Dr Nita Mukherjee finds another successful skill development model based on training illiterate rural women
Exactly a decade ago, ‘graduates’ of the Barefoot College decided to come together to form what is perhaps the first association of semi-literate women solar engineers. The Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers Society (WBSCES) was registered in 2003 to disseminate solar technology to the poorest of the poor and train rural women as solar engineers. Since women are the main users of energy—and suffer the most because of depleting fuel-wood—they are adept at learning to use a renewable energy source, like solar energy, and appreciate its impact on preserving the environment and improving the quality of their life. The office of the Society is located in the old campus of Barefoot College (Tilonia), which has trained these solar engineers.
The approach of the Barefoot College has always been that grassroots community development should be people-centric. What is required for this is equipping people with traditional knowledge that is married to modern technology. These skills have to be available locally whenever there is a need. Simple, rural folk get intimidated by using knowledge, or ‘knowledgeable people’ from outside—whether they are doctors or engineers.
Over the years, Barefoot College has demonstrated that illiteracy is not a barrier to learning. Illiteracy is in no way an impediment for the poor to get trained in solar engineering. Says Bunker Roy, one of the founders of Barefoot College: “Our experience shows that men are ‘un-trainable’ for rural development work. They are ambitious and compulsively mobile; all they want is a paper certificate. Once they obtain the certificate, they go looking for a job in cities. So the Barefoot College came up with a unique solution: train grandmothers. It is now a policy of the College to train only illiterate/semi-literate, middle-aged mothers and grandmothers from villages all over the world.” Moneylife readers would recollect that the Foundation of Medical Health and Research adopted a similar strategy for training rural community health workers in Maharashtra (Issue dated 1 February 2007).
Uneducated women solar engineers are trained in six months—using sight, sound and sign language. The collective learning process is beyond pedagogy. As Anu Saxena, Latin America adviser to the Barefoot College’s solar engineering programme, says: “Since there is no common language among the trainees or instructors, women learn to identify parts by colour and use hand gestures liberally.”
Some of the earliest women solar graduates have become a part of the Barefoot College ‘faculty’. Among the training team of WBSCES are: Sita Devi (studied up to class 3), Shyama Devi (class 5), Shehnaaz Begum (class 4), Northi Devi (illiterate), Indra Devi (illiterate), Kamla Devi (class 4) and Raju Devi (who has gone up to class 10). These women are not only training other solar engineers from all over the world but also building parabolic pressure cookers—a task requiring high accuracy and skill in metal craftsmanship. Any inaccuracy means the cooker won’t work at all. This craft was traditionally synonymous with men; today, it is being practised by women—grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters. A parabolic solar cooker uses energy from sunlight to cook food. Its shape allows all the sunlight that falls on the mirrors to be concentrated on the bottom of a cooking pot to cook food quickly. The Society’s team installs and maintains the cookers. Purchasers also receive a day’s training at Tilonia in the use and basic maintenance of cookers.
These Barefoot College graduates have solar electrified 19,717 houses and 293 schools in 680 villages spread over 16 Indian states. These are serviced by 430 barefoot solar engineers of whom 170 are illiterate women. The team has installed solar parabolised cookers in 25 villages in aanganwaadis (rural crèches); 450 children have their morning meal cooked in these solar cookers. Donations to the Society are tax-exempt under Section 80G.
Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers Society
Tilonia 305816 (via) Madanganj,
Ajmer District, Rajasthan