Millennium Post

Tracking silent revolution in a Rajasthan village

As India goes into a tizzy with the arrival of achchhe din, the lexicon of the big is asserting itself with renewed vigour. ‘Good times’, an obvious metaphor for relentless expansion, seems to have obsessively consumed the masses. Whether India traverses the unchartered course to becoming a Shanghai is yet to be seen, a small village in Rajasthan, in the meanwhile, is disaffirming capitalism, its pragmatic consensus, technocratic managerialism and its grandiose patterns of social and economic configurations. It emphasises a Schumacherian human scale: go back to human relationships and human needs.

On first sight, Tilonia village is typical in its nondescript-ness. Nothing prepares you, however, for the extraordinary stories that abound here. The villagers have brought a silent, non-violent and no-frills revolution overturning structures of discrimination that have held them captive for centuries. In the late 1960s an urban, elite youth called Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy [Also read] came to Tilonia for a visit. Appalled at the miserable social norms and living conditions, Roy and his friend from Tilonia, Meghraj, decided to find alternative ways of addressing poverty and inequality.
He stayed on and was to irreversibly change the so-called ‘space of flows’ (economic, social and political) in Tilonia in a mere four decades. Strong in his conviction that the lack of a formal education should not be the indelible marker of anybody’s destiny, Roy founded the Barefoot College in 1972 and started training illiterate villagers.

Ram Niwas, a dalit from Akhoria village, came to the college 25 years ago. He suffered the discriminations usual for a person from his caste. It was when Barefoot came to Akhoria to dig a well where the dalits lived, that Ram Niwas saw a flicker of hope for change. The higher castes, of course, were enraged and insisted that the well be dug in their part of the village but Bunker stood his ground. Ram Niwas was intrigued and deeply influenced by these ‘revolutionaries’. He went to Tilonia and found it to be the inverse of the iniquitous world he was used to. He could not imagine living in Akhoria anymore.

Ram Niwas reminisces, ‘Bunker asked me how I could contribute. Since I was not educated, I offered to become a chaprasi. He replied that there was no service system at Barefoot. Then he asked me if I wanted to become an accountant. I thought he was making fun of me. I had always seen accountants coming in cars with suits and sunglasses. Then I realised he was serious. I was nervous but I agreed.’

Ram Niwas was trained in Jaipur and became an accountant in three months instead of six months. ‘I had a thirst for knowledge.’ He now manages the accounts of the college.
He also had a passion for puppetry. He learnt the art, becoming an accountant by day and puppeteer in the evening. Ram Niwas recalls, ‘My first puppet show was against patwaris and their exploitation of the villagers. The patwaris were enraged and instigated the villagers saying that dalits and women should not be allowed on stage. I felt humiliated when I was asked to get off the stage but that day I realised that my puppets are powerful.’

Today the same people ask Ram Niwas to perform puppet shows for them. He uses puppetry for spreading social messages. ‘Even today I am not allowed in temples. But I don’t need the gods anymore. My puppets are my gods. They are transparent and tell the truth about the world,’ he smiles.

Sitting with Ram Niwas is Bhagwat Nandan, 62, a former priest. Their proximity would be unthinkable outside of the Barefoot context. Bhagwat began as a Barefoot night school teacher in 1976 and subsequently became a barefoot solar engineer. Popularly known as guruji, he is something of a legend in the Barefoot family, having trained 1,000 Barefoot solar engineers – spreading the Barefoot way of life across the world. His impact: 50,000 solar-electrified houses and 604 Barefoot grandmothers trained across 64 countries. Bhagwat and Laxman Singh, another old volunteer at Barefoot, have travelled to many places training villagers. They generate enough income for the college to be sustainable.

Barefoot chooses a village from the least developed countries (LDC) and contacts a community-based organisation (CBO). The selection criteria are threefold: the villages should be un-electrified, should be at least ten km from the grid, should be using kerosene, stoves, diesel, batteries etc, and should have at least 100 houses. The CBO gives a list of ‘grandmothers’, that is, elderly women, who are illiterate, more than 35 years old and considered unproductive by the community.

After the short-listing, a Barefoot team visits the country and selects the grandmothers for solar-engineering training in Tilonia. One of the most remarkable features is that the trainees, apart from being illiterate, do not share a common language with the trainer. Through the training period of six months, the only pedagogical tools are sign language and a common book with colour codes and diagrams. Yet, as Bunker points out: ‘Not one failure.’

Nelda and Lisa from the Philippines are excited about the training despite the sapping heat of Rajasthan. ‘Electricity is very expensive in the Philippines. We survive mostly on hydroelectric power. Solar energy is not popular. I will go back and solar-light my village and try solar cooking.’
Najma was an unemployed, illiterate housewife, struggling to make ends meet till 2003. She first came to learn solar lighting and then moved to solar cooking. Initially there was a lot of resistance from her family to Najma working outside of the house. After much persuasion, though, her husband agreed. It has been 11 years since and Najma has trained around 50 women from all over the world and has 13 women working under her whom she teaches to weld, cut iron, and make solar panels.
‘Today, I feel there is no difference between a man and a woman. I have two sons and a daughter. All should have equal rights. My daughter is in higher secondary school,’ Najma says with pride.  The real change ostensibly seems to be emanating from the children of Tilonia. The night schools are mostly attended by girls who cannot go to regular schools as girls usually have to share household burdens including cattle-herding.

What brought Tilonia to national focus, however, was the famous Sanjit Roy vs state of Rajasthan case of 1983. ‘Jokhim chacha’, a puppet character from Ram Niwas’s repertoire, made people aware of the discrepancies of wage payments to men and women.

By arrangement with Governance now
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