Interview: Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy

Erik Jaques meets Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy, social activist and educator

'Mahatma Ghandi affected me a lot', says Roy

'Mahatma Ghandi affected me a lot', says Roy

Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy knows a thing or two about bucking convention. Since spurning the wealth and privilege his exclusive education and razor-sharp intellect would likely have brought to dig wells in the heart of impoverished Rajasthan, he has blazed a unique social entrepreneurial trail, steadfastly dedicating his life to unlocking human potential where others saw only intractable devastation.

Founded in 1972, Barefoot College has been the manifestation Roy's devotion, a bold educative anomaly where people from around the world can begin to escape poverty by drawing on innate ability and skills hidden from mainstream view.

Roy describes it as a place of learning and unlearning: where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher; a place where people are encouraged to make mistakes so that they can learn humility, curiosity, and develop the courage to take risks, innovate, and to improvise.

The model is one of inclusion and respect and, above all, fostering a form of social development that completely eschews dependency-begetting policy, imposed top-down consultation and bureaucratic obstacle.

"Mahatma Ghandi affected me a lot," says Roy. "It is important to be simple, it is important to be down to earth, it is important to involve the people in all the decision-making processes."

Students at the college become versed in disciplines like water engineering, solar power, income generation, and medicine before returning to their home village to put their newfound skills and knowledge to influential use.

The Barefoot College also offers handicraft courses to assist women who stay at home to make an income, and runs 549 night schools in India for children who cannot attend during the day due to familial work commitments.

Through its basic services it has reached nearly three million men, women and children who live on less than 50 cents a day, including 12 states in India and 28 of the least developed countries in Africa.

In recent years, much of the focus has been on training illiterate or semi-literate middle-aged mothers and grandmothers. From experience Roy says that men tend to be untrainable, restless, impatient, and compulsively mobile; they all want certificates which they will tend to use to leave their village for the city.

"We take a position that just because you can't read and write you shouldn't be penalized," he says on a crackly phone-line from Barefoot College on one of his increasingly rare stop-offs at home base (he travels at least 20 days of the month spreading the gospel of his work and has just returned from Fiji and Tongo).

"There's nothing preventing you from becoming an engineer or an architect or a dentist; it is just a question of providing an opportunity and the mental and physical space to be able to develop. Mark Twain said 'never let school interfere with your education'.

"School is learning how to read and write and education is what you get from your community, your family, from your environment," he continues.

"That is where most learning begins and most learning endures."

Roy breaks off the conversation to talk to a voice in the background. It appears he is being summoned.

"I'm terribly sorry," he says. "The education minister from Burkina Faso is here, I'll have to call you back."

This, apparently, is "tourist" season at Barefoot College - a benign window in Tilonia's normally unforgiving climate when VIPs and emissaries from around the world drop by for fact-finding conflabs with Roy and his remarkable coterie of educators. Around 100 visitors a month make the journey between November and February.

In and of itself the very architecture and day-to-day functionality of Barefoot College serves as a proud emblem of Roy's mission. Spread out over 7,430 square meters, the campus was designed and built using locally- sourced materials and traditional knowledge, but has been electrified by modernity since 1989 when it installed solar power.

Barefoot solar engineers fabricated and installed 60KW of solar panels and five battery banks of 764 deep cycle 800aH batteries with 15 invertors between 3KW to 5KW under the supervision of a Hindu priest who had barely passed secondary school. It remains the only village-based solar-powered college in India.

Although Barefoot's remit is vast and varied, the very notion of creating solar engineers from ostensibly nothing - no written or verbal communication in most instances - truly captures the imagination.

Praise and recognition for this aspect of the curriculum is certainly on the up. In January, Roy made the six-strong finale shortlist for the Abu Dhabi Government-backed Zayed Future Energy Prize, the biggest environmental award ceremony in the world (wind turbine giant Vestas eventually scooped the US$1.5M pot but gave away the proceeds to charity as well as all nominated finalists, giving Barefoot College a much-deserved $250,000 cash injection).

"If you ask any solar engineer anywhere in the world they will say it is technically impossible for anyone who hasn't gone through a formal education to fabricate a charge controller," says Roy, back on the line after duly impressing his guest (several grandmothers from Burkina Faso are currently being put through their paces at Barefoot College).

"But when I say an illiterate grandmother from Africa can do it, it is just mind boggling for them - and she's not only an engineer, she's a fabricator, an installer, a repairer and a maintainer. They come here as grandmothers but they go back as tigers."

Barefoot College only brings the magic of solar power to villages that are inaccessible, remote and non-electrified.

During the course of a kick-off meeting. members of the community are told about the technology's benefits and if they are convinced a Village Environment Energy Committee (VEEC) comprising elders - both men and women - is established.

The VEEC consults with the entire village community and pinpoints the households interested in acquiring solar lighting units. These must then pay a small contribution every month, a mechanism that engenders a sense of ownership and pride for the fact that this is not simply another handout with a finite lifespan.

Over the course of six months, the Barefoot College flies a selection of members of the community to India to train them as solar engineers. Upon graduation they will install, repair and maintain solar lighting units for a period of at least five years, as well as set up a Rural Electronic Workshop (REW) where components and equipment needed for the repair and maintenance are stored.

The village must agree, in writing, to build or donate a building for the REW and also identify the individuals who will be responsible for collecting the monthly household fee.

While a percentage of the total contribution pays for a monthly stipend to every solar engineer, the rest covers the costs of components and spare parts.

In India alone, 383 barefoot solar engineers (169 semi-literate rural women) have solar-electrified 648 villages reaching 15,000 families in 16 states, saving nearly two million litres of kerosene from entering the atmosphere.

Over 150 grandmothers have travelled to India, taken the six-month course and solar electrified 100 villages, reaching 10,000 houses and curtailing the use of over 1.5M litres of kerosene. The total cost of activity in Africa total just $2.5M (paid for via a combination of community input from the villagers themselves equivalent to their expenditure on kerosene and batteries as well as grants).

That, says Roy, is equivalent to the cost spent on one single UNDP- backed Millennium Village project over five years.

"If you have $2.5M, you should spread it around 28 countries around Africa instead of one millennium village," he says.

Roy firmly believes that he has unearthed the only viable approach for undeveloped, impoverished nations not only to make a genuine contribution to combating climate change but also generate wealth, skills and opportunity. He bristles at how big would-be altruists and international agencies have handled the problem to date.

"They don't have the confidence that the community can manage this," he explains. "That's why they bring in consultants from the outside. That's a disaster. It is the worst thing you can do.

"The moment you make them [villages] independent of consultants and experts you are actually making them dispensable and making them feel they are not required. It is a very threatening model that we have in front of them."

Roy was born in Burnpur, Bengal, in 1945 to a mechanical engineer father and a mother who served as India's trade commissioner to Russia. His education took place at exclusive schools in India, culminating in a Master's degree in English.

His combative, determined spirit was evident from an early age, most prominently through sport (he is a three-time Indian squash champion), but the defining moment in his life came in 1965 when, while still in college, he travelled around India.

Witnessing first hand the brutal impact poverty had on his country, particularly in Bihar where a famine was raging, he vowed to devote himself to social service, much to the chagrin of his parents.

"It hits you between the eyes," he says, intensity rising in his voice.

"You are living in a country where there is such a contrast and people who can do something about it are not doing anything and or not doing enough. People are so insensitive to what is going on around them and I can't understand that. I say it quite openly and blatantly to them 'what is wrong with you people, don't you see what is happening in front of you? You don't think you need to give something back?'"



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