Walking Backward, Barefoot


Can you go forward by walking backward?

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy came from a privilege family, graduated from Doon School and St. Stephen’s College and was expected to join a profession in the upper strata of society. But he visited a small village in Bihar during the devastating famine of 1967, which changed his life.

“When I told my mother that I’m not interested in joining a bank and I want to work in a village, she went into a trance. ‘What will the family say?’ was the first thing she said.” She thought his passion would last six months and he’d be back, but he adds: “I never came back.” Instead he set up his world in Tilonia, a sun-dried, unknown village in Rajasthan and it was in this small hamlet of just 2000 people that Roy found his true calling.

He’s become almost a folk hero, the initiator of Social Work and Research Centre, better known as Barefoot College, which teaches villagers to take charge of their own destiny. “I understood the tremendous knowledge and skills very ordinary and poor people have which were not recognized, not utilized, which are under-applied and I thought I’d start a college only for the poor and it is the only college for the poor, built by the poor.”

He adds, ” It’s a place where we only take dropouts and copouts and washouts, who have no hopes of getting a government job, who have been rejected by the educational system and these are the men and women we train. What makes Barefoot College different is that we demystify technology and we decentralize right down to the community village level so they are less dependent on skills of urban people from outside.”

Barefoot College serves 100 villages with over 125,000 people. The 80,000 sq. ft. campus was designed by a New Delhi architect Neehar Raina but constructed entirely by barefoot architects, and is the only college in India that is fully solar energized. There are also 159 schools where children, who work during the day, can learn by solar light at night. There are currently 20 Barefoot Colleges in 13 states of India, all working independently.

Roy believes in the wisdom of the people, and the local solution of harvesting rainwater has yielded rich dividends in a place where 70 percent of the wells would dry up, and the campus has a 700,000-liter rainwater-harvesting tank. Says Roy, “There are 28,000 schools in Rajasthan, and if rooftop rain water was collected from all of the schools, we’d have 208 billion litres of water, which is more than the water coming into the Rajasthan Canal.”

Recently Bunker Roy, who is married to the social activist Aruna Roy, was in the US to receive the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which gives Barefoot College $615,000 over three years to replicate village-directed development and water supply programs in 30 countries. Roy’s journey to Tilonia has already taken him to places as far apart as Senegal and Afghanistan to duplicate solar energy and water harnessing projects. Ask him about his initial journey to Tilonia and how in spite of not going very far, he’s gone very far, and he replies, “I don’t think I’ve gone far enough. I’d like to go further.”

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