The Leadership Review Team

Bunker Roy: The Barefoot Leader

The Leadership Review Team

Bunker Roy

The story of Bunker Roy finds resonance in the stories of many great leaders of the past. A young man from a prosperous background encounters melancholy for the first time, and sets out into the real world to make it better – a template set by no less than Buddha himself. The labours of his journey only made him stronger, and today his work is positively impacting the villages of 13 Indian states and 69 Least Developed Countries (LDC) in the world. Recognised by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people, Roy has been a staunch advocate of self-sustaining villages; an idea that has the potential to transform the world.

The Awakening

In 1965-67, barely two decades after India’s independence, Bihar was hit by one of the worst famines. According to a research paper by Paul R Brass in the Journal of Asian Studies (February 1986), 36 per cent of the state was undergoing famine, and 30 per cent of it was suffering from scarcity of basic amenities. Jaiprakash Narayan, who was the chairman of the Bihar Relief Committee, had appealed to the world and rest of India to help in whatever way possible. Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, then a young student, was among the volunteers who landed up in Bihar in response to Narayan’s call.

 Born in an influential but not rich family in West Bengal, Roy had aspired to become a diplomat, a doctor or a teacher after completing college. He had quite an illustrious education. He studied at the elite Doon School and completed his graduation from the prestigious St.Stephen’s College in Delhi. In his words, “I went to a snobbish, elitist, expensive school and college.” For a young person from such a background, the experience in Bihar was like a shock. The plight of the famine-hit victims and the people dying of starvation struck him and that, as he says, “… changed my life.”

After he came back from Bihar, Roy left college in 1967. He returned home and confided to his mother that instead of taking up a highly paying secure job, he wanted to work in a village. When asked what kind of work he expected to find in a village, he announced, “I want to dig wells as an unskilled labourer for five years.” His family was heartbroken and felt let down. Going against their wishes, he left home for Rajasthan. He recalls, “On November 1, I decided to leave the world I knew to live and work in the villages of Rajasthan. I changed from a three-piece suit with tie and blazer to the simple kurta-pyjamas worn in villages. I still wear it today in India and abroad.”

The Unlearning

In 1967 to 1971, Roy started working as an unskilled labourer in the villages of Rajasthan. His work was to deepen and blast open wells for water. This entailed going down in an open well, often around 100-feet deep, with the help of a mere rope, and blasting it open with explosives. Talking about his experience of those five years he says, “I lived with very poor and ordinary people under the stars and heard the simple stories they had to tell of their skills, knowledge and wisdom that books, lectures and university education can never teach you. My real education started then, when I saw the amazing people – water diviners, traditional bonesetters, midwives — at work. I had no projects, no programmes and no money to offer. I just had my enthusiasm, my hands and a quiet determination to not give up, whatever the consequences. I lived and worked with them as they did, with no promises.” It was during this period that he was inspired to start the Barefoot College.

The Barefoot Journey

In 1972, Bunker Roy founded Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), now more popularly known as the Barefoot College in Tilonia village of Rajasthan. With his friend Meghraj, a local farmer from Tilonia, he dreamt of marrying modern urban knowledge with traditional rural wisdom to make the world a more equitable place to live in. Together, they managed to get an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium premises from the state government at Re 1 a month, in Tilonia. The movement, till the early 80s, was propelled mainly by the urban knowledge brought along by the transient professionals who volunteered. But soon, the dynamics started changing and the rural illiterate youth started exerting themselves – taking more initiative and assuming charge. The SWRC started becoming Barefoot College – a college built by the poor, for the poor, and for the last 40 years managed, controlled, and owned by the poor.

Solar engineering and solar power has been the core aspect of Barefoot College’s education program since its inception. It has also been providing basic services and solutions to the problems of deprived rural communities in India, which include providing clean water, education, and livelihood development.

Barefoot College Influence

The Barefoot Ideology

The term ‘barefoot’ finds its origins in Mao’s China of the 1960s, where farmers with minimal paramedical training used to bring health care to rural areas where urban trained doctors would not go. Bunker Roy has taken it up multiple notches, and demonstrated it as an alternative approach to the traditional education system, which according to him “…makes you look down upon villages and devalue traditional knowledge, skills and practical wisdom.” The ideology of Barefoot College has four key components: alternative education, valuing traditional knowledge and skills, learning for self-reliance, and dissemination.

For an unemployed and employable semi-literate rural youth to be providing vital services in a village, replacing an urban ‘paper-qualified’ doctor, teacher, or water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea. And yet, this is what happens at Barefoot College every day. It is a college where people are tested not on their academic distinction, but by their attributes: honesty, integrity, compassion, practical skills, creativity, adaptability, willingness to listen and learn, and ability to work with all sorts of people without discriminating.

The term barefoot is both symbolic and literal. Those who work, teach, learn and unlearn, and provide a technical skill without a paper degree issued by Barefoot College, go barefoot and remain so after they return to their own villages. Their goal is not to change their lifestyle, but to gain the basic skills they need to provide a vital service to their own communities, one that the current system is struggling to provide. It is a radical departure from the traditional concept of a college, because it promotes and strengthens the kind of education one absorbs from family, community, and personal experience.

Preparing a Legion of Women Solar Engineers

Implementing such a transformational idea does not come easy, and Bunker Roy has been literally fighting against the tide of time since 1971. One of his most critical challenges has been of men trained by Barefoot College leaving their villages looking for jobs in the cities. This used to put all the efforts of Bunker Roy, and everyone contributing to the Barefoot College, to waste. To counter this, since 2003, the college started training only illiterate rural women above 40 years of age as solar engineers. Roy explains the rationale, “Women who are older tend to stay with the family, have more patience, are more skilled with their hands, and the older they are, more respected and influential they are in their community.”

These women trainees come from marginalised rural communities all over the world. Over the six-month period of the course, they learn how to set up, install and maintain solar engines. They are imparted practical skills that will make a significant change in their lives and their communities. They also learn to adapt themselves to living in basic Indian conditions without any problems. Coming from diverse regions, these women lack a common language to interact with each other. So, they learn to communicate with each other through sign and body language. After the completion of the course, the women return to their native villages as barefoot solar engineers to train other women from their nomadic communities.

But turning women from rural communities into solar engineers brings up the challenge of patriarchy that is prevalent in most of the villages, irrespective of their geographical location in the world. As all the trainees are women, Roy says, The biggest difficulty and challenge was to convince donors, policy makers, planners and  male members of the village community to accept the possibility of illiterate rural women, who have never left their villages in their lives, being  trained as barefoot solar engineers.” But the example of women who have already changed their communities for better is the best antidote to this challenge. Roy gives a heartening example of one of the trainees of the college, “The best woman solar engineer the Barefoot College has trained is a 55 year old grandmother from Afghanistan. She is looking after 200 houses that she solar electrified in September 2005. These houses are still functioning without any problem. She is semi-literate and does not know how to read and write, but now she is training other women in her village.”

The Barefoot Expansion – The Partnership Model

Today, the Barefoot Model has been scaled up in other parts of India through the network of likeminded organisations in several backward states. It has already scaled up to cover 69 countries within a period of eight years by promoting a Partnership Model, as opposed to an investor-led and profit-driven business one. It is a model where the government, private companies, philanthropists and communities are equal partners, and replication on a massive scale becomes possible. The Barefoot College has collaborated with partners in LDCs with a long clean track record. Roy explains, “In all the 69 countries, the partners followed a simple criterion of selecting remote non-electrified villages. This is followed by a personal visit to these remote villages along with the local partner, and the selection of an illiterate senior woman is carried out in the presence of the whole village. The documents are then prepared to enable the Indian Embassy/High Commission to send these women to the Barefoot College under a Government of India programme.”           

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