November 2011
#Ecology , 1547 Views
Chick Power

Byline: Nilanjana Bhowmick
Photographs: Bata Bhurji

How training illiterate women to become solar engineers can also work to be a social equaliser.

It was a sweltering day in the middle of May this year, and about 50 people had gathered around a mud hut in Banahi village in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. All of a sudden a light in the hut came on, and the crowd erupted into a cheer. A woman in her late 30s descended from the roof of the hut, beaming. Everyone wanted to talk to her and congratulate her, awed that a housewife from their midst had brought light into their lives for the first time; until now, they thought it was only engineers from the city who could do that. The villagers looked as awestruck at the solar lantern and the panel on top of the hut as they did at the woman, Geeta Rani.

And many kilometres away in Rajasthan, Santosh Devi, a perky 19-year-old, deftly climbed down from the roof of her neighbour’s house while keeping her hair neatly covered, not a strand out of place. She was repairing the solar panel that she had herself installed a few months back. Both Geeta and Santosh are heralding a revolution. They embody an empowerment that goes much beyond paper degrees.

Santosh and Geeta are among the first crop of women Dalit solar engineers of India. They trained at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, in Rajasthan’s Ajmer District, for six months in 2010 and are now as adept at installing solar panels in villages as they are at rolling chapatis. It takes them up to half an hour to fix the installations depending on the complexity of the problem. Installing the panels takes more time, around an hour, sometimes longer.

At Barefoot College, founded in 1972 by social activist Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, thousands of illiterate and semi-literate men and women living in rural India have been taught the skills to become different kinds of self-sufficient “barefoot professionals,” ranging from lawyers to midwives to carpenters.

As Roy says, he chose the name “barefoot” as the training is about hands-on skills and traditional practices, rather than paper degrees. “This whole country is running because of people who have skills for which they can show no paper degree. They are repairing hand pumps, they are repairing bicycles, everything. Do they have a certificate? No! How do they pick it up? By doing it with their hands. The Barefoot College has been showing what people have been doing for hundreds of years in India.”

The College, says Roy, doesn’t believe in the government’s top-down approach. “There cannot be urban solutions to rural problems,” he says. According to the College website, the organisation follows a keystone of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings; that existing “knowledge, skills and wisdom found in villages should be used for development before getting skills from outside” and so that poor communities are not exploited and can live independently, sophisticated technology should be used but only in the hands of such communities.

The college campus too demonstrates this amply. It was built and designed by Barefoot architects using traditional practices such as applying a paste of jaggery, fenugreek powder and jute fibres in lime to waterproof the roofs, and it runs on solar energy. Students come and live on the campus, and are housed and fed free of charge. Each person staying on the campus is required to serve himself and clean up afterwards and the rooms are basic, furnished with just a bed, chair and fan. There are communal bathrooms outdoors. The sprawling green campus, in stark contrast to the dry and sandy landscape of Rajasthan, is a living lesson in how modernity can be inclusive of simple and sustainable living.

While the College has been bringing solar technology to India’s non-electrified rural villages since 1989, by teaching illiterate and semi-literate men and women to fashion, install and maintain the lights by themselves, as of last year, Roy says their “target group” in the country is now Dalit women.

The solar project aims to train women not only to promote sustainable living through renewable solar energy, but also to empower them with the help of simple technology.

Scouting out isolated, poorly connected villages that don’t have electricity is how the process of solar electrification begins. Barefoot representatives or their associate NGOs visit these villages to share the benefits of solar light. When she saw the demonstration of how energy from the sun can be stored to light up their homes later, Santosh says she was amazed.

After the demonstration, if the villagers show interest then senior community members form a committee. Before anything goes ahead, the committee needs to sign off on an agreement that ensures that families wishing to have solar lights will select one or more of their women to attend the training and live for six months at the Tilonia campus, pay a nominal, monthly amount which will go towards the trained solar engineer’s salary as well as any necessary equipment, and also find a workshop space somewhere in the village.

“Backward communities like the Dalits especially in the inaccessible parts of the country is where the challenge is the most and that is also where they feel neglected the most,” says Roy. But once they understand the benefits, he says a sense of feeling “honoured” that their village has been selected means “they feel they have to make it work.”

Women at Barefoot College learn how to assemble solar lights.

However, the biggest challenge from the outset, is convincing family members to allow their women to travel and live away from home for such a length of time. For Shilpa Sinha, director at Shechen Clinic, India, the non-profit who partnered with Barefoot College to go to Geeta’s village, it was not an easy task to persuade the villagers to select and send Geeta and three other Dalit women to far-away Rajasthan. When they first proposed the idea at a village meeting, the men boycotted the notion, walking out of the room and leaving Sinha and her village coordinators red faced with embarrassment. “They didn’t even want to hear of it,” says Sinha. “It was unthinkable for them to send their women out of the village alone on a residential course for six months.” It took weeks for Sinha and her colleagues to convince them. They went to each family individually, telling them about the benefits of the training. However, it was only after a female barefoot solar engineer from a nearby village told them about her experience, that they finally relented.

While the traditional prejudices against Dalit men and women are often the same, the women face further gender discrimination and oppression within their own community. Moreover, there is a low level of literacy amongst Dalit women, only 10.93 percent of these girls receive an education and many are married off early, which puts an end to their schooling. Santosh, who was married off when she was nine-years-old, studied till class seven. After that, she was sent to live with her in-laws in Balaji-ki-Dhani. “When I was in class seven my parents told me I was old enough to go and live with my husband and look after his home,” she says. “I wanted to study more but it was not possible.” To quench her thirst for knowledge, Santosh started teaching at the village school that was being run by the Barefoot College. Her quick wit and confidence meant she was chosen to go to the course from her village.

And it makes sense to focus on women becoming solar engineers. “They are more in tune with their environment and more loyal to their roots. They have more patience and are better learners. They stay in the villages and work for the betterment of the village,” explains Roy.

“With men, as soon as they get a certificate, they run away to the city to look for better opportunities.” Once the women finish their training, they go back to their villages waiting for the college to send the solar panels. For far out villages like Geeta’s, sometimes the wait is long but not fruitless. When the solar panels finally arrived in Geeta’s village in May, quite a few months after the completion of her training, Geeta was apprehensive. “I thought I would have forgotten everything that I had learned and I was very nervous. But when I joined the wires and the light came on, I was very relieved.”

Women pose with solar cookers at the Tilonia campus, which are used for heating and cooking.

Today, Santosh’s village workshop is part of her two-bedroom house. It is a small room that she had first built as her kitchen – still obvious from the mud oven in the corner. Santosh’s worktable stands against one wall and is lined tidily with solar lanterns needing repair. “I spend at least three to four hours here every day,” Santosh says, trying to soothe her 17-month-old baby boy with one hand while prying open a lantern to fix it with the other.

For the women, the training empowers them in different ways. Geeta, who before this had never left her village alone says, “Now in the village when I explain to the people about the benefits of solar lights I feel empowered. Despite being illiterate I can repair and install solar lights. I am financially independent and live with a lot of respect,” she says. These lights have changed the lives of these villages. The women don’t have to rush through the day trying to finish work that requires light. “Now I can cook in the night. I can also sew in the night,” says Santosh. Solar light in these remote villages have made it easier for people to guide back herds from the fields and for children to study.

At present, Geeta has solar electrified 22 other houses in her village. She is also solar electrifying two other nearby villages. Santosh has solar electrified all the 20 odd houses in her village. The woman who until last year laboured on the fields, lived in a mud hut and tried to save every last penny now earns around Rs 3 000 a month, lives in a concrete house and plans to buy a motorcycle for her husband soon. “This is almost like a dream. I am earning money, buying things for my family. I have never felt so important before,” Santosh says shyly.

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, founder of Barefoot College.

However, Rajni Tilak, convenor of the Dalit Women’s Movement feels real and long lasting change can come only when, “these women are able to connect it to the larger society by becoming role models for their community,” and sharing their knowledge with their female counterparts. “You can empower a few women by giving them technology but what is most important is that how that influences the rest of the community. Technology can be a tool to change people’s mindset.”