By Prashansa Khandelwal
Can you imagine a college without walls, professors, or classrooms?
Sanjit Bunker Roy did.
Tilonia is a small village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. On the face of it, it looks like any other village in India but what sets it apart is an extraordinary college that teaches rural women and men —most of them illiterate — to become solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors to serve in their own villages.
It’s called the Barefoot College.
How Did It All Start?
Sanjit attended The Doon School and then went to St. Stephan’s . After which, he decided to go to a village and dig wells for 5 years.
Why was that so? Well, in his own words –
“I went to a very elitist, snobbish, expensive education in India, and that almost destroyed me. I was all set to be a diplomat, teacher, doctor — all laid out.
And then I thought out of curiosity I’d like to go and live and work and just see what a village is like. So in 1965, I went to what was called the worst Bihar famine in India, and I saw starvation, death, and people dying of hunger, for the first time. It changed my life.”
In the coming years that he spent in the village, he was exposed to the most extraordinary knowledge and skills that very poor people have.
He wanted to bring these skills into mainstream and be recognized, respected and applied on a large scale. Hence, the idea of a barefoot college was born.
The Approach Barefoot College Follows
The college aims to reflect what the poor thought was important. It’s the only college in India where, if you have a Ph.D. or a Master’s, you are disqualified to come.
You have to be a cop-out or a wash-out or a dropout to come to this college. It provides no paper degrees that can be hung on the walls. One is certified by the community he serves.
It follows the lifestyle of Mahatma Gandhi: students eat, sleep, and work on the floor. One can stay for 20 years, or he can go home tomorrow.
What Do They Teach?
Skills – dentistry, engineering, freshwater technology, handicraft, music, photography, graphics and the list is unending.
Who Do They Teach?
The college was set in motion by teaching rural women, grandmothers , to be precise. Why?
According to Bunkar, men are untrainable. They are ambitious, men are compulsively mobile, and they all want a certificate. All across the globe, you have this tendency of men wanting a certificate.
They want to leave the village and go to a city, looking for a job. So they came up with a great solution: train grandmothers.
The dentist in Tilonia was an illiterate grandmother who looked after the teeth of 7000 children.
Every five years they have an election. Between 6 to 14 year-old children participate in a democratic process, and they elect a prime minister.
The prime minister is 12 years old. She looks after 20 goats in the morning, but she’s prime minister in the evening. She has a cabinet, a minister of education, a minister for energy, a minister for health. They actually monitor and supervise 150 schools for 7,000 children.
Children are taught democracy, citizenship, how you should measure your land, what you should do if you’re arrested!
Barefoot College Is Not Just An Institution Now, It’s An Idea
Barefoot has spread its root to all of the Least Developed Countries-Burkina Faso, Liberia, Senegal, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Zanzibar etc.
With over 260 Barefoot doctors trained and over 500 Craft professionals employed, there is no better live example of a solution to endless modern world problems.
Well applauded “barefoot solutions” are solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development
It is ideas like these that are our ray of hope in a world where literally everything is going wrong or people are too busy trying to know the bad that barefoot college never makes the headlines.