In a world full of people wanting to live a luxurious live, is a social activist who preferred to rather live as a poor in a country where more than half of the population lives without the daily basic needs. His name – Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy. Famously known as Bunker Roy, he is an Indian social activist, educator and the founder of Barefoot College in Tilona, Rajasthan. Bunker Roy was selected as one of the TIME 100, the 100 most influential personalities in the world by TIME Magazine in 2010.
Bunker was born on 2nd Aug 1945 in an influential family to a Mechanical Engineer (father) and a trade commissioner (mother) in Burnpur, Bengal (present day West Bengal). He attended the Doon School (1956-1962) and St. Stephens College (1962-1967). He was socially active from the beginning and recalls getting into diplomatic services. Although the turning point in his life came when he volunteered and visited the famine affected villages in Bihar (1965-1966). Seeing thousands of people die of starvation, he had decided his future.
Despite of having a Masters degree in English and being a National Champion in Squash for 3 years, he decided to devote his life to social service, shocking his parents. 22 years old Bunker left the world he knew to live and work in the villages of Rajasthan. He changed his lifestyle from a sahab in a 3 piece suit to a daily wage worker in kurta pyjama which he acknowledges to still wear in India and abroad as well. Bunker is married to his classmate Aruna Roy, a social activist who was a prominent leader of Right to Information movement and is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award.
In 1972, Bunker founded the Barefoot College, known as Social Work and Research Centre, which has been transforming the lives of rural women for 4 decades. The Barefoot College is a non-government organisation that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. These ‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorised into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development. Today, the college is training illiterate and semi-literate, poor, rural women from 32 countries to become Barefoot Solar Engineers.
The idea of the Barefoot College sprouted during his stay with the poorest of people who would tell him their stories about their skills, knowledge and wisdom that no books had offered him before. Seeing the enthusiasm of the people towards their work and their determination to live with nothing but their dignity and self-respect, he reached the villages and with both sides offering nothing but their hard work, the first of its kind Barefoot College started. He refers it to be a college “started by the poor, managed by the poor and owned by the poor.”
The Barefoot College acknowledges being having not a new approach but something that was already followed by Mahatma Gandhi. The Gandhian non-violent approach followed, incorporated and institutionalised into work style and life style of the Barefoot college strongly rejected the classical arrogant top-down development approach of the “experts” and instead put into practice the following beliefs :
- Identify, respect and apply existing traditional knowledge and skills and give practical skills more importance than theoretical knowledge.
- Just because someone is illiterate, nowhere it is written in stone that he/she cannot be a solar engineer, architect, designer, communicator, feed Information into computers and construct rain water harvesting tanks. There are many more powerful ways of learning other than the written word.
Barefoot College doesn’t recruit people with the so called “formal education”. Most of the people here are either drop outs, cop out or wash out, poor, semi-literate, perhaps physically challenged, with no hopes of getting any job. Although no one comes for the money because one barely receives around 10K Indian Rupees per month. What they come for is the learning experience, trying new ideas and the desire to bring about a change. The Barefoot College refuses at any political inclination or religious beliefs, only the spiritual beliefs that every man has towards his work.
The major difficulties faced during its foundation by the Barefoot College and still does is, as acknowledged by Bunker Roy, are the “literate” men and women as a product of the formal education system. “The formal system makes you look down on the village. After graduating anyone who goes back to the village is looked on as a failure. The formal system does not make you look back to respect and value your roots if they are in the rural areas. So people with degrees and qualifications would rather survive in demeaning city slums and pavements than go back to their roots”, says Bunker Roy. The formal education system demeans and devalues the village skills and practical knowledge just because it doesn’t fall under their education. But the fact remains that these were the very skills used before the urban engineering and doctor came into being.
In 2003, Barefoot College decided to train only illiterate rural women, not less than 40 years of age as solar engineers. According to Bunker, women who are older and more mature tend to stay with the families while men as soon as they are trained leave to find work else where. Once they are trained they will never leave their communities because no one will ever give them such a chance to prove their worth to their own communities. No transalation, no interpreters and no written language is required. They will pick up everything so along as they are practical and intelligent and willing to learn and have patience. Using this approach 186 women solar engineers have been trained from 28 countries in more than 100 remote villages all over Africa.
For Bunker, it was not Gandhi or Marx who inspired the work of the College but very ordinary people with grit, determination, the amazing ability to survive with almost nothing live a hard life with grace, dignity and self respect. The fact that the college tries to find a place for the weakest,most disadvantaged of all, is its greatest strength.