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Barefoot Solar Engineers – Let There be Light!


The best way to start off the section on Cleantech in Colleges will be to start off with an article on an unusual “college” – Barefoot College.

Name of the College – Barefoot College (an NGO)

Founded: 1972, by Bunker Roy

Activities: To improve the quality of life for rural Indian communities

Highlights: Barefoot Solar Engineers, Inclusive & Sustainable Application of Renewable Energy in Villages

Headquarters – Tilonia, Ajmer, State of Rajasthan

Web Site: www.barefootcollege.org

 

Introduction

How many of us have heard about the Barefoot College? Yes, that is the name. And if you have not heard about it, it is time you did.

Established in 1972, the Barefoot College is a non-government organisation that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. These ‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorised into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.

Philosophy behind the Barefoot College

The College believes that for any rural development activity to be successful and sustainable, it must be based in the village as well as managed and owned by those whom it serves. Therefore, all Barefoot initiatives whether social, political or economic, are planned and implemented by a network of rural men and women who are known as ‘Barefoot Professionals’.

Of special interest among the services that the college provides is its services in the context of rural electrification through the use of solar power. Electricity can provide the escape velocity required by many hundreds of thousands of Indian villagers to move from poverty and illiteracy to better quality of life and more literate children. India has over 70,000 villages that have never seen electricity. Just imagine the power that will be unleashed by just providing them access to clean electricity, even if it for just a few hours a day.

Barefoot Solar Engineers

This “college”, a deserved winner of numerous awards, is doing something splendid – providing electricity to remote rural areas that had seen no electricity, and in the process providing skillsets and employment to thousands of villagers. Talk about the 3 Ps (planet, people and profits) and Barefoot College is an example of effort that is achieving all three.

Design of Barefoot College at Ajmer – Photo Courtesy- Barefoot College

Rather than we trying to explain what it does, here are details about the Barefoot College, in their own words (emphasis and additional text ours)

“The Barefoot College has been pioneering solar electrification in rural, remote, non-electrified villages, since 1989. The College has demystified solar technology and is decentralizing its application by making it available to poor and neglected communities. By ‘demystification’ of solar technology and ‘decentralisation’ of its application, we mean placing the fabrication, installation, usage, repair and maintenance of sophisticated solar lighting units in the hands of rural, illiterate and semi-literate men and women .

The Barefoot College believes and has demonstrated that educational qualifications are not needed by people with rural or poor backgrounds to acquire skills that can be of service to their community. In fact, the existence of theoretical paper-based qualifications have been usually found to be a deterrent to development as those that have them tend to come for work or training with mental blocks and superficial expertise.

The methodology applied for rural solar electrification is unique to the Barefoot College. Only villages that are inaccessible, remote and non-electrified are considered for solar electrification. In the initial meeting, members of the community are told about solar lighting and its benefits. If villagers express the need and wish for solar lighting then a Village Environment Energy Committee (VEEC) is formed. This committee consists of the village elders, both men and women. The VEEC consults with the entire village community and identifies households which are interested in acquiring eco-friendly solar lighting units. Every family that wants to obtain solar lighting must pay an affordable contribution every month, irrespective of how poor they are. This is so that even the poorest of the poor can feel a sense of ownership towards their unit and take care of it.

As part of the decentralization and demystification process, the College essentially trains a few members of the community to be ‘Barefoot Solar Engineers’ (BSEs), who will install, repair and maintain solar lighting units for a period of five years at least, as well as set up a ‘Rural Electronic Workshop’ where components and equipment needed for the repair and maintenance of solar units will be stored.

Barefoot Solar Engineers at Work

The village must agree, in writing, to build or donate a building for the Rural Electronic Workshop (REW), select Barefoot solar engineers and allow them to go to India for six months of training, as well as identify the individuals who will be responsible for punctually collecting the monthly household fee. This way the entire rural community can take part in solar electrification and control and manage it together.

While a percentage of the total contribution pays for a monthly stipend to every BSE, the rest covers the costs of components and spare parts like CFL tubes used during repair. The batteries used in solar lighting units need to be replaced every five to ten years. Households that wish to replace their battery through the organization need to pay an amount which will be collectively deposited in a bank as a fixed deposit, where it will gain interest for five to ten years. Once the fixed deposit matures the amount is used to buy new batteries. However, if this amount falls short for the purchase of all the batteries needed then the villagers need to pay the balance amount.

The process of solar electrification is not undertaken till the villagers, who have expressed a desire for solar lighting, agree to pay or collect the nominal monthly fee, to select Barefoot solar engineers for training, as well as to arrange for an REW, in writing. Barefoot College implements this to initiate and ensure complete participation on behalf of the rural community. Therefore, this community managed, controlled and owned approach is innovative and can be replicated in far corners of the world.”

Hats off to Bunker Roy, who founded the college, and to all those simple but amazing Barefoot Solar Engineers!


Categories: Uncategorized

Author - Narasimhan Santhanam


Thank you for reading this post – hope it was helpful. You can connect with me at narsi@eai.in. My detailed profile here and my LinkedIn profile here

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