Grassroots educator Sanjit “Bunker” Roy is teaching grandmothers solar power engineering skills in some of India’s poorest villages.
In 1965, a well-off, highly educated, young Indian man left the comforts he had known to dig wells in some of his country’s poorest villages, prompting his mother to stop speaking to him. “I went to a very elitist, snobbish, expensive education in India and it almost killed me,” explained Sanjit “Bunker” Roy in his July 2011 TED Talk. “I was all set to be a diplomat, teacher, doctor— all laid out.” Instead of following the path intended for him by his family, Roy continued his work with the poor, and in 1972, founded the Barefoot College. The school is not a typical college consumed by the supposed importance of report cards and diplomas, rather, it focuses on solving the problems of the rural poor by teaching villagers self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Sanjit “Bunker” Roy observed that one of the largest obstacles facing small villages throughout India and Africa was the absence of electricity to light homes. Since it would be nearly impossible to power the towns with a conventional electrical grid, Roy decided that solar technology was the best alternative. But how could these communities become self-reliant if they were dependent on outside technicians to install and maintain the solar panels necessary? Simple. The Barefoot College would train the villagers for six months to become solar power engineers. For 10 years the college taught men in solar engineering courses, but Roy concluded that they were too restless and now only employs women for the job, mainly grandmothers. Not content with enabling women to build solar panels, the school seeks to empower the powerless through whatever means available. With a number of surveys, the Barefoot College identifies the physically disabled in 190 Indian villages and provides those willing with jobs in disciplines ranging from screen printing to accounting.
These ‘Barefoot Professionals’ have been given a chance to exercise their skills in a society that had largely written them off as being of little value. Bunker Roy’s nontraditional approach to solving the problems of the rural poor has been met with great success. Students of the Barefoot College will often go on to become instructors themselves, teaching others in their communities the skills they have learned. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy believes the success of the college lies inside the people it is meant to help. “I think you don’t have to look for solutions outside; look for solutions within and listen to people. They have the solutions in front of you.”