Looking Back

The Barefoot College, registered as the Social Work Research Centre (SWRC) has been working in partnership with rural communities in India to improve the quality of life of the rural poor.

The SWRC logo: a dialogue between the specialist and the farmer in a relationship born out of equality and respects

The life of families who subsist on daily income have basic needs which still need to be addressed: food, hunger, water, health, education, waste management & environment, women’s empowerment and employment.SWRC has also engaged with major campaigns in Rajasthan on all issues of concern, including governance.

Established in 1972, the SWRC – Barefoot College is a community-basedorganisation 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.

The College believes that for any rural development activity to be successful and sustainable, it must be based in the village as well as managed and owned by those whom it serves. Therefore, all Barefoot initiatives whether social or economic, are planned and implemented by a network of rural men and women who are known as ‘Barefoot Professionals’.

Rural men and women irrespective of age, who are barely literate or not at all, and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job, are being trained to work as day and night school teachers, doctors, midwives, dentists, health workers, balsevikas, solar engineers, solar cooker engineers, water drillers, hand pump mechanics, architects, artisans, designers, masons, communicators, water testers, phone operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, computer instructors, accountants and ‘kabaad-se-jugaad’ professionals.

With little guidance, encouragement and space to grow and exhibit their talent and abilities, people who have been considered ‘very ordinary’ and written off by society, are doing extraordinary things that defy description.

 

History

In the late 60’s, a very small group of determined individuals in India, coming out of a sound educational system, felt it was necessary to look for alternative ways of living, thinking and looking for rural solutions. With very little resources and no long term ideas, they chose to start a process of re-learning in different rural parts of the country by living in remote villages with the people. There was no fixed agenda.

By the early 70’s, India witnessed coming together of minds and different ideologies. Urban educated persons and professionals started their own search for working models. The processes set by them were in terms of approaches and methodologies. While some of individuals chose to live in villages, others thought it better to base themselves in big towns and cities of India.

The very idea of them volunteering to live and work in the villages was considered ‘crazy and daring’, as it was not quite the done thing in the 1970s. Parents expected their children to get a ‘steady and secure’ job, such as in a bank or the Government. Even with considerable opposition from their parents, they chose an alternative way of thinking as their way of life.

The Barefoot College was the coming together of urban educated persons and professionals in 1972 including Bunker Roy; as its founder, with a cartographer and a typist. The coming together of the collective was formalised as by registering the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) that is more popularly known as the ‘Barefoot College’ today. The term originally comes from the Chinese health workers who were villagers trained to assist their own rural communities in the 1960s. The name emphasises the organisation’s commitment to poor, neglected and marginalized sections of society.

Bunker and Meghraj( Photo Raghu Rai-1972 )

In 1972, forty-five acres of Government land and an abandoned Tuberculosis Sanatorium (consisting of 21 buildings) was leased from the Government at Re.1 a month, to serve as a campus. Barefoot College started working in the village of Tilonia in Rajasthan, with a population of about 2,000 people.

SWRC old campus, Tilonia

At the time of its inception, the organization was envisioned to attract young, urban persons and professionals to come and work with local rural communities in an integrated development process. Most of the young persons working at the College were geologists, economists, doctors, medical and social workers, chartered accountants, graduates and post graduates from universities who were out to serve in the villages. The participation from members of the rural community was only limited to men as the College was misunderstood as a missionary organization with intentions of converting their religion. Rural women were thought to get corrupted by being exposed to the organization.

Group Image of past members - 1979

Members of the College focused their efforts on trying to find out the needs and priorities of village communities to improve their standard of living and quality of life. The idea was to upgrade their existing traditional skills and knowledge through training, and to help them take control over basic services at the grassroot level. The College struggled and campaigned for justice and what was laid down by law, as well as to bring about transparency and public accountability towards the rural communities in whose name the funds were received.

The early 80s saw a substantial change in the nature of the College work force, with locals forming 80% of the organization. Such a change was partly due to the departure of urban trained professionals who could not stay in rural areas for a long period of time as most of them eventually moved on for ‘good jobs’ and parental pressures. However, this also meant that the locals, for whose development the organisation was set up, were taking charge of activities and initiatives right from planning to completion, thereby reducing dependency on external aid and learn to self sufficient.

The Barefoot College aimed to adopt a new approach and understanding of social work and community development by using the local skills to achieve people-centric and participatory development that was sustainable rather intimidating them by using knowledge from outside. Respect the wisdom of traditional knowledge and mould it with the involvement of rural communities to meet their needs. It identified and worked for only poor and marginalised farmers, landless peasants, rural artisans, women, children, and scheduled castes and tribes as its target group.

Barefoot College has witnessed a process of evolution and change in its aims and ways of functioning to provide simple solutions for rural problems but its five non-negotiable values have been equality, collective decision-making, self-reliance, decentralization and austerity. These are respected right from matters such as the salary structure of the organization to the fact that all the workers and visitors, irrespective of caste and class barriers, eat in the same mess and wash their own plates. Barefoot College has also been very flexible, adaptive and innovative in its approaches and has learnt from its own mistakes and changing times.