Bunker Roy: Barefoot College for rural upliftment

by Sanjukta Basu

Sanjit Roy, popularly known as “Bunker” (his childhood nickname), is the brains and inspiration behind Barefoot College, a path-breaking example of how education can be simplified and yet made relevant for economically deprived and socially backward sections of society.

Barefoot College takes in illiterate or semi-illiterate men, women and children, often from remote villages and trains them to become self-employed as solar engineers, teachers, pathologists, IT workers, managers and accountants.

Barefoot solutions’  broadly cover “solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.”

Originally founded in 1971 in Tilonia, a small village in Rajasthan, the solar powered College today has twenty centers in thirteen Indian states. In addition, it also serves countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bhutan, and Sierra Leone.

The driving ideology for the College is the Gandhian belief that communities should be self-sufficient and autonomous. Roy believes that College graduates should apply their training within their communities thereby ensuring the development of these communities in addition to enhancement of their own status. Consistent with this belief, the College does not award formal degrees to avoid potential migration of its graduates to more economically rewarding opportunities.  He finds that women, especially middle aged ones to be better learners than men who are more impatient to use the knowledge to get a job in the city.

Although the College does charge a nominal fee for its services to ensure its own sustainability and a sense of value among graduates for their education, it ensures that this fee is totally affordable for its students. Only a quarter of its expenses are covered from the tuition fees whereas government grants and donations from institutional and individual donors take care of the rest.

In addition, the College strives to keep its costs low, a critical requirement for an enterprise of this nature. For example, graduates of the College’s programs are re-hired internally to the extent necessary, at modest compensations. The difference in compensations between the highest-paid and lowest-paid staff is not more than three times.

Roy’s accomplishments in creating this social venture are even more laudable considering his elitist roots. Born in 1945 to a well-to-do family settled in Burnpur, West Bengal, Roy was schooled in prestigious educational institutions such as the Doon School in Dehradun and Saint Stephen’s College in New Delhi , accumulating what in his own words was “the most snobbish, exclusive education any Indian could have had the misfortune to have”.

His enviable credentials would probably have helped him land any career of his choosing had he not had a life-changing exposure to the Bihar famine of the 1960s during a visit there. The suffering and misery he witnessed up close probably generated in him a conviction that education is valueless if not used in a positive way to benefit society. Despite the entreaties of his parents to take up a conventional high-status occupation, Roy chose to continue his association with the economically and socially backward sections of society, first by digging wells in villages around Ajmer in Rajasthan, India and later becoming social entrepreneur after conceptualizing  Barefoot College.

To date, the College has graduated thousands of individuals who would otherwise have never have made it through conventional colleges and universities due to the lack of prior credentials and the inability to pay requisite fees. Such is the power of social entrepreneurship to transform lives that profit-driven institutions have bypassed.

For his outstanding efforts to further social entrepreneurship at the grass-roots level, he was chosen as The 2010 Time 100 as one of hundred people who most affect our world.

Video link here.

To know more about Barefoot College and their initiatives, please visit their website.


About the Writer:

Sanjukta Basu is studying her MBA in California State University with a possibility of a minor in Sustainability and Innovation. She likes Nature, photography and music, and lives in Berkeley, California, USA with her husband and two sons.

Photo Courtesy : Barefoot College on Flickr

Further links you may be interested in:

1. EWTT: Anshu Gupta’s GOONJ: Recycling Urban Waste for the Rural Poor


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Posted by on Jan 22 2011. Filed under Communities and Governance, Sustainable Manufacturing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Bunker Roy: Barefoot College for rural upliftment”

  1. abdulmalik abubakar

    i would like to know how i could apply for solar engineering course and how much will it cost me to apply,i am writting from nigeria

  2. Hi Abdulmalik, kindly contact Barefoot College to find out more:

    The Director,
    Barefoot College,
    Via Madanganj,
    District Ajmer,

    Contact Person: Bunker Roy (Director, Barefoot College)
    Phone Number: +91 (0)1463 288205
    Fax: +91 (0)1463 288206
    E-mail: bunker_roy@yahoo.com and barefootcollege@gmail.com

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