August 9, 2023

In conversation with Bunker Roy

Journalist Rajni Bakshi speaks to Bunker Roy, Founder, Barefoot College, about the challenges he encountered on his journey and the lessons he learnt.

7 min read

Grassroots Nation is a podcast by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies that deep dives into the life and work of some of our country’s greatest leaders of social change. In this episode, Sanjit Roy, better known as Bunker Roy, traces the story of the Social Work and Research Centre, now called the Barefoot College. In conversation with host Rajni Bakshi, Roy outlines the challenges he encountered in this journey and the lessons he has learned.

Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation:



Building Barefoot

Bunker: I went to the Bihar famine in 1965. And that was out of sheer curiosity because I didn’t know what Bharat was like. Had no idea, I wasn’t exposed to anything like that. And I had felt I had sort of a closeted existence. I didn’t know what really India was like. So at that time, Suman Dubey said, “Why don’t we go down to Bihar?”

It was a very traumatic experience for me, very traumatic. I still think about those days in the Bihar famine. And I said, “What am I doing here? I’m getting the best, so-called best education and I can’t do something in the villages of India.” So that’s when it sort of sparked in my mind- I would like to do something…

The first donation I got was from Tata Trust of 20,000. So we started doing the groundwater survey and we covered 110 villages. But then you know every organisation must go through a series of crises. You can’t have an organisation that has no crisis.

We started in 1972. Aruna[Roy] resigned from the service in 1974 and joined me. And with her administrative experience, she wanted to bring in some systems and management systems into place which all these professionals hated. They didn’t think this was a good idea because you know it will be a bit more professional. So that was the first crisis—when Aruna came and tried to bring in some systems into place and lots of people resented it. So most of them left.

First lesson, never depend on professionals from outside, urban professionals from outside. Always develop the capacity and competence of people from within the organisation first because they are the ones who will be there to stay forever and ever. So that was the first lesson I received and it’s helped me up to now. Because I think we must develop the grassroot leadership. And and depend on them to carry the organisations.

The second thing I learnt was that there was a difference between literacy and education. You know what Mark Twain said, “Never let school interfere with your education.” School is where you learned to read and write. Education is what you learned from a family environment and your community. So I felt that we must distinguish the two, we must not put them because when people say, “Arey Saab they are uneducated.” I said, “No, please, they are illiterate, but they are not uneducated.”

Bunker roy holding a mic
You can’t have an organisation that has no crisis. | Picture courtesy: Ashish Sunil Sahuji / CC BY


Choosing the right people

Rajni: But Bunker, is it, when you say that you have become stronger as a result, could it be that the second and third tier of your organisation were also involved in overcoming and addressing these crises? You are in a leadership role and yet there’s a very palpable sense that I get when I observe the people around you, your team. Of everyone feeling very much an authority in their own right. So how did this whole dynamic come about? 

Bunker: You are jumping twenty years, Rajni, because at that time in 1979 when we went through this crisis, we were a very small organisation, but the selection of the people who worked with us was deliberate. We only choose schedule caste, schedule tribes, OBCs and they were not powerful enough to buck the higher castes and the Rajputs and the Brahmins and Jats. So when it came to a crisis that we were facing, they were in the background. They would help us quietly, but they wouldn’t come out in front and shout and scream against them, because that was a completely different situation there. And as a result of us investing in such people, it’s been a great leveller for us because those people stood by us even after the crisis all along.

Rajni: What was that value frame which you applied when you selected such people or, you know, build this team? What were some of the key values that you looked for?

Bunker: Definitely anyone working with us in Tilonia would have to work on minimum wage. And the highest and the lowest ratio would be 1:2–the highest and the lowest. And we would self-evaluate that time–not anymore–but that time when we were growing, we would self evaluate ourselves about our performance and about our contribution to the organisation and we would give each other points– honesty, integrity, cooperation, innovation. Out of hundred points, three was given to your educational qualification. It didn’t matter whether you are illiterate or not, but this is your contribution to the organisation. 


The power of solar

Rajni: So Bunker, going back now to Tilonia and the next phase which emerged which I think we can call the “Solar Mama” phase, I mean, you did it long before solar was fashionable. And what are the key takeaways from that experience which you would highlight here that give us a sense of what are the possibilities going forward on the positive side of the technology story? Technology and people and democracy all three together.

Bunker: We have two campuses in Tilonia, both are fully solar electrified. We have three-hundred kilowatts of panels on the roof for the next twenty-five years. I have no problem with power as long as the sun shines. I have visited about sixty countries around the world–over sixty–and thirty-six of them in Africa. And what do you see? You see very old men, very old women and very young kids in the village. All the youth have gone. They’ve all left looking for jobs in cities. So… brainwave! Why not train women to be solar engineers from these very villages which are inaccessible? Away from the grid and there is no… and they are wasting $10 a month on kerosene, candles.

Rajni: What year was this Bunker? This brainwave?

Bunker: 1997 maybe. So I said, “Why not train women? And even if they are illiterate, so what? Let’s see if we can train them to be solar engineers.” So we started with Afghanistan.

I went to Afghanistan. And we chose three women to come to Tilonia. And the women said, “I can’t go without the men because they won’t allow us.” So three men also came with them. Six months of hell for them because it was in the heat of summer, but they became solar engineers. How did we make them solar engines? By sight and sound. No written or spoken word. We have a manual, which is only pictorial, where you can learn how to be a solar engineer just by following the manual in six months. Which means that you can fabricate, install, repair and maintain solar systems and solar lanterns in six months. And the beauty is that anybody from anywhere in the world who is illiterate woman between thirty-five and forty-five can become a solar engineer.

Rajni: What was the secret to your success in carrying the work across the world?

Bunker: Faith. You have to have faith in the people to be able to do it. You have to show it…It takes me two days to speak to the whole community in Africa, to send a woman to India. First of all, there is resentment, there’s hostility, there is anger saying why are you wasting your time taking a woman all the way to India? And that convincing…That was the process of which convincing people that fears they have–they are going to be sold to the Arabs or they are not going to come back–all these absolutely genuine fears. But I see the woman having guts, absolute guts to be able to go there. Can you imagine nineteen hours on a plane? Never been on a plane in her life. Can you imagine her coming to India and not being able to speak the language for six months?

Rajni: So in a sense it became a commitment formation exercise because you could easily have taken teachers from India and sent them across the world, but you choose to do the opposite.


Finding bottom-up solutions

Rajni: Bunker, what is then, if we now think of the larger society India as a whole, what is the possible theory of change that emerges from all this experience? I think one of the underlying assumptions of your work was that at least it looked like that to all of us from the outside, was that this should automatically start being copied, and as you have just described, it did in several places. Yet, these approaches have not informed and transformed the country as a whole, and I’m saying the collective voluntary sector. So how will that happen?

Bunker: Rajni, a simple solution is the most difficult to implement. There is no urban solution to a rural problem. There is a rural solution to a rural problem. We haven’t even explored that. We are always thinking that has to be someone from outside to actually bring in a solution, which is a myth. It has to be from below. 

Gandhi has to be bottom up, has to be summoned from below to be able to carry this through, which you have to take the people into confidence to well to make it work. And we haven’t immediately to do that. We have shown what is possible, but we haven’t been able to do that. Why is it not possible that just because you come up with the idea because there is a… I think you know the biggest threat to development today is the literate man and woman.

Rajni: Explain?

Bunker: They have come up with some ideas from the educational system which is damaging, which is out of control. The biggest problem with the educational system today is that you have taken courage away from the young people. They don’t want to take a risk. They don’t want to do something out of the box. They don’t want to fail as if that is going to be a reflection on them. This is the biggest problem today.

Listen to the full episode here.

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Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP) looks to support ideas, individuals, and institutions doing ground-breaking work that enables a strong samaaj with ethical leadership, a sense of urgency, and the courage to learn. RNP seeks to strengthen communities that work for their own betterment. It does this by supporting work anchored in networks and movements, often sitting at the intersection of samaaj, sarkaar, and bazaar. It makes grants in four areas: environment, biodiversity and conservation, gender equality, and active citizenship and access to justice.