In the hamlet of Bhopa ki Dhani, Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, 150km from Jaipur, 25-year-old Santosh Devi shimmies up a wooden ladder. This is quite a feat, considering Santosh is wearing a sari and is carrying a heavy toolkit. On the roof of the building, she checks the solar panel for any problems; Santosh is the solar engineer for the village. Later in the day, after her round of the villages (she has four under her, including her own), Santosh returns to her village of Balaji ki Dhani, where she works at a table fitted with solar photovoltaic modules, connectors, wiring equipment, a soldering iron and a range of components.
Rural electrification: Barefoot College is currently training 35 women from Africa in Tilonia to become solar engineers. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
There are many women like Santosh in Bihar, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh and, yes, now even in Africa, who are being trained by Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, to become solar engineers. This non-governmental organization (NGO), founded in 1972 by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, a social entrepreneur and educator, works with rural communities in the field of solar energy, water management techniques, education and women’s health. There is special emphasis on solar energy. The organization launched its solar electrification work in villages in 1986, teaching the village communities to use solar-powered cookers, reverse osmosis, or RO, for water purification and solar lighting at the night schools Barefoot College runs in these villages. “Solar (power) is a way to improve the lives of the rural poor who earn less than a dollar a day and have to cook with highly polluting technologies,” says Roy, who believes that the clean, non-polluting and decentralized nature of solar technology can help empower rural women and hence the communities. It can also help reverse migration to cities, by giving communities the skills that would enable them to earn their livelihood in the village itself. Hence the creation of “solar engineers”.
Barefoot College takes in illiterate, rural women and transforms them after a six-month course at its campus in Tilonia into solar engineers. “We rarely train men—they all want certificates, and once they have them, they want to leave the village in search of employment in the cities,” says Roy.
Kewal Chand, 30, is one of the rare men to be trained as an engineer at Barefoot College. He came for training to the college 10 years ago from a village in Barmer district on the Indo-Pakistan border. Today, he is back in Tilonia—this time as an instructor. “It’s only people like him, now trained, who can teach villagers with patience and compassion. A high-powered teacher simply won’t work,” says Roy, explaining why Barefoot College prefers to hire villagers as instructors.
In 2005, Roy visited Afghanistan, in partnership with the Norwegian NGO Norwegian Church Aid. They successfully installed solar lights in a village in the Faryab region, training three women, including a 55-year-old grandmother, to be a solar engineer. The success of the Afghanistan project led to the start of solar training in different countries in Africa. Currently, as part of a programme supported by the ministry of external affairs, women from countries such as Liberia, Sudan, Tanzania, Sudan and Bhutan come to Tilonia to train to be solar engineers. The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme pays the air fare and fee for the six-month training course for these mothers and grandmothers from overseas who will go back and help light up their villages.
ITEC has so far trained nearly 300 women from 28 of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs). A grant from the US’ Skoll Foundation has covered the cost of training people from 10-15 countries.
The current group of 35, from different countries, is learning the trade through a mix of broken English, gestures, symbols, charts and manuals. It’s tough, but the women are purposeful and positive. Says 39-year-old Alaffa Mwamba from Tanzania, speaking through her friend and interpreter, Fatma Juma, who is also training: “I miss my family, my children, but I am happy that I can come and learn here and go back and give my village light.”
Barefoot College: www.barefootcollege.org
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