interview with Vasu, facilitator at Barefoot College

Barefoot College has changed a lot compared to 36 years ago when we started. What is applicable in Tilonia – its overall vision – can be replicated anywhere else. In this country and abroad, but it needs a change of mindsets.
We are organized in a disorganized way. We have small committees for different topics. We have the housing committee, the water committee, the salary committee. Salaries can go up and down, depending on your performance. You have also the possibility to evaluate yourself. Poverty, teamwork, gender are all issues coming into play for evaluation. Points are added up, but nobody can get more than 100 U$.
The options are open. The organization is set up as a community so obviously there will always be somebody to run it.

We have a strong bond with the trainees from other countries, they are a real part of the Barefoot Family. After the training they go back home, in Afghanistan, in Ethiopia, in Bhutan, and register themselves as associations. They function on the same principles as the women’s groups. The Barefoot Solar Engineers can become a global organization, as we have the global rainwater harvesting collective. This approach is part of the training. It’s a sustainable process.
In the future, we will work more and more with Africa. The Ministry of External Affairs of India recognized our trainings. Now these African leaders come here to check out our program on solar and educational trainings.
The selection procedure of the women is very important for us, and is -if possible- done by their own community.
Abroad we work with local NGOs. An NGO with a good, transparent track record is important, and good is very relative. We can only watch that their credibility towards the poorest of the poor is ok, and that they have respect for gender, because that’s very important for continuing this work. It’s these local NGOs that take over and continue our work in the women’s native countries. Many of these come here to visit multiple times, we have meetings and discussions on how to go on afterwards. And we visit them over there also.

A lot of the countries we worked with are all conflict areas. And if the solar model can work there, it can work anywhere in the world. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone. Hopefully our footprints will grow in different parts of the world, of course with the support from different organizations. The bottom line really is: if this approach can be replicable in different eco-zones, hilly, mountainous, tribal, coastal, plains, semi-arid, then you can say that the model works. And that can change the mindset of the policy makers, the planners, the economists.

The training is just the beginning, and after that everything depends on the initiatives of the women. Some go faster than others.
For example in Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India, we have a Barefoot Solar Engineers association initiated by 4 illiterate women that followed our training. They went back and started a technology park at the National Institute of Rural Development. Now the Ministry of Welfare has given them the responsibility for the Solar Electrification of 20 villages. The women implemented it all themselves.

A lot of politicians like India. Because India is an ‘arty’ democracy. You can do anything here. You can shout and you can always get away with it.
Lots of people in the 21st century are influenced by Gandhi, the ideas on reconciliation and non-violence are important now for people.
The Barefoot approach is to try some of the simple ideas of Gandhi. An example: you don’t need to work with high technology. Decentralize and demystify photovoltaic technology and give it in the hands of the illiterate women. It’s a reconciliation where all these things can come together.
That way you find out that the ideas of Gandhi are so simple. Wherever there’s violence, there’s no other answer than reconciliation. Of course conflict is different for the people who are in the middle of it. And when you can do things in the worst scenarios as in these conflict countries, you can do it anywhere.

Sometimes we have conflicts with the energy sector and then you realize that you are successful. Of course we have the enthusiasm and approval of some experts but they still work for the conventional grid. Real decentralization will never be part of the thinking of this country in the next century! Let’s be clear about that.

Rajasthan, as a very dry area, will be touched seriously by the climate change. Therefore it’s very important that all of us are aware to work with clean and green energy. It’s the small and distributed approach that can make a change on world level.
But our first problem is water. Clean drinking water. That’s the most important thing to take care of, other things can come later. For these women water is ecology. To walk some kilometers to have water that is not polluted makes sense. They have their own view on ecology.