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The Barefoot College in Tilonia

Sanjit (Bunker) Roy

The Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) started officially in the village of Tilonia on 5 February 1972. On that day the Government of Rajasthan agreed to hand over a 45-acre 21-building one-time TB sanatorium to the SWRC on a long-term lease for Re.1 per month. But it was not until November 1972 that the SWRC managed to begin with a groundwater survey of the 110 villages of Silora Block for the Rural Electrification Corporation. This project took two years to complete but resulted in thhe electrification of almost all theh villages in the block a decade later.

The Barefoot College (BC), as the SWRC is called (also identified as Tilonia by the name of the village), was the result of practical experience. It was not inspired by books or by the theories of academics or practitioners based in urban areas. It was the result of hours of work in the villages, weeks of meeting ordinary peasants who wanted to get together and live and work in a village setting. Tilonia's beginnings were the prepration that usually goes with the establishment of a project. No ideological leanings of any kind, no costly survey to decide what to do, no assistance from the traditional, well-established voluntary movements of India. Whether the Gandhian, the Sarvodaya, the Christian or the Ramakrishna Mission. In any case, at that time, the BC was too small to get their attention or interest.

The BC wanted to break away from the 'social work tradition', which in India had acquired an urban, middle-class, academic colour, and there could not have been a better way to do this than using a professional groundwater survey as an entry point.

Furthermore, in India, among groups oriented to social action, research had acquired a dirty name and the BC wanted to move away from the concepts and traditions of research prevailing among academic social and physical scientists; the purpose was to make research more pragmatic, of a 'dirty hands' type tied directly to action. In a modest way, the Barefoot College has proved its point.

Many people who had started projects earlier did not give this non-professional approach much of a chance. The BC was in fact taking calculated risks on a number of fronts:

1. It was advocating an integrated approach over a sectoral one because it believed that rural life could not be compartmentalised as experts had traditionally done.

In a village, for instance, a shopkeeper is more that just an outlet for provisions; he keeps seeds and fertilisers for distribution, he sells contraceptive, he reads newspapers and disseminates information, and sometimes he is also a member of the village council. He in fact is the last word in integration. This applies also to the school teacher.

2. No project plan was designed in advance, no clear time schedule, no detailed programme activities, no organisational and administrative arrangements, project staff or physical inputs, etc. Tilonia let the organisation grow as a process where human beings and their development, their confidence and personal growth meant more and mattered more.

3. The investment was more in people than in projects. This has been the first priority. No recruitment through advertisement but by word of mouth, by trial and error.

BC started with a groundwater survey and gradually built in a health and education programme (1974) when they managed to attract two well-trained and highly motivated women from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. In 1975-96, when the BC managed to locate the right person, it started the Rural Industries Section and the Agricultural Extension Programme (1975). Other programmes followed until 1979, when the BC changed its way of functioning and decision-making. No longer did it depend on the director, but a group ws formed which took all the major decisions. The BC could not possibly plan and implement programmes from Tilonia for a territory of 500 square miles; the block was sub-divided into field centres, each looking after 6-25 villages depending on the staff and their capacity.

The areas on which the Barefoot College concentrated were"

  1. Groundwater: Survey, site selection, installation of hand pumps, repair and maintenance through community participation.
  2. Education: Nursery schools, evening schools for dropouts, classes for women and girls.
  3. Medical care: Preventive health programmes where a doctor is not needed. TB eradication, eye camps, immunisation camps, family planning camps, pre-natal and post-natal care, appliances for the handicapped, testing drinking water for contamination, decontamination of wells, homoeopathy.
  4. Women's programmes Training of traditional midwives, motivators in famine relief camps, nursery school teachers, awareness generating, work among rural women.
  5. Agricultural extension: Development of unused and underutilised land allotted by government, soil and water testing, groundwater survey, engineering survey, seeds and fertiliser loans, credit, grain storage, marketing facilities, social forestry.
  6. Rural industry: Working with leather workers, weavers and rural women in order to generate more income for their families; assistance with raw materials, marketing, design, and credit.
  7. Appropriate technology: Use of biogas for generating power, photovoltaic cells for generating electricity in night schools, dispensaries.
  8. Animal husbandry: Demonstrate how stall feeding of goats is useful for milk and meat but constitutes an ecological hazard; rearing of rabbits and sheep; the BC dealt only with the poor peasants' animals, not with buffaloes and cows.
  9. Communication: Use of traditional media like puppetry to communicate with the rural poor; use of street plays and other media.

Goals of the barefoot college


From the very beginning it was not BC's intention to solve problems. Much more important was the belief in starting processes that went in the right direction. Basically, the SWRC saw the following problems being faced in the rural areas:

  1. Lack of professionalisation: Too many projects based in the rural areas emphasised the dissemination of urban skills, knowledge and services without taking the human element in the rural areas into account. Tilonia was keen on professionalising volunteerism and using skills already available in thhe village community.
  2. Lack of accessibility: The BC considered that numerous needs had to be met and the Tilonia model tries to address these, i.e. the need to bridge gaps in attitudes and facilitate exchange of experiences; the need to bring urban and rural skills closer and learn from each other and jointly plan and implement programmes for families living below the poverty line; the need to being the rural poor closer to using their skills on how to plan projects, programmes and schemes for their own development.
  3. Poor dissemination of information: Many of the schemes of the government were misinterpreted by people with vested interests in the village, including village-level government functionaries, with the result that the rural poor were entirely dependent on what the literate people in the village told them. The BC's role was to see that correct information reached the poor through channels they understood and then let them decide for themselves what to do with the information Knowledge in the hands of a select few was power. The BC wanted to spread this power.
  4. Dependency: To make communities independent by upgrading the skills existing in the community, by providing the peasants with the correct information, by making their skills more accessible. The BC felt that the peasants would be in a better position to rely on each other rather than on the government: they would then be able to understand the true meaning of cooperation.
  5. Absence of institution support: For peasants living in an impoverished state, it is virtually impossible to apply effective pressure on the national political system without the support of an organisation. The location of an organisation close to a village gives confidence and even the courage to resist exploitation, injustice and misuse. The organisation can help the poor peasants meet senior officials, it can train them for a better and more effective use of laws, it can support them in their administrative and legal endeavours. Moral and even organisational support is not enough.

Initially, the BC was oriented towards providing technical and socio-economic services to all the villages in Silora Block. In India there are castes, there are classes, but very rarely are there actual communities, the only exceptions being the tribal societies. In Tilonia village, for example, there are fourteen different castes, which creates a variety of problems especially for the extremely accessible to all, it found it was being used - often abused - by the richer and more powerful of the village. Obviously, this was not leading to any significant fundamental change of the sort the BC was expecting or considered desirable.

This led, in 1977-79, to a crisis within the BC, because some of the staff considered that persuading the influential individuals in the villages was the best way to contribute to rural development, while others thought that the BC's strategy had to be totally grassroots-oriented. The crisis was precipitated by a case of embezzlement in the Centre. The son of a Tilonia village headman, who had been working with the BC since 1974, was fired because he had stolen funds. He started a campaign against the Centre, which gained momentum and strength after he got elected to the state Legislative Assembly; he was able to institute an inquiry into the working of the BC. It was a difficult time for the Centre, because despite the fact that the BC had been working mainly with the socially vulnerable groups, no scheduled castes or poor peasants dared to testify for it. However, the Centre was able to prevail and the campaign against the BC withered away. This definitely oriented the Centre towards a grassroots strategy.

Since 1979, as a result of a conscious decision, the BC is only working, directly, with the following target groups; small and marginal landless peasants; rural artisans, such as leather workers, potters, carpenters, weavers and blacksmiths; rural women and children; scheduled castes and tribes; harijans (untouchables) and other minorities.


The strategies can be characterised in the following way"

  1. To encourage an integrated approach to rural development. There needed to be an integration between rural skills and urban knowledge, between human and financial resources in urban and rural areas. At the village level, what was crucial was integration between the different services being provided to the peasant and his family. For example, preventive health programmes had to be linked to the provision of drinking water through hand pumps; likewise, the generation of income had to be related to health and education programmes. The process of bringing about this integration resulted in many changes within the BC; priorities, staffing patterns and evaluation of staff performance had to be adjusted. At the same time, the BC felt even more strongly the need to upgrade the skills of the rural poor themselves.
  2. The BC had to be based in a village. It could not and should not be involved in development by proxy or by commiting from an urban base.
  3. If the idea was to work with the poorest peasants and to build up their confidence, it was necessary to live simply and in almost the same life-style as they did. The BC members had too set an example if they wanted to convey the impression that the Centre was there for the development of the rural poor. The BC, therefore, on principle, does not depend on electricity from the grid but has electrified the whole campus with solar energy.
  4. The interaction within the between the BC and its target populations had to be informal, without hierarchies of any kind. IT had to be flexible, the BC members had to be accessible and at the same time knowledgeable. This perforce meant the building of an organisation without degenerating into an institution.
  5. If the BC wanted the poorest peasants to participate in their own development, use their own knowledge, skills and experience, then there was a need for the BC to identify skills that needed to be upgraded, knowledge that needed to be percolated, and give this process sanctity and acceptability. This has yielded impressive results today.
  6. To mobilise resources from within the community, no service should be given free of charge. There should be no charity in the name of development. 

This realisation came from the endless discussions that BC members had with communities who insisted they did not want to be treated as beggars. This self-respect and dignity is all too often not visible to urban-based development agents.

One indicator of villages or social groups being self-reliant is their paying capacity to support a service. The more the dependence on government, the more the poor peasants are prepared to take its services free, and the more the deterioration fo the quality of these services. No service free of charge is valued.

As things now stand (1994), 40 per cent of BC's total financial resources are collected from the peasant target populations from the provision of various services.

The BC feels that such strategies are not universal and fundamental. It is not obvious that they can be replicated in other parts of the country under different socio-economic conditions, such as tribal societies and drought-prone, hilly or coastal areas. While the target populations of the Tilonia Model may be the same as those of other rural development projects, the various approaches, methods and ideologies behind these projects could radically differ from those of the BC. The Tilonia Model encouraged such ideological differences under one umbrella and so far it has worked.


Any Indian voluntary agency (VA) is in an unenviable position when it starts working at the village level. The first problem is whether it fits into a set pattern: Is it pro-government? Is it a scheme started by the rural rich? Who sponsors the scheme? Who provides financial support? Which political party does it support?

The first years are spent answering these questions and this process concerns not only the target populations, but also the voluntary agency's members themselves. Depending on how convincing the answers are and depending on how aligned the project and its workers are to parties, ideologies, personalities in the area and to government, the peasants will respond accordingly. Ironically, there is a sense of security in exploitation and the poorest peasants believe the word of the very individuals who exploit them the most. When any project starts, it needs time to settle down; but simultaneously, it must also win over the confidence of the very people whom the project's agents will hopefully be fighting against in years to come.

The first visible objectives of the project must be harmless to the people having vested interests in the village: services are to be provided to the whole village, including the rich; the project's agents have to mix less with the poor and more with the rich. The agents have to pamper the latter's wishes and requests and thus establish contact with the poor through protocol. The BC had to go through this exercise in order to acquire an image, to gain access to the villages it wanted to work with; it had to respond to 'the felt needs of the rural population', which were actually the needs of a few. These were years of preparation with villages at large favouring BC's action.

All voluntary groups including the BC eventually also have to go through a crisis period. The BC had to endure a period of uncertainly and great upheaval when in 1977-79 persons with vested interests wanted to close down the Centre because it was becoming too independent.

From its 1977-79 crisis, the BC learnt several important lessons:

  1. It is only when an organisation is challenged that it knows how strong or weak it is. The BC survived the challenge: a member of the State Legislative Assembly had publicly stated that he would finish off the Centre, but he could not succeed.
  2. This enhanced the image of the organisation in the eyes of the poorer peasants in the area. They in fact approached the BC later, after the inquiry was over, and asked why the Centre was working through intermediaries. Why did the BC not establish a direct relationship with them? The BC had proved how it was obvious from then on that political powers would think twice before challenging it.
  3. Changes of any kind come from conflict. In retrospect, this conflict helped the BC immensely in changing attitudes about their work. The target groups for the first time started coming spontaneously to the BC; the very people whom the BC wanted to work with and reach became its strongest supporters.
  4. It strengthened the BC members as a group. As a result, the management style became more democratic; decisions that before 1977-79 were taken by the director were now taken by a group.
  5. BC's objectives were redefined; the BC decided to work only with the poor in order to increase their level of awareness and make them self-reliant; development services and training were to be used only to accelerate awareness and bring about social changes.
  6. Dependence on any skills from urban areas was reduced drastically and more importance was given to education and literacy and use of technical and human resources from the village itself.
  7. Organising farmers and mobilising women's groups to fight for their rights in courts and other groups forums were stepped up.

The reaction of those with vested interests in the villages has been one of caution. The speak disparagingly of the BC as an agency that only supports scheduled castes and harijans, but the BC takes that as a compliment. There is now a feeling among the village elites that the BC is worth using but not worth fighting against; indeed, their experience has shown that the BC is strong enough to refuse an irregular request, which enhances its image with the poor peasants.

In other words, in the whole process of learning by doing, of training to take over responsibilities, in taking decisions that could have unpleasant repercussions, the BC became able to provide the needed support, and this not only in routine day-to-day activities but also during times of crisis.

  1. During the selection process of sites for the installation of hand pumps, the upper castes wanted a pump at a given site; it was refused. The site was finally selected by the scheduled castes, despite the fact that the upper castes were strongly represented. They went to the government and tried to put pressure on the BC to agree to the site selected by them. The pump was installed in the scheduled caste locally. So far the BC has installed over 700 hand pumps only in poorer localities of the village - on payment of a contributions.
  2. In many cases hand pump mechanics had been selected from the lower castes. When the village elites refused to accept them, the BC stood firm and the selection was at the instance of the scheduled castes. Now the hand pump mechanics repair the pumps or the upper castes do not get water through them. Many women hand pump mechanics have been trained and are paid by the government and the community.
  3. By the large, the teachers for evening schools had not been accepted by village councils because their candidates had not been chosen. This, however, had no impact on the process; the councils had either to accept to teachers or not have the schools. Now over 150 night schools are run by 'barefoot' teachers where over 3,000 children come. 400 of them girls.
  4. Women trained by the BC protested against the non-payment of wages in government camps. As a result, lower level officials protested to higher authorities that the BC was not cooperating because it took the side of the women. Eventually the district authorities had to pay; the BC made a lot of enemies in the process. Now women are keeping records and taking measurements on government sites.
  5. In many cases, lands supposedly allotted to landless peasants were in fact nonexistent. The BC took up a number of cases on behalf of the landless and got them land through pressure or influence. These cases have been reported by village people trained by the BC or working with it.
  6. The 21st Century Technology Campus where the Barefoot College is based is a 60,000 sq. ft. complex of buildings built by a villager who can barely sign his name. He cannot read maps or figures. On his own, using his rural skills, he has constructed a rainwater harvesting structure connecting all the roofs to an underground tank of 400,000 litres.
  7. The power for the campus comes from the sun. Solar photovoltaics (SPV) totalling 10 kW using 5 banks of 128 batteries have been installed in the campus by rural youths who have never passed beyond the 10th standard. No solar or electronics engineers were invited nor required. The powers used to run 350 lights required for the library, dining hall, residence, administrative blocks, puppets theatre, soil and water testing laboratory. A total of 8 computers and 2 printers and run day and night. Three SPV-run pumps (140 ft.) distribute 25,000 litres per day. Rural youths, mostly semi-literate, keep all the systems running.
  8. Since 1984, SPVs have been installed in 8 states of India. Tilonia has trained 65 barefoot solar engineers from these states to install 960 solar units. They include adult education centres (300), lighting night schools for boys and girls who cannot afford to go to schools in the morning because they are out grazing sheep and goats (130); domestic lighting to 500 houses over 11,000 ft. up in the Himalayas, cut off by snow for 6 months of the year. The person from Ladakh who has installed these500 units is Abdul Karim from Gurgurdo village: he can just about sign his name. The units have been working for over 3 years now.
  9. In the field of drinking water the Barefoot College has no paper qualified engineers. Sophisticated India Mark II hand pumps are being repaired by cycle repairers, ordinary farmers, blacksmiths, weavers and housewives. Called Hand Pump Mechanics (HPMs, each one looks after 30 hand pumps within a radius of 5 km from the village. Trained to carry out all major and minor repairs above and below the ground, they carry their tools on cycles and are currently paid less than US $5 a pump per year. When rapaired through the government with their trucks, jeeps, engineers and heavy equipment, it was costing over US $50 dollars per pump per year. As a result of this community-based HPM management system, policies have been changed to decentralise operation and maintenance in several states of India. At every step of the way it is the engineers who are opposing the HPM. They find it hard to accept the process of demystification that has made maintenance so absurdly simple.
  10. Boys coming out of night schools have been trained in conducting water tests for contaminated drinking water; they have been trained to carry out geophysical tests with terrameters and read the results before drilling for water and installation of hand pumps take place; they have been trained to run village primary schools and be multipurpose health workers.

Most of the barely 8th standard pass students have shown that the urban-trained engineer, doctor and teacher are not really required.

Problem areas

  1. The biggest threat to development and changes in the rural areas is what in the urban areas is called Educated Man. He usually is conservative, inflexible, conceited, arrogant and not open to new ideas; he refuses to work with his hands and he considers anyone less qualified on paper inferior and shows it; he has preconceived notions of development and how to solve problems; he uses knowledge as a tool for exploitation and power; he disseminates information on schemes and subsidies in the form of patronage. Tilonia has never faced any problem in communicating and working with the poorer peasant. But it is the Educated Man who has persistently sabotaged the introduction of innovative and progressive ideas.
  2. The concept of self-reliance has not been understood. Or perhaps some have understood it all too clearly and that is why they do not want to see it happening. Among other things, making communities self-sufficient implies that charity would have to be discontinued in the name of development and that the dispensing of patronage would by minimised. Poorer peasants would be less dependent on government and this would hardly be welcomed by some individuals. Voluntary agencies that are working towards peasants self-sufficiency can expect resistance from the lower bureaucracy every inch of the way; low-level bureaucrats will use every means to discredit the work being done in favour of such a goal.
  3. The use of village resources on a large scale means less coverage and presence of government, greater reliance on each other and more community participation. The problem that the BC has faced is not so much to show what is possible but rather to see that the new opportunities are adequately used. The problem is to get the village to identify, recognise and utilise the available resources for development purpose.
  4. It is not easy to demystify technology in order to make it more human, accessible and understandable. The BC's problems in this area has been the technologists and the scientific community at large; the process of simplification has been the most complicated and difficult.

Profile of BC's human resources

BC began as a professional group bringing specialised services to rural areas. However, by 1979 it had changed its approach. A closer relationship to the rural poor required.

- involvement of a greater number of local people as core workers

- involvement of lower scheduled caste groups

- demystifying technology and delinking education from degrees

- involving an increasing number of women

The following statistical information gives some indication of the extent to which BC has been able to incorporate these ideas in the actual induction of workers.

Table 17.1

Periodical Comparative Statement of BC's Workers

Year Total No. Education Up to Secon. (%) BA & Higher Geographical Background (%)  Caste S.C. No. (%) Others Muslim Women PCS No. % NO Total
        Ajmer Other            


1978 59 59 41 42 58 - - - - - -
1988 145 91 9 80 20 38(27) 96(65) 11(8) 10(19) 14(10) 24(17)
1993 170 81 19 82 18 30918) 13(77) 9(5) 7(4) 33(19) 40(24)

Sources: 1. The image and self-image of Tilonia, evaluation report, February 1989.

              2. BC reports, 1993.

This gives an overall comparative position of BC workers over 15 years with respect to their education, geographical background, caste and gender. However, in order to get a clearer picture on these issues, we have the following disaggregated information for 1993.

Table 17.2

BC Workers: Placement by Educational Qualification, 1993

(Distribution of Number and Percentage)

Placement Literature Primary Middle Secondary/ Hr. Sec. Graduate Post Graduate Total
Field Centre 12(23.1) 8(15.4) 5(9.6) 17(32.7) 4(7.7) 6(11.5) 52(100.0)
  (35.3) (38.1) (20.8) (29.3) (28.6) (31.6) (30.6)
H.O. Tilonia 22(18.6) 13(11.0) 19(16.1) 41(34.8) 10(8.5) 13(11.0) 118(100.0)
  (64.7) (61.9) (79.2) (70.7) (71.4) (68.4) (69.4)
Total 34(20.0) 21(12.4) 24(14.1) 58(34.1) 14(8.2) 19(11.2) 170(100.0)
  (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0)
Source: SWRC, Tilonia (1993 records)
The category 'Secondary/Higher Secondary' lists 34 per cent of the total number of workers. The post-graduate group is 11 per cent, which is slightly higher than mere graduates, 8 per cent. However, it is interesting to note that 20 per cent of Tilonia workers are basically literate with no formal educational qualification. This validates the organisation's overall stand that education should not be treated synonymous with formal certification. Respect for other forms of acquiring knowledge is registered in the induction/selection pattern of workers. We find that the head of the Solar Energy Section is not trained in an engineering college. Rural women with minimal formal qualifications are working with computers.

Table 17.3

SWRC Worker: Placement by Geographical Background, 1993

(Distribution of Number and Percentage)

Placement Ajmer District Other Districts of Rajasthan Out of State Total
Field Centre 45(86.5) 5 (9.6) 2 (3.9) 52 (100.0)
(32.4) (41.7) (10.5) (30.6)
H.O. Tilonia 94(79.7) 7 (5.9) 17 (14.4) 118(100.0)
(67.6) (58.3) (89.5) (69.4)
Total 139(81.6) 12 (7.0) 19 (11.2) 170 (100.0)
(100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0)
Source: SWRC, Tilonia

Over the year SWRC has encouraged increasing 'taking-over' by local people. The trend since 1978 is increasingly in favour of rural people from Ajmer District. From 42 per cent of its worker in this category, compared to other district in Rajasthan, the participation from other states is higher now. One reason could be that SWRC has acted as a training centre for social work in which people from different parts of the country have come and gone back to their own state to set up a unit which could be contextually relevant.

Compared with 1988 data, there is a slight shift in the caste composition of workers. SC worker in 1988 were 27 per cent, which is now 18 per cent, and Muslims were 8 per cent, now 5 per cent. It needs to be asked whether the increasing absence of 'outsiders' leads to the emergence of certain age-old features of village pattern, particularly upper-caste dominance.

Table 17.4

SWRC Workers: Placement by Caste, 1993

(Distribution of Number and Percentage)

Placement Scheduled Castes Others Muslims Total
Field Centre 10(19.2) 42(80.8) - 52(100.0)
(33.3) (32.1) (30.6)
H.O. Tilonia 20(16.9) 89(75.4) 9(7.7) 118(100.0)
(66.7) (67.9) (100.0) (69.4)
Total 30(17.6) 131(77.1) 9(5.3) 170(100.00)
(100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0)
Source: SWRC, Tilonia

Table 17.5

SWRC Workers: Placement by Age Group, 1993

(Distribution of Number and Percentage)

Placement Age Group in years
  20-25 26-35 36-45 46& above Total
Field Centre 12(23.0) 29(55.8) 8(15.4) 3(5.8) 52(100.0)
  (35.3) (30.9) (26.7) (25.0) (30.6)
H.O. Tilonia 22(18.6) 65(55.1) 22(18.6) 9(7.7) 118(100.0)
  (64.7) (69.1) (73.3) (75.0) (69.4)
Total 34(20.0) 94(55.3) 30(17.6) 12(7.1) 170(100.0)
  (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0) (100.0)
Source: SWRC, Tilonia
The largest number of worker fall in the age group 26-45. In a disaggregated analysis, it is clearly brought out that the SWRC is not a repository of superannuated people. Over the last two decades there has been a good deal of turnover, and 124 out of 170 workers are in the age group of 26-45, which can contribute mature energy levels. It is also clear that within this larger category 55 per cent of total workers are in that age category 26-35.

Table 17.6

SWRC Workers: Placement by Sex, 1993

(Distribution of Number and Percentage)

Placement Male Female Total
Field Centre 45(86.5) 7(13.5) 52(100.0)
  (34.6) (17.5) (30.6)
H.O. Tilonia 85(72.0) 33(28.0) 118(100.0)
  (65.4) (82.5) (69.4)
Source: SWRC, Tilonia

Tilonia headquarters has able to induct more women as workers than the field centres. The reasons are obvious. Changes in attitude and social behaviour require a protective nurturing environment. To begin with, a certain insulation is also necessary to ensure survival. Field Centres have a far greater exposure to counter-currents from age-old village traditions, particularly with respect to gender roles. In 1988, the number of women workers at Field Centre was 10 as compared to 7 now. However, at the Tilonia Centre, the number has shown a marked increase from 14 to 33.

Major success factors of the barefoot college model

  1. The BC is not influenced or guided by idelogical considerations. The Centre feels that every approach is relevant, is important and needs to be tried out by an person who believes in it. So there is room for a Sarvodaya, a Ramakrishna, a Marxist, a social professional or a believer in charity approaches. To each his own. The BC provides an umbrella for such men and women; it provides the atmosphere and the space for people to test their beliefs, to try their strengths and weaknesses and learn from their experiences.
  2. There is unity in diversity in the BC; unity of purpose and diversity in methods and approaches. The purpose is to integrate services, skills, information and life-styles at the village level. It is to learn from the peasants and go through a process of unlearning ourselves. It is to train the poorer peasants and provide them the tools and skills to become less dependent and hence more responsible citizens. It is to build up the confidence of the poorer peasants and make them demand funds and programmes that will benefit them, in other works make them more aware. It is to demystify technology to the extent desirable and possible and use rural technology - what we have discarded as useless and primitive - for development purposes and make it respectable.
  3. In order to make rural development work possible and bring about fundamental changes, the existence of an organisation is essential. The organisation should be accountable to government (registration, audit statement, etc.) as well as to the target populations and there should be flexibility and freedom enough for shifts in thinking, in strategies, in emphasis and in responsibilities (in particular, from the professional to the trained village-based para-professional). For instance, at the end of the year all the members of BC evaluate their own performance. BC's staff members are not encouraged to believe in salary scales or that educational qualifications are more important than experience.    Organisations tend to become institutions and in due course cease to be either effective or in close touch with their target populations. In order to avoid this, the BC has deliberately formed smaller groups spread far apart so that they do not influence each other if their approaches are different.
  4. The BC's definition of community assets in a village differs largely from the conventional version. For the BC, it is wrong to identify 'community' assets with inanimate things like buildings and roads quite apart from the fact that rarely does the whole community use these. In any case, community assets really mean the human assets that the village uses; assets accessible to all human beings like shopkeepers, priests, moneylenders, dhobis (washermen)) and lambardars (traditional keepers of land records). Their community skills in communication, in education, in medicine and in disseminating the right sort of knowledge is grossly underutilised and in fact is not even recognised by government as a community asset. Development organisations are sometimes extremely cut off from really.
  5. The other meaning of participation is village accountability. The agency must prepare the poorer peasants, must educate them, must be there to guide them, but finally when it comes to testing the system it is the peasant organisation that must do it. Obviously no village level bureaucrat would welcome a system where he has to account for his deeds and performance to someone he has always considered inferior. Already the fact that these bureaucrats have to face a threat from members of the State Legislative Assembly which make them work a trifle harder is a source of much resentment. A rural VA's goal should be that such power of control percolates down from the villages' elites to the villagers at large. This will ensure, for example, that funds reach the right people and that they are wll spent, that the keeper of land records does not accept bribes. It implies that it will make local bureaucracy work.

The question of duplicating services at the village level is obviously the first step. India has a private and public sector at the national level, at the state level, at the district level, so why not at the village level? When bureaucrats ask 'why duplicate services?' the answer should be 'where is the job not being done?' There are private practitioners in villages duplicating health services, water diviners virtually taking the place of government geologists, bal mandirs and evening schools taking the place of government schools or competing with existing schools. Government cooperatives societies are being run by banias (moneylenders) and no one complains. Shopkeepers are actually sponsored by the government to sabotage the consumer societies and everyone keeps silent. The answer is to have supplementary services that offer the poorer peasants a choice, healthy competition so that they start asking questions. How is it that the BC can install a hand pump in one week and it takes the government six months to repair one? The process of questioning is the beginning of awareness.

In the ultimate analysis, the issue is peasant participation. Not the whole villages, not the local elites, not the individuals who control public opinion, not the upper and the more influential castes who have abused their position in rural society, but the 40 per cent of those who live below the poverty line. These 40 per cent have never seen or heard, let alone read, the Constitution of India, and they have never been free from hunger and need.


The BC has delinked literacy from education, experience from qualification. Liking these elements constitutes a mythical system and the expectation of competence deriving from this system has proved to be a colossal failure; alternatives not only need to be found but tried out in the field and given every encouragement. The people against the very idea are the so-called educated who have a vested interest in keeping the system going. Peasants' world-views are very different from those of 'educated' people. Hence, why should development agents contribute to impose national society's world-views on peasants? If one objectively considers what is being taught in rural schools, about the wisest thing poor peasants can do is to keep their children away from morning schools. If 70 per cent of the Silora Block children of primary school age are not going to school, it is not so much a reflection of the peasants' motivation, it is rather a severe indictment of the so-called educated. Obviously, 'educated' individuals refuse to look at it this way. They are literate, how can they be uneducated? Paper degrees give them protection, it safely hides incompetence and generates unemployables.

In Tilonia, the BC has set an example by delinking qualification from experience. For instance, the Centre's Health Programme is run by a village-level health worker who has a degree in an arts subject from a Kishangarh school; Kishangarh, Silora Block's only town, is a small rural centre, but this health worker has - in BC's terms - more relevant knowledge in preventive health and village participation than most physicians, even those who have graduated from the country's leading universities. At BC, physicians have to work under him of the BC will not consider their appointment. Likewise, BC's educational programme, which involves the running of 30 night schools for 1,500 dropout children in 30 villages, is run by a priest who has no degree, and he has trained teachers with bachelors' degrees in education working under him. The Agricultural Extension Programme is looked after by a youth from the village; he has no qualification in agriculture but has produced tremendous results. The Tradition Media Section, where puppetry is the most prominent means of communicating messages, is run by a one-time sheep farmer who has received no training in this art; he just picked it up. The same holds true for the Rural Orientation Programme; it is run by an individual from the village. The new 60,000 sq. ft. campus has been built by a village youth who is illiterate.

The BC's geologists are expert trainers in the repair and maintenance of hand pumps they have already conducted several courses, thus proving that mechanical engineers are not really required, just common sense. The Women's Programme, the training of traditional midwives, the establishment of balwadis are looked after by a widow without any real paper qualification. A social anthropologists with a degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University has to work under her and listen to her when it comes to her experience with women in the area.

Commonalities between BC's programmes

What do the BC's programmes have in common as far as Tilonia is concerned?

  1. They were started by expertise from outside the area by an urban-trained professional who trained someone from the village to take his place. Now all these programmes are run by people from the village who have no formal educational or professional degrees.
  2. The move to make these services accessible was made by the people from the village who were trained to take the responsibility of providing services as well as disseminating information.
  3. Tilonia wanted to remove the dependency on government to the extent possible. The training of people from the village to take over the provision of services not only increased their confidence but illustrated how it is possible to rely on each other.
  4. There were no deadlines to meet, hence development was possible at the pace and speed the peasants wanted. There was no hurry to complete projects. The crucial points were the training and motivation of individuals.

It is a fact that often the peasants do not know precisely what the BC is doing. Is it doing social work? Rural development? Awareness building? Mobilising people against the dominant minority? There is no category that the BC fits into. In the process of explaining to the rural population what the BC is doing, the Centre has learnt the following lessons:

  1. If everyone in the village is for a project, then there is something wrong with it. There has to be at least one sector of the village hurt by the implementation of any project; it is only when the right sector for the village objects that the project must be implemented.
  2. Change come only out of conflict. This should not be confused with violence. But only out of a conflict of ideas, experiences and groups can fundamental change of any kind come about. This conflict can and should be non-violent and legal.
  3. The success of any project can be judged by the opposition it generates. The survival and continuity of a project depends on the skills of the organisation and on how such opposition can be constructively used to benefit the target group.

Leaders of other established organisations are wary of the interest the BC and its Tilonia Model have generated in the voluntary sector all over India. They cannot believe what they hear and neither can they recognise what they see. They cannot believe that:

  1. The SWRC is no longer a one-man show.
  2. There has been complete administrative and financial decentralisation in planning, in decision-making, in choice of staff, in deciding on their own emoluments, in selection of areas, in applying for funds.
  3. The organisation can be made so flexible and autonomous and in this manner now spreads to 13 states of India with only formal links with the parent organisation.

Lessons to be learnt from the barefoot college

The BC is actually more than a model; it is a process that has stood the test of time and gone through the usual crises of growth and development.

  1. The BC encourages people's organising with the aim of performing pressure group functions on the system from below. The organisation would ultimately be controlled by members and services will be provided to these members of rural societies who are not officially part of registered cooperatives. Secondly, the BC works on a no-profit, no-loss basis with social responsibilities instead of generating income for its members alone. The importance the BC gives to economic viability and the generation of profit is really of secondary importance. The BC has found that what is economically viable may not necessarily be socially acceptable.
  2. Projects involved in rural development must be based in a village. There is no way of bringing about fundamental changes in the economic and social structure of the village without living and working as close to the poorer peasants as possible. To understand the people without really being accessible to them twenty-four hours a day is expecting the impossible. It is only when urban-based professional and the ultimate beneficiaries live and work together, share experience, go through a learning and 'unlearning' process and show respect for each other that changes are possible. The BC has managed to show this in a tangible way in any fields. But this simple message has yet to be fully understood. Too many Vas will have only a 'village presence', which means that they live in the city but work in a village; in this set-up they expect to organise beneficiaries, get them to oppose people with vested interests, make them aware of their rights and promote their development. It will no work.
  3. The BC has developed an identity of its own and does not fall in any category. It is neither Gandhian nor Sarvodaya, nor Marxist, though it has elements of all three. It believes in adopting a non-violent approach and democratic means in promoting development and yet, when it comes to acquiring a certain militancy over critical issues such as women's rights, minimum wages and removal of untouchability, the BC has not compromised and stepped away or pulled back from confronting powers. This has baffled and confused people who like putting labels on organisation.

The process of planning from below and persuading communities to decide their own future and to plan for themselves have resulted in major dilemmas that urban-based 'experts' tend to dismiss as non-issues. In rural development, seen from the village, the question is not one of defining black or white but of clarifying the grey areas.


The innovative approach of the BC may be seen at its best in how the model was replicated in thirteen other states of India including Rajasthan.

Many Vas in India fight shy of spreading their approaches in other parts of the country because of the many problems they face in the area they started, being persuaded that such problems will always remain. The spread effect actually depends on the orientaiton of the organisation from the very beginning to want to spread and look for people accordingly.

Not anyone and everyone can start sub-centres under the Tilonia Model. Even if the person has had some field experience in other projects, he/she will have to agree to and satisfy the following conditions:

  1. The person will have to stay and work in Tilonia for an indefinite period to feel that he/she is a part of a larger family and that resources exist which can later be tapped.
  2. The person should have had some previous experience in the field of rural development and in the VA sector. Someone coming fro a government background, however good, will not be considered.
  3. The person will have to be young so that the investment is not short-lived. He/she will have to show grace under pressure (courage), will be tested under different conditions (long working hours, poor salary, etc.) to see if he/she has to capacity and the will to carry on.
  4. The person will have to believe strongly in the approach and methodology he/she would like to follow. There is no compulsion that he/she have to agree to the Tilonia approach. There is room for agreement and disagreement. However, there will have to be underlying areas of agreement like basing the project in a village, adopting an integrated approach to rural development, mobilising local skills and upgrading their knowledge, organising people into groups so that they are in a position to pressurise the system from below. Time plans and methods are left to the project director of the BC in the particular state.
  5. It is not necessary that the person have paper qualifications for the assignment he/she takes up in any particular state. The BC gives more importance to field experience than to qualifications.
  6. It is important that the person come from the state he/she wants to go back to. But we have had to relax this rule on many occasions without regret.

The Centre in Tilonia helps a person to set up a new sub-centre in the following ways:

  1. As and when the person is ready to start a project from the state he/she comes from, funds are provided to (a) visit the village/site/state to decide on the location, (b) prepare a project proposal and loose time plan, (c) identify people from the area to be trained in Tilonia, and (d) meet government officials and inform them of the setting up of the SWRC and seek their support. All this takes time, fro 4 to 8 months.
  2. Funds are provided for one year, allowing the project to settle down; during this first year, the new sub-centre has to identify important activities and set its priorities. After one year the sub-centre has to be self-sufficient and totally on its own.
  3. Eventually the sub-centre is persuaded to acquire a legal identity of its own and to adopt a name of its choice (not SWRC). This has now happened for several sub-centres.

Summing up

The stand of the Barefoot College in Tilonia is simple. The educational system the world over, especially in the South, has failed the rural poor. It is elitist. It is biased towards people passing exams set by narrow-minded, insensitive people. The only way to meet this approach is to reject it outright, which is what the Barefoot College has done.

Only those people from the rural areas who have been rejected by the present educational system are welcome in Tilonia. Only those who are illiterate or semi-literate, who are socially and economically backward and vulnerable in rural society, can apply and will be accepted in Tilonia.

The Barefoot College respects anyone who is prepared to work with his/her hands; anyone who is prepared to learn; anyone who is prepared to share skills and knowledge and treats others as equals; anyone who has no hang-ups, ego problem and anyone who does not hide behind his/her degree to cover up incompetence, insecurity, and has the courage to say: 'I do not know and I am willing to learn'.

Can this concept be replicated? Of course it can. Wherever there are people from the rural areas who have been rejected by the educational system, where paper qualifications do not matter and are not used to judge the worth, quality and aptitude of people, the Barefoot College concept can work.

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1997 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi