Opinion Article 9

Technology, Tradition and the Barefoot College

Bunker Roy

Tilonia is a small village in the middle of the Rajasthan desert 400 miles south west of Delhi, one of the 600,000 villages in India. It is here that the Barefoot College is based. What makes this college unique and different is its approach: it has rejected the outside professionals from the formal education system. It believes instead in identifying and using the skills, knowledge and practical experience available among ordinary people in the community itself to provide for basic needs (drinking water, health, education, employment, fuel and fodder).

The example of reading and writing is telling. To millions in India reading and writing should, in theory, lead to liberation: in reality it is equated with tyranny and exploitation because it is the Literate Man/Woman in the village who does not want change, does not want innovation and will fight till the end to maintain the status quo. It is not suprising that all cases of corruption, discrimination, cheating and injustice can be traced back to Literate Men and Women. Similarly with technology, it should not become a tool for exploitation. The Barefoot College doesn't believe in technology that deprives people of jobs, increases dependency and leads to exploitation, tyranny and more control in the name of efficiency. Information sharing, better management, quicker responses, should not lead to people being intimidated by machines and made to feel inferior just because they feel technology is out of their reach and comprehension. Everyone understands and accepts that information is important but information alone is not power. Information that leads to knowledge and action is power. The poor remain poor because they are not receiving enough information that will allow them to grow, allow them to make choices.

Knowing full well how "experts" feel about technology, the role of Tilonia and the Barefoot College has been to destroy myths and show what is possible. It is to set an example for others to see. At Tilonia, very ordinary men and women, in rural communities have done extraordinary work. Anyone and everyone, whatever their qualifications, can learn about computers, solar energy, bio­gas, and electronic mail. The roles have to be flexible: the teacher can be the learner and the learner the teacher. The environment is one of creative learning which leads to very quietly destroying myths, demystifying technology and "unlearning" through processes that are natural, non­violent and respecting spaces. These concerns cannot only be written about. They have to be effectively demonstrated - as we have done in Tilonia.

Technology might reduce the dependency of communities on government, exterior sources and promote new ways of empowerment and collaboration. But for this to happen the mind set has to change. Indeed it has to be broken.The technologies that government, external funding agencies, business houses are marketing openly in the name of development have resulted in an unhealthy and sinister distraction from the real needs of the people (drinking water, health, education, housing and employment).The misinformation that is being spread is that technology is, today, required to solve these pressing problems ­ which is far from true. Take drinking water as an example, the mind set of the technological engineers is that problems of water shortage and drinkability can only be solved if bigger, more expensive and deep well drilling rigs exploit the ground water or alternatively pump water from a permanent water source through pipes. The people, however, are saying NO.The simple cost effective solution, hundreds of years old, is to collect rain water through roofs. It is cheap ($0.10cents/litre) to construct a complete l00,000 litre tank in a school located in brackish water areas. Traditional technologies, low cost materials could be used.And a village committee could be empowerd by the village to control and distribute the water without being dependent on the outside for any technical, human and financial resource. It will bring communities and castes, rich and poor, together in a village.

So Tilonia's approach is to demystify technology in order to serve the wider needs of the people. This, in turn, means that if there is a message for national and international decision makers, it is that they will only understand what is possible on the ground when they realise that it is possible that literacy, high powered degrees and qualifications are NOT required to disseminate the most sophisticated of technologies to improve the quality of life. What is required is faith, trust and practical common sense to begin facilitating the process of demystifying technology­and that tragically is totally absent in the so­called higher places of learning. We, at Tilonia, believe that to support the process you obviously need to spread the idea of the Barefoot College all over the World. Indeed every country has problems of rural youth acquiring valueless degrees that are not worth the paper they are printed on. Rural youth who come from remote villages, given the proper training and orientation, could easily become barefoot doctors, teachers and engineers thus being an effective alternative to frustrated city-based professionals who consider it an imposition and a punishment to be posted in villages.

Systems, policies, attitudes and even information have to change for technologies to empower people. The misinformation through the mass media must, of course, stop. Barefoot teachers, communicators, designers, soil chemists, geologists and engineers have acquired a self confidence in themselves and respect from the communities they serve that no city-based paper qualified professional can ever hope to achieve. Appealing to their sense of sacrifice, commitment, duty and compassion is hopeless. Peoples technologies, whether they have the sanction of governments or not, need to be identified, mobilised and used on a large scale.Traditional communicators (puppeteers, street players, minstrels) instead of radio and TV and newspapers:water diviners instead of geologists and geophysicists:village midwives instead of nurses: traditional bone setters,traditional medicine men (homeopaths and ayurveds) are all under­utilised and not even recognised as a technical and human resource. Whatever the planners and policy makers might say, they have the trust and faith of the communities. Systems, policies and attitudes can only change through the conflict of ideas, approaches and methods. Over the last 25 years what we have"unlearnt"is how grossly we have underestimated the infinite capacity of people to identify and solve their own problems, with their own skills and where the dependence is on each other. When governments, industry and multi­nationals start being less arrogant, when they stop calling illiterate people backward and primitive, when the mental and physical space has been provided for the poor to develop themselves, only then can we have real genuine development and partnership.

Mr. Bunker Roy has lived and worked in the village of Tilonia for the last 30 years. Tilonia is home to the Barefoot College, otherwise known as the Social, Work and Research Centre. 
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