Barefoot College: the Mecca of digital development

Barefoot College: the Mecca of digital development

Most people and organizations feel great to win an award. But in the case of the Barefoot College (BFC) and Norti Bai, 65, I think the Manthan Awards are more obliged to them for the association.

It was in the winter of 2005 that I first visited Social Work and Research Centre, better known as BFC, located in Tilonia village of Ajmer district in Rajasthan.

As soon as I entered the seven-acre campus, which has no gates, I bumped into two dome-shaped structures with “ISD and STD" and “Internet Dhaba" written on them. Inside I found an old lady effortlessly handling a computer, taking prints, checking emails, and attending phone calls.

She was Norti Bai, then 60, who had recently learnt how to use computers and was now handling all virtual communications for BFC. But that was only the tip of the iceberg as far as Norti Bai and BFC were concerned. Norti Bai not only handles communications for the complex, but also teaches computers to her fellow villagers in the evenings.

Later I saw Lalita Devi, 47, working on a computer. She told me that she was working on a database of information on drinking water from 250 villages around Tilonia collected over a decade. But she had a complaint: She was using a Windows 95 system, and didn’t know how to migrate the data to machines with newer operating systems where she could analyse it better.

Still, she continued with her work, recording all kinds of qualitative and quantitative data on drinking water. The database would help villagers manage consumption and even reveal future availability of water in a particular area based on historic trends.

Since the mid-1970s, BFC has been an interesting case study on how bottom-up development could be successful in integrating technologies and communication tools. And BFC did this all by itself—through the efforts of local community members who were neither qualified nor literate.

When I explored further, I realized that the entire campus was built by the community and villagers themselves.

BFC has its own telephone exchange system, digital media centre, puppet centre, water harvesting system with reserve water for many years, homeopathic medical centre, guest houses, kitchen, post office, Western Union money transfer outlet, e-commerce-enabled craft shop, training and assembling centre for solar cookers, solar panels and solar lamps where women from other developing countries undergo training.

Based on BFC’s integration of technologies and communication tools to benefit communities at the village level, Manthan Award not only recognized Norti Bai in 2006 but also requested BFC to showcase the Barefoot approach in subsequent Manthan Award ceremonies so that others could learn from them.

Since 2005, BFC has made further improvements. If you walk in now, you can get connected to broadband lines with WiFi available on demand. BFC has recently got a licence under the community radio initiative of the information and broadcasting ministry to run its own FM radio station using a 50W transmitter to reach an area at least 10km in radius.

The communication team at BFC is busy digitizing hundreds of thousands of hours of local music. And Lalita Devi is extremely happy that now she has Neerjaal, a drinking water and sanitation information system on her computer. She can now play around with the data she has been uploading on the Web to share with the rest of the world.

Let me know if you want to make a visit to BFC—the Mecca of information communication technology for development!

For more details on awards and case studies, go to

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of Manthan Award.

Mint is a partner of the Manthan Award 2009.

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