The other day I got thinking about the nature of our school curricula. Ask a seventh or eighth grader about solar technology or rain water harvesting, and you’ll get a pat textbook answer. But have they even seen any of it actually at work? How many students have actually thought of making solar lamps? With more theory and so little practical stuff being taught in classrooms, it’s no wonder that we’re churning out tens of thousands of educated but often unemployable youths every year.
A chance conversation with Geeta, an alumna of Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan sparked off this train of thought. At the age of 30, she’s hardly ever stepped out of her village and has studied formally only up to class four. But show her a transistor, a diode and a solar panel, and Geeta will build you solar chargers, lamps and lanterns with ease.
“It all started when I joined a night school in my village,” Geeta said, “through this, in 2007, I became associated with Barefoot.” I learnt that since 1972, Barefoot College had trained more than 6,525 rural women from poor agricultural communities as midwives, handpump mechanics, solar engineers, artisans, weavers, balsevika (crèche teachers), parabolic solar cooker engineers, FM radio operators and fabricators, dentists, masons, and day and night school teachers.
“Most of us learning these skills were illiterate,” said Geeta, adding, “and so in the beginning it was definitely tough!” For her, learning the names of components to make machines she’d never even seen before was a challenging task. “For the first few days, I often wondered what I was doing there!” she reminisced. But within 15 days of training, Geeta was able to learn the colour and number codes of basic components like transistors and diodes. “After that, it was easy going, as the supervisor would just call out the colour or number code of the components that we needed,” said she.
Geeta completed her training with minimal fanfare. No certificate was given to her. “We don’t need certificates! Only people who want to migrate to big cities need certificates to prove that they are trained,” she said. The Barefoot model shows that with enough viable employment options in villages, migration to cities can be curbed.
Today, Geeta and the rest of her community are busy training groups of women from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and even Sierra Leone in Africa! Although the Africans speak no Indian languages and their Indian tutors don’t know a word of any African languages — together they have demystified sophisticated solar technology so that it’s easily accessible to all.
I asked Geeta what drove her to work as a Barefoot solar engineer. “The money of course is welcome!” she said, “I earn Rs 100 a day (about Rs 3,000 a month) which is wonderful.” It also supplements her husband’s income who does masonry work, and her family has been highly supportive. But more important is the feeling that that she’s creating products that will light up many lives.
As I write this column, I look at the sun pouring into my study and wonder at those village women far away who can’t read or write but still know enough to harness its energy. What a contrast they are to countless children in city schools, getting taught but not really educated! In some ways, it’s better to be barefoot in a village and doing things than to be in a city wearing shoes, going nowhere…