Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy is a 77-year-old man who, despite his age, is still active in making the world a better place. He is the founder of Barefoot College, a social experiment that began in 1972, and that has since then transformed rural India. In a recent interview, Roy shared his experience in how he developed his philosophy and how it became one of the most audacious ideas of its time.
The experiment started with the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), which Roy established in Tilonia, Rajasthan. The center was established to address poverty, illiteracy, disempowerment, and gender inequality issues in rural India. At the time, the idea that the complexities of engineering, architecture, and medicine could be taught through practice was considered as radical as it is today.
Roy believes that reading and writing do not necessarily make a person educated. This idea led him to develop a practical training approach to democratize education and technology for the rural poor. His aim was to develop social entrepreneurs to enrich and sustain in situ markets and institutions.
Barefoot College leverages the natural curiosity, intelligence, and practical skills of villagers, including the illiterate, to transform them into barefoot entrepreneurs, nutritionists, engineers, and even doctors. The college has had notable successes, albeit on a smaller scale than large formal institutions.
During a recent visit to the SWRC campus, we met Brijesh Gupta, who has been with Barefoot College since 1982. Gupta talked about how excluded he felt by the societal value placed on mainstream education. "It was hard for me to find jobs as a school dropout," he recalls. "I’d begun to think that I was less than capable of doing anything but manual jobs." This changed when he joined Barefoot College, where he has since been a water tester, office assistant, handicrafts seller, visitor coordinator, and more.
Roy believes that understanding people and one’s milieu are the most important aspects of learning. He encourages everyone to try all sorts of things, by making them realize that they’re equal to any task, be it puppetry, communication, handicraft, or even solar engineering. The college's alumni happily cock a snook at formal education, claiming that their learning comes from practice, experimentation, and mistakes. Gupta says, "These are hard to teach in formal schools… Perhaps that’s why our country produces so many graduates who know so little!"
Barefoot College has had notable successes in improving school attendance among communities where children are expected to participate in daytime household activities like animal herding. In conjunction with the Rajasthan government and National Council of Educational Research and Training, Barefoot College piloted three experimental schools around Tilonia that employed Barefoot teachers and timed classes to suit the children’s household work schedules. After this substantially reduced dropout rates and increased enrollment, in 1987 the project was formally adopted by the government’s Shiksha Karmi (Education Worker) project, which has facilitated the education of over 200,000 children.
The college’s 250 night schools now operate in ten Indian states. They are run by Barefoot teachers, lit by solar-powered lights made in-house, and have enabled over 100,000 out-of-school children to bridge the gap between their age and learning levels.
The majority of Barefoot College’s denizens are older women.
Roy says, "Young people with degrees from formal institutions rarely want to return to work in the village. The men also seek the city’s greener pastures. But the women remain and can potentially transform rural life and markets."
One of these women is Kesar Devi is a prime example of how the Barefoot College experiment has transformed rural India. After joining Barefoot College, Kesar Devi was trained as a solar engineer and went on to electrify over 200 villages in remote areas of Rajasthan. Today, she is a respected leader in her community and continues to inspire other women to follow in her footsteps.
The college’s approach to education and empowerment aligns with the vision of a global society that values equality, inclusivity, and sustainable development. By providing practical education and training to marginalized communities, Barefoot College is empowering individuals to become change-makers in their own communities. This approach is critical to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and combat climate change.
Barefoot College’s work directly contributes to several SDGs, including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). By empowering marginalized communities to become self-sufficient and sustainable, Barefoot College is helping to create a more equitable and sustainable world. The experiment is a shining example of how education, innovation, and community empowerment can bring about transformative change.