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The barefoot college - promoting productive employment for youth in india

A hundred years ago, when villages in India had no urban-trained professionals with impressive paper qualifications, what did the villagers do? They developed their own knowledge, skills and wisdom to solve their basic problems of drinking water, health, education and employment. The Barefoot College has been reviving and giving more respect and dignity to knowledge, skills and wisdom that have been devalued and discarded by modern-day planners and 'experts'. The idea is to apply traditional, indigenous knowledge and skills to solving these basic problems, and thus to reduce villagers' dependency on the expertise from outside which is so often inappropriate and irrelevant. Villagers are encouraged to depend more on their own common sense, on their indigenous institutions, and on their own practical skills and ability to judge what is possible.

The skills taught at the Barefoot College are aimed at providing the basic services villagers need: safe drinking water, sanitation, education, and health care. The College is a non-formal training institute where young men and women are taught practical skills by village teachers, many of whom have no formal qualifications. Teaching and learning are based on the day-to-day needs of villagers. The approach has given the College a grassroots base, made the training low-cost, and demonstrated the sustainability of community skills that have never been endorsed by any recognized university or college. Up to now the practice of using village knowledge and skills has only been paid lip-service; it has never really enjoyed real confidence or been given a full opportunity.

The College has over 400 staff members working full-time in various activities related to basic services. They have no formal qualifications for the job they are doing. With the help of a cadre of barefoot engineers, doctors, teachers, designers, chemists, accountants and traditional communicators, communities are using expertise they acquired from their ancestors. The concept of communities depending on themselves has revived. Indigenous institutions and decision-making processes have been activated, and villagers have gained new confidence. They increasingly recognize their own strengths and assign value to their own skills--something that was never felt before.

All changes emerge from a conflict of ideas, approaches and methods. The Barefoot approach has challenged the urban-based, 'paper-qualified' experts in the belief that this totally non-violent conflict will be beneficial to the communities over the long term. Already the benefit has been amply demonstrated.

The use of traditional (indigenous) knowledge, skills and wisdom promotes active community involvement because people depend more on each other. The use of traditional knowledge has an ethical dimension. It encourages transparency and accountability. This is not the case with urban-based skills, which encourage secrecy and dependency, and which offer no guarantee that the service is either competent or reliable. The use of traditional knowledge demystifies the local technologies that will be the basis for sustainable solutions in the future. The more people who understand and try out a technology, the greater the chance of the technology being accepted. Other types of sustainability are achieved by using traditional media, such as puppet and street theatre, to convey messages on social issues (minimum wage, gender equality, etc.).


Further digging the sources, I could get the following information which is useful:

The Barefoot College, Tilonia, India


Economic sustainability is achieved as people depend on and compensate each other for exercising their skills and providing services. Nothing is free.

Environmental sustainability is served by using solar energy instead of fossil fuels, and by collecting rainwater instead of drawing on groundwater for drinking.

Other types of sustainability are achieved by using traditional media, such as puppet and street theatre, to convey messages on social issues (minimum wage, gender equality, etc.).



The strengths are obvious. Local technologies based on traditional, indigenous knowledge and skills have stood the test of time. They have been accepted without question by village communities, and have been used extensively. Their low cost makes them easily replicable wherever similar problems exist. If the people were left to themselves they would use such technologies more widely.


  • Urban-based, �paper-qualified� �experts� with incomplete knowledge continue to interfere, undermining recognition for the importance of local technologies and traditional knowledge. This is the biggest threat to the practice.
  • Local people find it difficult to stand firm and press their case. They have a lack of communication skills and low self-esteem.


  • This approach has been tested over the last 25 years and has proven to be effective.
  • It has increased the confidence of the poor, developed their self-respect, and enhanced their dignity and self-esteem.
  • The barefoot professionals are no longer too shy to meet with and talk to urban-trained 'experts' on an equal footing.


  • In 1997-98, through the use of centuries-old local technologies, a total of 12 million liters of rainwater was collected in 100 schools attended by 3000 children. The cost was a mere USD 0.10 (ten US dollar cents) a liter.
  • The schools now have teachers, albeit barefoot teachers with no paper qualifications.
  • Over 150 young people from nine states of India have been trained as barefoot solar engineers. They have equipped over 2000 houses in the Himalayas with solar electricity.

For the last 34 years, the problem for the Barefoot College has been to improve the lives of the marginalised, the exploited and the impoverished rural poor living on less than $1/day and lift them with dignity and self respect over the poverty line. The solution was to establish the first and only rural College in India built by the poor and exclusively for the poor.

Mahatma Gandhi's thoughts live in the lifestyle and work style of the College. Living conditions are simple so that the poor feel comfortable. Everyone sits, eats and works on the floor. Everyone takes a living wage instead of a market wage. Working relationship depends totally on mutual trust, tolerance, patience, compassion, and generosity.

It has been shown that if the learning and re-learning environment is relaxed, nonstructured and informal, rural poor are capable of wonders. By understanding, respecting, and applying traditional skills needed to provide basic needs (drinking water, lighting, education, health, employment, housing) semiliterate and very poor rural men and women have shown they can not only improve their quality of life, but also free themselves from hunger, misery and want.

No written contract is signed with people who want to work in the College. They are free to stay as long as they like. Over 70% have stayed for over 10 years. They are free to go when they want. The working relationship depends heavily on mutual trust and faith. This makes all the 300 workers of the College volunteers.

Barefoot College is the place:

  • where the Learner is the Teacher and the Teacher is the Learner.
  • where only those are welcome who do not have a paper degree and spoilt by the formal educational system which prevents them from taking risks, making mistakes and learning from experience.
  • where only those very poor people are accepted for training who have poor educational qualification and who are not eligible.
  • where no degrees, certificates or diplomas are given, because that is not the singular major reason why mass migration takes place from rural to urban.

The solution is to listen to solutions the rural poor have to offer with tolerance and humility. Barefoot College has learnt how to be ecologically responsible from the rural poor: how to live, work and act sustainably.

For the last 20 years the College has demonstrated how to live without using fossil fuels (diesel and kerosene) for lighting and cooking, how to practice the age old technology of people collecting rain water without over exploiting ground water for drinking water and sanitation.

At the College sustainable ideas and practical knowledge of the poor has been put into practice. Respect the community has for water (rainwater harvesting), the sun (solar electrification) and the need to preserve traditional desert culture (architects) is really a simple message easily replicated in poor neglected and backward communities all over the world.

The Barefoot College has shown what is possible if the very poor are allowed to develop and organize themselves. Very ordinary people written off by society because they are labeled as poor, primitive, backward and impoverished are doing extraordinary things that defy description.

Since 1972, several thousand poor young unemployed and unemployable rural youth, both men and women have been trained as barefoot professionals. The rural youth selected have to be impoverished, illiterate, semiliterate or barely literate and who barely have one meal a day. The idea is that once trained (as slowly as they can absorb) they will never leave their village or community.

Since 1990, Buckminster Fuller's design of the Geodesic Dome has been fabricated by semi-literate village blacksmiths to be used as schools, libraries, pathology laboratories, meeting places, a Children's Parliament House, residential houses in the deserts replacing wood, electronic workshops benefiting thousands of rural poor across India.

Thus, barefoot educators, doctors, night school teachers, solar engineers, water drillers, architects, designers, midwives, masons, communicators, hand pump mechanics, computer programmers and accountants by the thousands have passed through the College and are productive, responsible members of rural society. By staying in their villages the Barefoot College has managed to reverse migration.

Barefoot College is the ONLY fully solar electrified College based in a village in India. 40KWs of solar panels and five battery banks of 136 deep cycle batteries were installed by barefoot solar engineers from 1989 onwards. The solar components (inverters, charge controllers, battery boxes, stands) were all fabricated in the College itself.

The Barefoot College has solar electrified 807 villages, installed 7,377 solar units in individual houses benefiting 93,000 people.

317 barefoot solar engineers (128 semi-literate rural women) have installed 23 solar power plants of 2.5KWs each; women have fabricated 17 parabolic solar cookers; 97 solar water heaters have been fabricated and installed in the Himalayas. The College has trained rural communities to establish 2 Micro-Hydel power stations of 100KWs each; established 23 Rural Electronics Workshops.

48 million litres of rainwater collected in 1150 rooftop rainwater harvesting tanks constructed by barefoot architects in nearly 1,000 rural schools in 13 states benefiting 25,000 children who no longer have to walk during school hours to fetch water.

More than 400 artisans including 300 women use traditional skills producing hand crafted items generating annual sales of $250,000.

More than 7000 children attend 250 night schools across India in Bihar, Assam, Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan. More than 50,000 children have, since 1975, passed through these night schools that involve over 500 barefoot teachers.

A Children's Parliament in all states monitor the night schools with 100 elected MPs of which 65 are girls.

The rural illiterate have no access to newspapers or TV. They have been reached using traditional media like glove puppets and street theatre to convey vital social messages. It has enabled the poor and destitute to fight for their rights and raise their voice against exploitation, discrimination and injustice. Over two million people living in villages have seen the puppet shows and street theatres all over India.

In 2005, the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India approved $450,000 for the coverage of 179 schools in 15 Indian States across the country to be implemented through 38 organizations and be completed by September 2005. An additional $1.2 million to cover 300 remote rural schools was approved between October 2005 and March 2006.

In February 2005, the Skoll Foundation approved a three year grant of $615,000 to promote rooftop rainwater harvesting in 30 schools in some of the poorest countries of the world according to the UNDP HDI. The countries identified are Sierre Leone, Senegal, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Bhutan.

The Asian Development Bank has funded 25 heritage villages in Bhutan.

16 villages in eight countries have been solar electrified with support from the Skoll Foundation (US), Fondation Ensemble (France), and Stiftung Het Groene Woudt (Netherlands).

With NCA, Afghanistan as a major partner since 2005, 21 villages and 900 houses have been solar electrified by 27 Barefoot Solar Engineers (7 women have been trained as solar engineers).

Communities in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Mali, Sierre Leone and The Gambia will also be able to construct rooftop rainwater harvesting systems and toilets for girls in 20 schools with support from Art Venture (Singapore), Fondation Ensemble (France) and the Skoll Foundation (US).

Barefoot Approach - A Global Initiative
Barefoot College is replicating its barefoot approach globally with support from international sponsors and community partnerships in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

After receiving training in the College for six months, ten semi-literate Afghans (seven men and three women) have solar electrified five villages in five provinces. The first ever villages to be fully solar electrified without any technical expertise from outside, are technically and financially self sufficient.

34 rural semi literate barefoot water and solar engineers (seven women) from five of the most backwards regions of Ethiopia have been trained for six months in the Barefoot College. They solar electrified their 19 villages in May 2006.

This year (2006-2007), more than 40 semi-literate, middle-aged women have been trained in Tilonia to become barefoot solar engineers. These engineers will solar electrify over 50 rural communities in six countries.

Barefoot water engineers from Safer Future will also be providing technical assistance for construction of rooftop rainwater harvesting systems in schools in Mali, Mauritania and The Gambia. This will be the first SOUTH-SOUTH Cooperation between poor communities within Africa.

Long term consequences of the barefoot approach:

  • reversed migration.
  • increased confidence and competence of the very poor to provide sophisticated technology oriented professional services to their own community
  • reduced dependency on urban skills
  • demonstrating a working example of Mahatma Gandhi's vision of self reliance in India's villages



The best gift of the project to the society has been uplifting the self-esteem of the village community. Everyone is totally involved and all participate actively in the project. There is no hierarchy within the society. The ‘Barefoot College’ has produced innumerous engineers, doctors, teachers, ecovolunteers and the like. Most of them have been illiterate. Kamala – the solar engineer has been responsible in bringing light to the villages but is hardly educated. There are other young men and women who are well trained in computers. There are men who look after the audio-visual equipments while others are engaged in installing the solar transmitters. Barefoot College is central in the village and everyone feels a sense of

belonging. People have become aware and appreciate the importance of good health, cleanliness and hygiene. Women no longer shy away from speaking up. Children come regularly to the school. There are always people hanging around the library waiting to read the regional newspapers in Hindi. Shri Ram Niwas and Shri Ram Karan have been accountants before they became coordinators of other sectors and puppet shows. What a transformation the society has undergone is visible during the mealtimes. There is a very big gathering of workers and volunteers. It seems as if the wh*** village is assembled in one place. It is believed that this is not only on certain days but is a routine matter. This clearly depicts the degree of involvement of the people. There were people from the neighboring villages as well. While talking to the village women who had come for their training it was reassuring to note that many of them were sent to the Barefoot College by their husbands and even their fathers-in-law. This shows that there is a change in the

attitude among the men as well. Some women had small children to look after and they were being taken care of by their fathersinlaw. The night schools were undertaken for the women and other village community who could not attend schools in the day. Skill training was imparted for sewing, weaving, crafts, puppetry, recycling, Tie & dye, bee keeping etc. In September 1985, nearly 1000 women assembled in Tilonia village to identify and understand issues related to rural working class women. Besides Rajasthan there were women representatives from all over India. Based on the series of discussions held with all the stakeholders one point was loud and clear! The social well being has emerged out of social traditions. The women struggle even at their own cost but are united and protest through nonviolent agitation. The society is divided into issue based groups. Each group has

their own agenda and pursues their goals within the larger framework. The society seemed porous enough for the trickling down effects to reach the grass root level effectively. Once the basic indicators of development are firmly placed in appropriate positions, such a society is bound to develop in leaps and bounds!


  • The use of traditional (indigenous) knowledge, skills and wisdom promotes active community involvement because people depend more on each other.
  • The use of traditional knowledge has an ethical dimension. It encourages transparency and accountability. This is not the case with urban-based skills, which encourage secrecy and dependency, and which offer no guarantee that the service is either competent or reliable.
  • The use of traditional knowledge demystifies the local technologies that will be the basis for sustainable solutions in the future. The more people who understand and try out a technology, the greater the chance of the technology being accepted.

Speed & Ease of Service Delivery

A hierarchy of service delivery centres has been demarcated through which the feedback mechanism works. At the lowest level, the field centres are scattered in the villages with easy access for the local people to come and register their ides and grievances. These are covered by sub-centres at the regional level where the feedback mechanism gets activated. The women community is trained in various activities like solar engineering, water harvesting, teaching and so on. They in turn implement the lessons into action in their respective villages with the help of men. The women are responsible to implement, and maintain the system in the villages. At the international level the Barefoot College trains women to

enhance their livelihood opportunities and in this context the contribution has been a tremendous one. Countries like Sierra Leonne, Mali, Cameroon, Bolivia, and Bhutan and others have all been beneficiaries. Almost more than 100 villages in Afghanistan and 15 villages in Ethiopia have been electrified through

solar energy.Regular meeting of women’s groups, self-help groups and setting up of Parliament of the children, puppet shows and awareness programmes has created a furor among the village communities. In addition several volunteer groups are there to supervise the public distribution system in the region.

Installation of more than 1300 hand pumps has been a major outcome of the Barefoot College to the locals in addition to several in Orissa and Laddakh. “Life is much better now with solar electricity and water”, according to a group of women from Tilonia who had come to take the training programme. A group of 15 young women from Bhutan looked apprehensive as they had just arrived for their 6-months training programme to become Solar engineers. The moment Shri Kanaram spoke to them in his usual carefree and fatherly tone, the women all opened up and expressed that they were looking forward to finishing

their training and going back to implement it in their own country where both electricity and water were a major problem. They were the third group visiting India for this purpose. The success of the previous two groups enabled them to get permission from their government easily. Another major outcome has been

the women’s empowerment programme. ‘Sati’ had once again been practiced in 1997 at Devrala and it was the women who participated actively against this. The Teachers training and Women’s Development programme all had their genesis at the Barefoot College. One major achievement under the women’s Development Programme was the changing of the policy after the famine. The policy got changed from 100% wages to 50% - food and 50% - wages.


Way back in 1984, Mr Bunker Roy as an advisor of NGOs to the Planning Commission, had suggested a code of conduct for better transparency but this was objected to by others and not agreed upon. In order to bring in transparency, in 1997, the Barefoot College decided to put all their salary register, bill vouchers

and all other doc**ents before the community members, media officials, and all stakeholders. The ‘Right to Information Act’ was started even before it could be conceived by the government. It involved all the sub centres and field centres. A collective decision was taken with suggestions originating from the village

community. Every ordinary worker was held at par to a renowned one. All were ordinary workers. And there was no difference in wages. The transparency of every action was on the basis of values like equality of religion and caste. It was aimed to bring in total transparency in funds policies and action. A complete

decentralization process was initiated and put into action. Proper registers are maintained with records of dates, days and cost of each activity which one can see as and when one wants to. The 1997 meet, revealed that the percentage of administrative expenditure to the total cost formed only 8 percent. This meant that out of every rupee spent only 8 paise go towards administrative expenditure. The Barefoot College states that this is in stark contrast to the government administrative expenditure where 86

paise in every rupee goes towards administrative expenditure. However whether these figures are right or wrong, the mere fact that a public organization has fulfilled a social responsibility is an achievement in itself.


With the onset of so-called modern and large, if expensive and often unreliable, public water infrastructure

projects and technology, rainwater harvesting in the main became unfashionable in public policy. It is being

reintroduced on a local scale across a wide area by the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, under the leadership of Bunker Roy where a model approach to roof top rainwater harvesting with community empowerment has been developed and is being replicated more widely. Roofs of schools and community

buildings are adapted to catch the infrequent and precious rainwater and channel it to underground tanks built in the foundations.Traditional knowledge, local materials and community skills have been applied in the construction of these tanks by Barefoot architects and this has given the community a sense of

ownership. In turn this brings a substantial community contribution in voluntary labour, supervision and raw

materials. The financial accounts for the projects are sometimes painted in large columns of figures on the school walls. This demonstrates transparently the costs, and where the money went to, thus tackling the notorious corruption that has come in the way of large public infrastructure projects.


The needs of the society are of utmost importance for the project. On many occasions ‘the Barefoot College’ has refused to work according to the funder’s wish keeping the needs of the society in mind and as a result they have been compelled to return the funds back. Despite the resource crunch the project has been a success. Shri Kanaram told us that there have been occasions where they have refused prizes and honors. The village architect, who had designed the Barefoot College, refused the prize he was offered in Syria as this was to be shared by another person who had not contributed towards the architecture and

designing of the barefoot college campus. The village architect refused to budge from his stand. Issues are identified with a bottom-up approach where focus is drawn towards concerns raised by the local population. These reach the fie ld centres and further to the group meetings in Barefoot College to the concerned quarters. All contributions and funds received are monitored and coordinated by the Village Development Authority who spends the money on village developmental activities. Even small funds send by NREGA, are spent by the Village Development Authority.


The practice could be transferred to other places and situations, but it is essential that several conditions be met:

  • The organization or institution must believe in the value of traditional knowledge and skills and have faith in its own capacity to make use of them. If not, there is absolutely no point in trying to replicate the practice.
  • If the organization or institution has been totally spoilt by the presence of and dependency on urban-based, �paper-qualified� �experts�, then the Barefoot College approach will not work.
  • The organization must be flexible, transparent and non-hierarchical. Otherwise the approach will fail.
The Barefoot College approach has been replicated in 13 states of India, and in Morocco. There are plans to perhaps try it out in Mali in 1999.

The organizers of the Barefoot College are prepared to help replicate the approach anywhere in the world where there are problems of unemployed rural youth and where there is a high rate of illiteracy, which means that there is a rich and vibrant oral tradition and that indigenous knowledge remains to be identified and utilized.

The College does not encourage visitors to drop in unannounced. It prefers to receive advance notice and to confirm dates, and asks that visitors respect this.


To date there are many projects starting up, offering water at a fraction of the cost of water sellers and out of scale water infrastructure projects. In addition to the pioneering work of the Barefoot College, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation,Tarun Bharat Sangh,Wells for India and work of organisations such as WaterAid, together with the hygiene education work of organisations such as Arpana, are engaged in many projects.

What is needed to spread the vision, provide technical assistance and training for Barefoot engineers and builders, to provide low cost finance for projects and materials. A typical roof top rainwaterharvesting

project in a remote rural school to collect 100,000 litres would cost a one-time investment of less than

$10,000. This would provide drinking water to about 40 children and functioning toilets in a school for more

than five months in a drought region.


water in a block called Kishengarh. Shri Bunker Roy was physically moved by the appalling conditions arising out of the famine that hit Bihar. It is then that he decided to do something for the people at the grass root level. On the other hand the draught hit Rajasthan faced a major crisis due to a lack of drinking water. This posed as a major threat for the village community. It was then that Roy, a product of St Stephens College in Delhi, came to Rajasthan as a dealer in long haul drilling. The village community appealed to him to do something to relieve them from their plight and he took it upon himself to bring

drinking water to the entire village community of Tilonia. With innovation as his dictum, Roy took the village community along with in designing, constructing and implementing the carefully planned policies. It was the local people who decided and identified what the issues were and how they could be resolved. So the

project began on the note, ‘by the people, for the people and of the people’. Once the issues got identified, the village community involved the state and the national government for a contribution. The project is widely spread all over the village of Tilonia. Starting with a humble beginning from the old building which was a sanatorium for the Tuberculosis patients, it is now spread over two main campuses and the project is also operated from the several field centres with each centre catering to a number of villages. The campus has been designed and built by a villager who is almost illiterate but has already traveled far and wide with his expertise. The approach road to the project meanders through a dusty and kucha road. By the time one reaches the main campus, one is filled with dust all over unless the gla**** of the vehicle is pulled up and tightly shut. Thankfully the dusty part of the road is not very long and suddenly one finds the road dashed and dotted with thorny short desert shrubs. It is rare not to find huge vehicles parked outside the campus belonging to various international organization, schools or that of tourists who come to see the much talked about ‘Barefoot College’ situated in the remote village of ‘Tilonia’. What is most astounding is that the entire campus has no electricity but has been electrified with the help of solar energy by a priest belonging to a nearby village. All facilities and gadgets in the campus are run by solar power. The library, office computers, soil testing labs, primary health centres, water heaters, cookers, schools, electrical workshops, puppetry, handicrafts, etc are all operated with the help of solar energy. With 150 volunteers, 450 part time workers, 160 full time workers, and 5000 honorary village workers, it almost looks like a big convocation during meal times. The project also trains women who have hardly any education to become

solar engineers and doctors without any formal paper degree and diplomas being showered upon them. The Barefoot college is a model which displays that the pre-conceived notions, objectives and prescription policies imported from outside is no solution to bring about human development. It takes into consideration

years of experience, local culture, traditions, commitment and dedication, its sheer capacity of survival and full participation for achieving people’s development. Ideas generated from the community have taken shape through the planning process of the Barefoot College. The organization has truly demonstrated and adopted a methodology which minimizes waste and maximizes effectiveness touching the lives of the poorest of the poor bringing about a transformation. This project demonstrates that agents of change should necessarily be endogenetic in nature. The entire project involves around several activities. Some of the activities include Education, Health, Agriculture, Eco-Volunteerism, Women’s empowerment, and so on. Their activities especially catering to Solar Technology and water harvesting have been a total success. It has implemented a 15 KW solar power transmitter and has no shortage of drinking water supply. The project has expanded to cover more than 14 states of India and several countries from

abroad through education workshops for improvising knowledge and income. Their night schools have been a boon in disguise for the women of the region who are 80% illiterate. Over the years the Barefoot College have produced several Barefoot engineers, Barefoot doctors, Barefoot teachers and the like.


Community participation, strong bonding, responsibility are the buzz words for Barefoot College. Living and working in close proximity with the rural community. The worth of people is to be judged not by their paper qualifications but by their willingness and ability to learn. The organization must have respect for collective traditional knowledge, beliefs, wisdom and practices of the community. Party Politics must not take a place in the organization. Drive away technology that deprives people of their livelihood.

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