By Baisaly Mohanty

Edited by, Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

We undertook a journey encompassed with a mission to materialize and unseat our perception of reality, hence, simmering on the glory of seeing through the reality, all of it through the travails of walking barefoot – reminiscing the tale of the unheard martyrs of the Barefoot Kingdom. We started our journey from a space, Lady Shri Ram College, that allowed us to be uncomfortable and forced us to view ourselves as not being privileged and well equipped, an initiative laid by a society called Voluntary Agency Placement Programme. We were about to embark on a two-day long trip, which in retrospect was not enough time to truly experience the place, and accumulate memories of hidden glances of nature, which we captured rather surreptitiously.

Thus, began our journey to Barefoot College in Tilonia, Ajmer. A non-governmental, non-profit organization located in the interior village of Rajasthan, Tilonia has been transformed into a destination for wanderers seeking answers to deep queries, indulging in a space beyond one’s comfort zone, unsettling the concretized notions of ‘development,’ and seeking newer meanings to life and existence. The more philosophical and life changing it sounds, greater is its propensity.

Established in the year 1972, Barefoot College is an endeavor undertaken by 12 barefoot engineers, architects of the local village, and headed by Banker Roy. Their sole motive and purpose is to develop the skills of the villagers, script the dictums of ‘development’ by their own hands, and to seek deliverance in a way so as to grow and develop the existing local community’s knowledge. Such a mission and vision now stands to cater to the entire world, sprawling globally and benefiting countries and human populations world over.

Adhering keenly to Gandhian ideologues, Barefoot College now stands to employ over 1000 employees from all over the country, most being formally uneducated and thus tagged illiterate by all worldly measures. As we stepped into the premises of Barefoot College, we met with several unfamiliar faces, yet possessing familiar attitudes, knowing hardly that these faces would be the ones we will tend to fall back upon, as indeed these two days will leave us with a galore of memories.

As we started our tour of the campus, we were guided by Naruji, who has been working with the Barefoot Organization for over 5 years now. He at present works on the issue of Right to Information, MNREGA and Women Empowerment, while being an adept personality himself, he seeks remuneration from his service to the people. He finds it emancipating to settle in this space where he not only contributes to the people of the village, but also benefits from his service, thereby establishing a self-sustaining and symbiotic relationship with the larger community.  He resides in the campus and is paid for his expenditures by the college.

Moving to the old campus, which has spread its wings across a huge area of over 56 acres, we visited and surfed through several workshops running with the help of the villagers and involving the local community effectively. Some of these workshops included the making of solar panels, where women from the village were taught and eventually turned into engineers of basic solar panel, which were eventually used by the villagers and others as an alternate source of energy. The toy making section was another such centre where both men and women, who were not formally educate, used their innovativeness and creative minds to create toys for children- providing not just a testimony to their creative aptitude, but also proving pretty well that they were not less capable than any expert or professional. The old campus was also the section that harbored the weaving bloc and the sanitary napkin making centre, where people are not only made aware of the essentiality of using sanitary napkins, but also taught how to use and dispose of them. The sanitary napkins produced by the women are meant not only for the villagers, but also for every member of the underprivileged section of the society who otherwise cannot afford to use one. Furthermore, the Aganwadi was an example of a self-sufficient centre where employment and effective education at the grass-root is promoted. More than 50 children aging between 1 to 4 years were taught to learn the basics, including alphabets and numbers, under the guidance of their teacher who had been serving in the center for over 25 years. We could sense the immense pride she felt at having been able to undertake such a long journey, her reminiscence of her initial days bringing tears to her eyes. It was her tale of success, failure, and glory encapsulated within every moment spent at Aganwadi, for over quarter of a century. As we entered the premises of the International training centre for women on solar energy, we encountered women from Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Philippines, South Sudan and several other countries. They were mostly grand mothers who, though were grown up adults, were popularly considered as having exceeded the age of learning, thus making these resourceful women, the real fighters of the harsh world. Their enthusiasm and energy amazed us, leaving us all in awe of their never-give-up attitude.

On leaving the old campus, we encountered children on the roads who greeted us with a ‘Namaste,’ while their hand gestures seemed to resemble that of a westernized hello or hi. We could very well then grasp the essence of the place- Tilonia, a place where people have created their own culture, tradition and mode of development.

On the second day, we further toured the new campus, which had the community radio centre- giving us an opportunity to share and record our experience with the help of Nathulal ji, who had kept the community radio centre running for over 3 years. As he set up his station, briefly preparing his playlist for the day, we gossiped about several issues in the village, from politics, culture, festivals, family to laws, policies and several others. As we bid goodbye to the community radio station, the place reverberated with Gandhiji’s influential song “Vaishnava Vajate,” which we sang in dedication to the kindness and hospitality the villagers had shown us.

We weren’t hurried now, the next stop was the puppet show, where the group of men not only made puppets, but had to their credit several internationally acclaimed performances. We sat with them and made puppets, which in comparison to their skilled work, ended up being a cruel mockery of our amateur artistic talents, however, we all ended up becoming friends, and we promised to return back to tell them our story, to listen more, and finally, to learn to how to make puppets. Sawaariya Bhaiya and Ramlal Ji promised to meet us soon as their next performance was to be held at IHC, Delhi. The new campus also had the rainwater-harvesting unit, as well as the craft shop, which was the selling ground for all the hand-made products of several barefoot artisans of the centre. Further, the use of modernized methods was in no way an impediment to their Gandhian ideology, as they possessed an ATM, the saras diary, internet café, and a huge library which housed books ranging in theme from political science to literature in multiple languages.

The ways and modes in which people at the Barefoot College chose to live made them, at least in my eyes, heroes of all time. The night came to us as a big surprise, as we were taken to a night school run for children who cannot afford spending time during the day, as they had to work for their family. This was a school run in the village of Rampura, incidentally the village of Ramlal ji from the Puppetry group. Meeting with the most spirited children, who enthusiastically ran to greet us and share their stories, left us singing and dancing with them.  We returned with a galore of memories, which entailed the stories of every ‘other’ being engaged at the Barefoot College with the aim of promoting inclusive development for all.

We observed and stood astonished to find that different sections at the Barefoot College are in no sense separate from each other, but are indeed, interconnected and contribute significantly to each other’s functioning. They use technology in the most refined way to the benefit of all, while not harming anybody else.

From our trip with Badri Bhaiya to fetch Jalebia, which also made us learn the basics of Yoga, to the name giving ceremony of a German guy who happened to be on a project at Barefoot college; form Sawariya Bhaiya’s story telling to Mitu Bai’s chai, we weaved all these small and big memories with us as we took off on our train early in the morning from Tilonia. I felt emancipated, relieved yet disturbed, and engulfed by the questions which haunted me after meeting the people of Tilonia. Are we the privileged and developed section, or are the ones that teach us the principles of being happy and peaceful the truly privileged ones? “We are happy not because we are getting enough, but because we are getting the same.”  “We aren’t afraid of anyone, we can live freely and respire freely. We are engineers here, dentists here, doctors and professionals. We are the developed, and this is our pride.”

Thus, in many ways our journey to Tilonia was life changing; perturbing, yet exhilarating, and made us learn the real challenges of life. We aim to take these lessons forward in whichever direction we choose to walk ahead, and we will remember the barefooted heroes, the real heroes of our times. For however long we may live, their memories will remain immortal through their lessons, settling in our minds to become the voices of reason that gave us the real meaning of life.

Baisali belongs to the political science department of the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women. For a brief period she has been associated with several international and national media houses including the Hindu, Times of India and Jasodhara Global Media. She has been involved with several national level campaigns including The honour for women campaign, One billion rising. Her contribution to several NGOs has also been quite noteworthy which includes OYSS, Kirti, Nirbhaya and several others.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind