Certification doesn’t establish competence: Sanjit Roy

As the Barefoot College completes 50 years, the founder looks back at his groundbreaking journey

March 26, 2022 06:27 pm | Updated 06:31 pm IST - New Delhi

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy in New Delhi. 

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy in New Delhi.  | Photo Credit: Anuj Kumar

“There is no urban solution to a rural problem,” says Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, 76, founder of the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), popularly called the Barefoot College. Situated in Tilonia village of Ajmer, the college has completed 50 years this year.

In Delhi, to participate in the Tilonia Crafts Bazaar, a popular display of crafts and skills of rural artisans, Mr. Roy recounts his groundbreaking journey in an interview with The Hindu. “Things were very simple 50 years ago. There was no culture of surveys. You could see the problem when you reached the village. Now you have to do a pre-survey and a post-survey.”

The whole idea, he says, was to reverse migration. “If we can give people jobs with dignity, self-respect and provide access to safe drinking water and schools, why would anybody in his right mind go to live in a slum in Delhi,” he says.

A graduate from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, he was inspired by Jayaprakash Narayan and moved by the Bengal famine. Mr. Roy dug wells as an unskilled labour to test his commitment before going headlong into social service, driven by the Gandhian principles of simplicity, austerity and accountability.

Bunker, as he is popularly called, identified traditional knowledge skills and wisdom that were “not recognised, underutilised and not applied”. For example, he says, “You ask an engineer what is the solution to the drinking water problem in a village, he would say ‘hand pump’. You ask an old man in the village and he would say ‘rainwater harvesting’. The aim should be to look for community solution.”

In India, he says, 60% of children do not go to schools because during the day they help out their parents, but they have time in the evening. “That’s why we introduced the concept of night schools. But the education policy often comes in the way,” he says.

Demystifying solutions

Keen on demystifying solutions, Mr. Roy, who has been on Time magazine’s list of most influential people in the world, recalls asking government officials why they did not train someone in the village to repair hand pumps. He was told that the hand pump was a complicated machine. “When we successfully trained rural women in repairing hand pumps, the Handpump Mistri scheme was adopted by the government of Rajasthan and we trained around 30,000 mistris. It changed the face of Rajasthan,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest story of SWRC is its success in training illiterate village women to become solar engineers. Popularly called Solar Mamas, hundreds of women from African countries and Afghanistan have also been trained in Tilonia as part of the External Affairs Ministry’s initiative.

‘Women pay back’

On giving technology in the hands of women, Mr. Roy says, “Women will bring change to this world. You invest in women, and they pay back.” He recalls visits to African countries when most men would say, “she is useful only in the kitchen and is meant to raise kids”. “But the women would come to Tilonia like mothers and return like tigresses. When the first woman of Afghanistan we trained returned home, she sat in the men’s row. When they objected, she said she was not a woman, she was an engineer.”

Certification, Mr. Roy believes, doesn’t establish competence. “When Solar Mamas electrify a village, the certification is done by the community, not any college or university. I always say bureaucrats who have crores to spend under the anti-poverty schemes should spend some time in the village to understand the view from the other side.”

The Padma Shri awardee, who made news when he petitioned against a Rajasthan government emergency order that allowed female famine relief workers be paid less than male workers, recounts an interesting anecdote: “When Justice P.N. Bhagwati gave the landmark judgment, I went to meet a high-ranking official. He had a hearty laugh and said, ‘Damn good but we will find a way around it!’”

Mr. Roy has had the advantage to see the world from both sides. Appointed by the Rajiv Gandhi government to the Planning Commission, when he wrote the policy statement of the 7th Five-Year Plan in 1984, it stirred the NGO sector. He says the government money was of the people and every civil society organisation must have access to it. “Earlier, the notion was that if you are taking government money, you are not a civil society. My point was if I am an Indian citizen, I want to know where my money was going and I wanted it to be well spent. So for the first time, Rs. 150 crore was marked for civil society groups.”

‘Need code of conduct’

At the same, he says, there should be a code of conduct for civil society organisations. “That became a raging debate. All the big, fashionable organisations were against the code while the smaller ones were in favour. Ultimately, it was scuttled.”

The code, he underlines, was, “If you are working for the poor, live in a village, take minimum wage, don’t discriminate against the women, and observe the law.”

Mr. Roy says if you are running a civil society organisation, the ratio between the highest and the lowest salary should be 1:2. “If it is something like 1:10, there is something wrong with the organisation,” he says.

On relations with the present dispensation, which seems to be a bit wary of civil society organisations, Mr. Roy says, “If you want to take issues on the streets and make them public, you are expecting consequences. We are not doing anything on the streets. We are not doing anything to make our work visible. We are saying our objective is to provide food, water and jobs. The fact that I have survived three-four Prime Ministers and six-seven Chief Ministers is a miracle.” Of course, he adds, the work that his activist wife Aruna Roy does is different. “She is also right. Jhagda hota hai [We tend to quarrel],” he laughs.

He admits that the current government was rigid on implementing the requirements of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, but adds that the process had started earlier. “Organisations should also know that we are equal in law. We have phased out foreign donations. It exposes our work. If even after 50 years, you are dependent on foreign money, what point have you proved?” he says. Now, most of the college funds are raised from government projects and the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives of private Indian companies, he says.

When Mr. Roy reached Tilonia in a steam engine, it was a village without electricity and telephones, but today young boys and girls converse in English and flaunt their smartphones. The concept of Barefoot has now found roots in 23 villages in 13 States. Naurti Bai, an alumna of the college and the good old face of the equal wage petition, has now learnt to operate a computer. “I can work in Excel. Tally is a bit tough,” she says.

The Tilonia Crafts Bazaar is on display at Triveni Kala Sangam, Mandi House, New Delhi, until March 28.

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