interview with Bhagwat Nandan, aka Guruji

We wanted to set up a rural technological centre. A campus built only on green technologies.
We started to develop the solar section in 1988, funded with the royalties from the book The City of Joy. We were told about the advantages of photovoltaic solar panels to bring electricity to remote villages. We wanted to set up an open concept that everybody understood, so we started with trainings. The purpose was to inform all the rural people and tell them how we could upgrade our standards of living together.
I started to learn about solar systems: understanding photovoltaic panels, the batteries, production and maintenance. That time I was teaching science and maths in the night schools, and the project gave me the opportunity to learn about new techniques. I got more and more interested in the matter.
Today I have trained more than 400 Barefoot women solar engineers.

The government has been supportive early on and together we have organized a lot of projects. It’s very important for the government that we have sub-centres in 8 states and that we develop this initiative via these smaller centres all over India. The focus is on rural areas.
Working with solar energy instead of being connected to the grid is a deliberate social choice. Solar energy is available to anybody and nobody can take a copyright on it.
The regular companies can reach cities and towns but they have problems to supply the remote areas with electricity. Together we agreed that Barefoot College was better positioned to work on these difficult areas.

We go to the villages and with the village committee we agree in a contract that they should select 2 women and send them to Barefoot for a full training. Once they go back to their village they will in turn explain the people of the village about solar energy. Another contractual agreement is that every family has to pay a small monthly sum for hire and maintenance of their systems.
The solar systems are restricted to the basic needs: reading, writing, some household tasks. When a village is already connected to the regular grid, people are not prone to make a 20.000 rupees investment in a photovoltaic system. So we work only in areas where there is no electricity at all.
Concerning the ecological factor, people are well aware that they need to be careful with nature. The government used to subsidize a lot but now they can’t afford it anymore. People are waiting again to be subsidized before they make the investment.

When we started with the trainings we discovered that women were really interested. An explanation could be that women work with electricity in their daily life, at home, in the kitchen. So why not involve more women in the solar department, we thought, and teach them about electricity, about resistors and AC/DC streams.
We have to support the women that follow the trainings because they come here for 6 months and they leave their family for a while. We have to take good care of them. They come all the way from Africa and South America.
The trainings have an empowering effect on the women. A lot of these women are under men’s domination. They keep the women in basic positions to control them. Bringing them here makes them self-confident. That’s one of the reasons to start this project. Barefoot College wants to give a platform to these women, to discover their strengths and give them confidence.

In the beginning, they might not feel not very comfortable but once back home they really get more respect and they become more independent. We want to work with people that can make a change in the world. And these women can.
Bunker Roy, our Director, visits all the candidate villages interested in the trainings, nationally as well as internationally. After a screening, we decide collectively. If you see what a difference a solar system can make for a community, you know it’s worth the time put in these trainings.

One day, I would love to bring all solar trainees from different villages all over the world together to share their experiences and stories.