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Awards Category: Social Enterprise

Mr Sanjit (Bunker) Roy
Founder of The Barefoot College

Sanjit “Bunker” Roy was born in 1945 in Burnpur in West Bengal, India. He was educated at the prestigious Doon School in Deridun and at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, an education he says was “very elitist, very snobbish, very exclusive.” It was perhaps fate that led a 20-year-old Roy to visit Bihar where he witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of famine. This affected him deeply, so much so that he rejected careers more suited to his qualifications – a diplomat or a doctor, possibly – in favour of digging wells in Rajasthan as an unskilled labourer. Seeing the poverty of his surroundings, he subsequently dedicated himself to improving the lives of the rural poor. His first five years were spent blasting wells in villages. In 1971, he rented a warehouse in Tilonia from the government for just one rupee per year – they only allowed him a one-year lease because they didn’t believe he would be able to survive in the countryside – and founded the Social Work & Research Centre, now the Barefoot College, as an NGO.

Creating a Better Future

The Barefoot College was founded with the conviction that the solutions to the problems of the rural poor lie within the community. It aims to help the estimated 41% of the Indian population who live below the poverty line through Roy’s unique and transformational model; peer-to-peer learning, which relies on the passing on of traditional skills and knowledge rather than an emphasis on outside educators bringing new ideas and influences. The college has, over the years, trained over 15,000 semi-literate and illiterate woman and men from the most remote villages of India and the lowest caste; around 500,000 people been provided with basic services such as healthcare, drinking water and education. Attendees at the college are trained at their own pace to become architects, teachers, pathologists, midwives and more, using simple technology in innovative and disruptive ways. For instance, mobile phones are used to monitor water quality through an online dataset, and solar powered cookers are constructed to break dependence on wood fire. One of the college’s key initiatives, the Barefoot solar-electrification programme, trains women from developing and less developed countries to become solar engineers; these women have gone back home to install solar panels and batteries as well as maintain and repair them. This has changed life in their remote villages forever.

Overcoming Obstacles

One of his tenets for the programme had been to discourage migration of people from the village to the city. His earlier approach in getting “paper-qualified urban professionals” to do the teaching as well as switching his approach to hiring the locals to train the men of the village had not been successful in curbing migration to the city. One day he had a revelation: he was training the wrong gender. He then switched to train women as they were less likely to uproot and leave their villages.

Advocating for the poor at the state assembly has often put him at odds with local legislators and landowners. In 1979, the project was plunged into crisis when a worker whom Roy had dismissed for embezzlement was elected to local government and made an attempt to withdraw the lease on the warehouses he used as the premises for the Barefoot College. He was asked to vacate the warehouse by Jan 1980. The situation turned around for the better when Robert McNamara, the President of the World Bank, recognised the work of the college and used his office to reduce poverty. Just before he was due to vacate the building, Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power. The order to repossess the college buildings was overturned. The experience made Roy realise that, as long as he depended on others, the project could be derailed. He decided to build a second “campus” on some land about a kilometre from the former warehouse. As fate would have it, he found the perfect candidate to oversee it construction – an illiterate farmer turned architect, trained at the Barefoot College.

Measurable Outcomes

There are now 24 colleges inspired by the Barefoot model in India. Since 2004, Roy has brought women from 15 African nations as well as Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bolivia to train at the camp as solar engineers. He hopes soon to bring women from Palestine. The college says it has trained 15,000 women in skills including solar engineering, healthcare, water testing and social activism, and that as a result, around 500,000 people have been provided with basic services such as healthcare, drinking water and education.

In 2012, the Barefoot College became the first NGO partner with UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. A UNDP funded program of India’s Ministry of External Affairs brings women from villages in rural Africa (which do not have electricity) to the school for training, after which they return with new skills to install solar electricity in their villages. The college entered into an agreement in 2012 to expand the programs for students from Fiji.

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