The story of Solar Mamas

Alisha Shinde
Sunday, 18 February 2018

Padma Shri Sanjit Bunker Roy talks about his initiative that made women of rural India skillful, self reliant and solar engineers

Ever heard of a woman of your grandma’s age who has never stepped out of her village, is illiterate but is a solar engineer? If you think it is the premise of a new Bollywood flick Akshay Kumar is working on, you are mistaken. But the superstar might be inclined to make a film on the real-life Solar Mamas who live in Tilonia, Rajasthan. 

Who created Solar Mamas? Padma Shri Sanjit Bunker Roy, social designer, educator and founder of the Barefoot College, the keynote speaker at Association of Designers of India’s 12th Pune Design Festival held over February 16-17 in the city. Here, Roy tells us more about his work and journey:

“My abiding compassion for the people of rural India drew me to this beautiful place,” he says. Roy set up the Barefoot College in Tilonia in 1970 to give an opportunity to the illiterate people to be self reliant and employed. Initially, he faced a lot of backlash from his family who did not understand why he did not want to stay in the city or move abroad for an amazing career. But he had a different plan, a plan for creating opportunities for the rural people. 

Roy says, “Barefoot College trains rural women in solar engineering and in turn these women help in bringing electricity to their villages.” The most important task is to generate employment among the rural women. He explains that the model which the college follows is a ‘Gandhian Bottom-Up Model’, which means that there should be a rural solution to a rural problem. 

He proudly mentions that the institute has its footprint in 19 countries and have produced 1,000 female solar engineers, most commonly known as the Solar Mamas from 83 countries.

In the village, he saw that most of the people had skill which was not utilised. “People in rural India have a particular skill set that is not recognised,” says Roy, further mentioning that these people are looked down upon by those living in urban areas. 

“Never call them uneducated just because they cannot read or write,” he says. In fact, people in rural areas, unlike the educated ones, have the ability to learn and unlearn. 

Roy says that when he decided to set up Barefoot College he realised that the village women who were slightly reluctant to join the college due to prior inhibitions were the ones who were able to learn and apply the things taught to them in their daily lives.

“Women, as a matter of fact, learnt to set up solar panels not by learning the technical aspect of it but by merely remembering the colours of the wires used in the circuit,” he says, which is also a fact not many people believe. 

He further adds that the men, though good at picking up these skills, many a time, wanted to the leave the village in search of a better life and job, but the women always stayed back because of which they made a sustainable life possible in the villages. 

He strongly believes that when a woman is educated, she takes it back to her family and her community. 

“Development is all about sustainability and making people self reliant,” says Roy. But the idea of development that we are fed is having more urban cities. 

“Urban cities are developing at the cost of villages,” he points out, adding that resources are being abused and nothing fruitful comes out of it. 

“When it comes to development of villages, we only think of agriculture,” he says further mentioning that the government needs to understand that there is more to rural areas than just agriculture.   

Roy says, “The format of formal education needs to change too.” He believes that students need to be taught things which can help them sustain in a practical world. “Formal education in India is all about books and theory but absolutely no application of this theory,” he says because of which we are not a skillful lot. 

The urban youth is interested in acquiring higher education as a ticket to their dream job and that too not even in India, he believes which will definitely not add to any kind of development even if Indians make big bucks.

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