls could attend schools during their periods.

Sanitary napkin manufacturing unit

Amazed?? We were definitely awestruck at the ease in which they were speaking to us (a group of boys & girls) on this topic when we have our Hindi Film industry censor board, clipping off scenes of movies where there was mention about menstrual cycle.

By now, we had got conditioned to the shocks and then we are led to their Barefoot community radio station.

Their own Radio Station!!!??

RJ Gita at radio station 90.4MHz

Set up in 2009, Radio Tilonia( 90.4 MHz)  reaches out to 40,000-60,000 people daily. They discuss about various government programme, socio-economic issues like caste, gender, labor and community issues like sanitation, water, waste  interspersed with the entertainment of music and skits .We met RJ Gita, who handled all the software related issues in the center. She had gone to school for a year or two and now she is trained to handle a radio station. She said, “Nothing is difficult, if you have the passion for learning.”

Towards the end, we are told about the solar engineers at Barefoot. They were mostly illiterate women, who were trained to assemble, install and maintain solar panels. How did they get trained for this complex job? The answer to this is “dedication”, learning the permutation combinations of the wires through color coded charts and after undergoing this training of 6 months, they are skilled to light up their villages. Solar energy offers them immediate health, education and economic benefits, removes the use of the toxic fuel kerosene and allows children to study in the evenings too.

We ended our visit after seeing every part of the campus and were left speechless. In real terms, the community was self-sustained and all this was a combined effort of Bunker Roy backed by the passion, grit and determination of the villagers. These are the people who should be the role models for so called “educated class” like us who complain about every small thing and claim all our misfortune as results of anything and anyone other than ourselves.

The secret of the magic that these villagers have created seems to have come from SELF …. Self-Realization, Self-Confidence, Self-Motivation and Self-Dependence.

“Believe you can and you are half way there” – T.Roosevelt