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Crossing Continents Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 10:29 GMT
Fighting poverty in India
Women collecting water
Women responsible for fetching water are training to be hand-pump mechanics
In the Rajasthan desert of India the students of the Barefoot College are learning how to construct solar energy systems without formal qualifications, and the activists are taking on - and beating - corrupt public officials. Rosie Goldsmith meets those who are fighting poverty in India.

 Listen to this programme in full

"When we arrived here there was nothing - no trees, just dry, infertile soil, just subsistence farming." This is Vasu - he only has a first name - and he was one of the early members of the Barefoot College.

Indeed, the Barefoot College has a mission, set out 30 years ago here in the district of Tilonia in Rajasthan, one of the poorest, most drought-prone states in India.

The Barefoot College

Vasu, an early member of the Barefoot College

In his long flowing shirt and with his long flowing beard Vasu looks like an Old Testament prophet. He is showing me round the campus - now a thriving, tree-shaded hub of activity, with running water and powered by solar energy.

The campus buildings were constructed out of local, low-cost materials and designed by an illiterate farmer who today proudly bears the title of "Barefoot Architect".

He has also won international architecture awards. The Barefoot College itself is famous as a model for the regeneration of land and people.

A revolutionary idea

In 1972 an idea was born when a group of middle-class city intellectuals came to Tilonia with the conviction that the poverty and powerlessness of 70 per cent of India's people - "the barefoot" - could only be solved by putting lost skills and economic self-sufficiency back in their hands.

In the early days, the pioneers of the Barefoot College walked round the villages and asked the villagers themselves what they needed - electricity, food, clean water, health.

It is Gandhian like Mahatma Gandhi we do believe power resides with the poor.


They helped the villagers refind their traditional skills and to learn some new ones, such as the technology of solar energy.

The "urbanites" as they are known have mostly retreated, the transfer of power complete, but Vasu is one who stayed behind.

"It is Gandhian," Vasu is telling me, " like Mahatma Gandhi we do believe power resides with the poor. They have dignity but they do not have the opportunities. We are harnessing human potential."

Solar energy

Vasu takes me to the solar energy workshop on the campus where eight Barefoot Solar Engineers are plugging up circuit boards.

The solar panels are imported but in the workshop everything is assembled for a complete home lighting system or for portable lamps which can be used in any house or school in any village.

(I later visited a night school for children who work in the fields by day - they would be learning in the pitch dark if it weren't for the solar lamps.)

"We have 300 days of sunshine here in Rajasthan," Vasu laughs, "So we harness that too!"

"The campus is completely self-reliant, "Vasu explains. "A 40 kilowatt unit enables us to run fans, pump water and also operate 20 computers."

Any illiterate or semi-literate person can be trained, it is not necessary to be able to read or write.

Chotu Singh

Chotu Singh is a Barefoot Engineer. He tells me they are taught practical skills to improve village life - this college is not about reading and writing.

When you graduate from here - as a Barefoot engineer, chemist, architect or teacher - you don't go away with framed certificates and formal qualifications.

"Any illiterate or semi-literate person can be trained," he says, "it is not necessary to be able to read or write."

Five hundred villagers are trained by the Barefoot College each year to assemble, install and maintain solar technology. The skills of the Barefoot graduates serve over 100 outlying villages and 100,000 people.

Supplying water

Vasu then accompanies me to meet Seeta Devi, a mother and grandmother, who is a trained hand-pump mechanic.

Woman carrying water
Traditionally women would fetch water from distant wells

Women have very little status in these poor villages: before the advent of hand pumps - another Barefoot College achievement - they were the ones fetching the water from distant wells but also working in the fields and attending the family.

Today Seeta looks after 40 water pumps in 4 villages - and is enormously proud of her job.

Water is a village's most precious commodity - clean water means healthy crops and healthy people. Vasu now shows me their latest venture; rainwater harvesting.

The roof of the village school has been designed so any rainwater runs off and into a large tank underneath. This water - incredibly - keeps the village supplied for a whole year.


The empowerment of the rural poor is also the ambition of the second project I visit in Rajasthan - another three hours drive south-west of Tilonia, across the baking, arid earth, to the hamlet of Dev Dunghri.

For the past decade this cluster of mud huts has been the home and headquarters of Aruna Roy.

Aruna Roy
Aruna Roy wants to change India

Aruna was herself also a founding member of The Barefoot College, but she moved on, convinced that the poor needed more than financial self-sufficiency: they needed political power too.

Aruna and a collective of social and political activists from urban and rural backgrounds form "MKSS" - or "The Association of Workers and Peasants".

When I arrive 14 of us squat on the floor of the little mud kitchen and share rice, dahl and rotis. "I think of myself as a rural woman", Aruna says, "I live in a small mud hut, I fetch water and I make food like the women in the next house."

But the ambition of this striking, urban-educated woman, is gigantic: it is to change India.

Making change

Corruption in India is historical; it is rampant and insidious.

Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, once said famously that for every 100 rupees leaving Delhi only 16 rupees ever reached their final destination.

It is not just about the poor in Rajasthan but it is about the accountability of city councils, the health service, the police - everybody

Aruna Roy

To Aruna, to the MKSS, to the villagers of India, corruption means poverty. If the money ear-marked by the government for rural public works does not reach them there is no food, no work, their wages are not paid, roads and wells are not built.

So, over a decade the MKSS has worked out a strategy to fight corruption from the bottom up, to make the local government officials accountable for the funds that reach them from Delhi but often do not reach the people.

Speaking out

The villagers are encouraged to speak out, to complain when they suspect fraud, to share their information with other villagers and to confront the villains.

Public meeting
People gather to speak out about issues in public meetings

They are encouraged to demand public accounts and when they have evidence a public hearing is held in front of the whole village.

The local council leaders are invited and through this system of mass moral pressure and public humiliation they are asked to return the money stolen from the people.

This may all sound very simple - it is - but the villagers were not used to articulating problems to demand their rights. The MKSS has given them the confidence, the practical strategy and the legal framework to demand information - and it is successful.

Informing the people

Thousands of people across the state of Rajasthan are involved; a bill to introduce Freedom of Information for the whole of India is under discussion in the Delhi Parliament.

The underlying philosophy, Aruna explains is that "Information is power". Freedom of information - for many of us only an abstract term - is here is a matter of life and death.

Aruna and Co. take me round the villages to examine fraudulent projects, such as:

  • the community centre that was sanctioned three times and received three sets of funding,
  • the water tank contracted out to three separate engineers,
  • the clinic that was approved to be built in 1998 but had already been in existence for 30 years.

"We put pressure on people who govern," Aruna tells me at the end of a long day. "India is the largest democracy in the world. We are providing a deeper understanding of democracy. It is not just about the poor in Rajasthan but it is about the accountability of city councils, the health service, the police - everybody."

India: Thursday 27 December 2001 at 1100 on BBC Radio Four

Reporter: Rosie Goldsmith
Producer: Tim Mansel
Editor: Maria Balinska

Children singing
In night school
Discusses the many problems faced by villagers
Aruna Roy
Time for the people to air their grievances
See also:

20 Apr 01 | South Asia
25 Sep 00 | South Asia
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