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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can’t read? Here’s a ‘Barefoot College’ for you.

A woman learns how to make solar lamps at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India, March 20, 2023.

By Nicholas Kristof

It’s the Harvard of rural India, minus wingtips or heels: a 50-year-old institution called Barefoot College that offers lessons for empowering people worldwide. Maybe even in America.

Barefoot College does empowerment as well as any institution I’ve ever seen, and here’s what that looks like in the rural state of Rajasthan: An illiterate woman named Chota Devi who never attended a day of school is hunched over a circuit board, carefully using color-coded instructions to solder resistors and diodes into place.

Chota, who has no idea how old she is, is a Dalit, those at the bottom of the caste system once known as untouchables, and from a particularly low-ranking group called the Valmiki who often cleaned human waste.

But now Chota is learning how to be a solar power technician. Barefoot College trains illiterate, low-status villagers like her to make solar-powered lanterns and install solar lighting systems. After three to six months of training, they return to their communities and earn a decent living as they bring solar power to communities without reliable electricity — and in the process, they upend the social hierarchy.

“I will have more knowledge than my husband,” Chota noted slyly. When she goes home, villagers now call her “Madam.” It’s partly a joke, partly a show of respect.

With a new income of perhaps $80 a month, Chota plans to pay off debts, buy a simple cellphone and build an outhouse.

Chota has five children, none of whom now attend school, but her trainers at Barefoot College have left an impression. “I’m working with women who know how to read and write, so now I want my children to learn as well,” she said.

Bunker Roy, 77, was a three-time Indian national squash champion and an activist inspired by Mahatma Gandhi when in 1972 he moved to this remote village to see what he could do to tackle entrenched poverty. That year, he started Barefoot College here.

Roy focused on putting technology skills in the hands of the least educated and most scorned people in the community — because they were the ones who most needed the help and because he believed that nurturing dignity and self-confidence were crucial elements of overcoming poverty.

“We wanted to start a college with a difference, where people were not penalized because they were illiterate,” Roy said.

So Barefoot College takes illiterate villagers — most of them Dalits or women — and trains them in technical skills such as solar panel installation. With funding from foundations, donations and the Indian government, the college also runs literacy classes, health campaigns, a water resources department, study centers and a sanitary pad factory.

“There are millions of people who are illiterate, and they have much to contribute,” Roy said.

The urban-rural divide exists worldwide, with opportunity lagging in rural America as well as in rural India. Those left behind sometimes self-medicate, creating cycles of despair; in India, all this is complicated by caste and gender. Barefoot College nurtures opportunity by offering skills training in the way that community colleges do in the United States, but there’s a particular emphasis here on the absolutely most impoverished.

That benefits the entire society: Marginalized people are often a nation’s most underutilized assets. And there’s something delicious about the way the success of low-status people messes with people’s heads.

One of Barefoot College’s first initiatives was to train Dalits to install water pumps. Initially, this was in their own communities, because they were not allowed to use the same wells as those from higher castes.

The upshot was that the most reliable water source in a village became one in the most scorned neighborhood. When high-caste villagers found their wells running dry, they would awkwardly get water from the Dalit pump. “It’s just for the livestock,” they might say at first.

When their own pumps broke, they also found themselves having to summon a Dalit pump technician. Since Dalits traditionally were not supposed to touch food or water containers used by higher caste people, the head-spinning only increased.

We in America could learn from this approach in rural India. The United States as well must do better providing training in technical skills to people who have been left behind so that they can earn a living — as electricians, wind turbine installers, carpenters and more. And there’s a belated recognition that we worry too much about formal educational qualifications; bravo to Pennsylvania for opening up state jobs this year to those without four-year college degrees.

Over the decades, Barefoot College has attracted international and local funding to expand. The college now has water programs around India, and the Indian government brings in women from Africa and elsewhere to study solar engineering at Barefoot College for six-month courses, and they then return home to bring electricity to their villages. Here, “empowerment” is not a buzzword but a way of life.

“The illiterates of the 21st century,” Roy said, “are not those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn and relearn.”

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