By Harshmeet Singh
Meet 37 year old Naina Devi, a resident of Rajasthan’s small dusty village Tilonia, she has trained over 50 women solar engineers from 11 LDCs (Least Developed Countries) till now. She doesn’t speak the same language as her students and most of them are much elder to her. With no formal education to boast of, Naina Devi handles integrated circuits, capacitors and soldering machine with as much ease as she handles chapattis at home!
And Naina Devi is not alone. Situated at a distance of about 50 km from Ajmer railway station, Tilonia is home to trained women dentists, women artisans, women electricians, night schools, children parliament, a water harvesting system, a community FM station and much more. Tilonia is unique is more ways than one, and yet, it remains far away from the public eye and publicity that it so dearly deserves. Tilonia represents the true spirit of India; the spirit that says that the solutions to our rural problems lie within us. This unprecedented change in Tilonia has been made possible by Barefoot College.
Established in 1972 by Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, Barefoot College is a non-governmental organization that has been working for the women of Least Developed Countries by training them in the fields of solar electrification, education, livelihood development, water conservation and many more. The college, established in Tilonia, Rajasthan, runs on the principles and ethics of Mahatma Gandhi.
Covering over 8 acres of land in Tilonia, the Barefoot college identifies women from the most neglected sections of the society and trains them in dentistry, solar engineering, crafts, mechanics and even RJing! The pupils, most of them mothers and grandmothers, come from some of the most under developed and far flung nations in the world. Many of them, in their 50s and 60s, had never seen electricity in their life before coming to Tilonia.
This unique college doesn’t offer any degree to its students. The reason, according to them, is that the students leave their villages after getting a degree and start looking for lavish jobs. The entire objective of the project is for the students to stay in their village and pass on the benefits to the fellow villagers. The ‘learning by doing’ process followed by the college ensures that the students get a hang on things and are prepared to face all the possible issues within their craft.
The entire program is free for the students, thanks for the funding raised from a number of donors such as the Indian Government and some international agencies. All the local women working in different departments such as solar engineering, mechanical workshops, crafts and dentistry are paid the same wages which is equal to the minimum wage amount set by the law in India. Believe it or not, the entire college runs on solar power! Additionally, close to 100 million litres of fresh water has been harvested in the college since 1991!
Further support after training
Once the participants complete their training and move back to their home towns, the Barefoot College invests $50,000 in their villages for the installation of solar equipment. Each household in the village is expected to contribute towards the maintenance of solar installations with an equal amount as their earlier expenditure on kerosene and wax candles. The solar engineer is responsible for all the repairing and fixing of the solar installations and is paid a monthly salary from the amount contributed by the households in the village. The solar electrification program of Barefoot College has brought lights to more than 45,000 households from some of the some neglected places in the world.
Life at Tilonia
Tilonia is currently home to a number of night schools where working children can attend classes after their day’s work. The teachers, again, are the local villagers.
Strengthening the democratic values in the society has always been one of the major objectives of Barefoot College. This has led to the establishment of a Student Parliament inside Tilonia. The Parliament elects its own council of ministers, which is headed by the Prime Minister. The council undertakes surprise inspections at all the schools in the village and brings to the notice of College authorities, any anomalies that they find. Such instances of inculcating accountability in the kids are seldom seen in the country.
The college also has a fully operational Radio Station which is operated by one of the trained women. Used to propagate important messages and news, this Radio Station is one of the most significant landmarks in the village. But entertainment in Tilonia doesn’t end here! The College also houses a dedicated Puppet room which is armed by professional puppeteers who organize frequent shows in the village to keep the villagers updated about the current social issues.
There is so much more to Tilonia than what meets the eye. A model village, an inspiration, a true realization of Mahatma Gandhi’s dreams, women empowerment, and welfare of the world are just some of the many descriptions that fit aptly on Barefoot College.