This weekend we visited Tilonia village in the deserts of Rajasthan, the last of a series of excursions undertaken by our socioeconomics class this semester. Here we were lucky enough to take residence at Barefoot College, an internationally renowned NGO founded by the Indian social activist Bunker Roy.
The Barefoot College’s M.O. is essentially to train poverty stricken villagers to do practical work in areas such as solar energy, electrical power, and water conservation. Founded four decades ago in Tilonia, the college now works directly in over 200 villages and has influenced countless others all over the world. Roy was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for his work.
In light of my own research on government corruption at the local level, the organization was also eye opening to the powers that social mobilization and awareness can provide to even the most destitute villagers. Aruna Roy, Bunker’s wife, was one of the key figures behind India’s recently passed Right to Information Act, which demands government transparency as an inalienable right to its people. At the same time, she remains so involved that she even showed up personally at a local council meeting which we sat in on.
For 4 days and 3 nights we lived as part of the NGO and toured the surrounding villages. We crammed in the back of an old pickup truck and drove along the bumpy dirt roads visiting local schools, medical facilities, and civic centers. At night we laid on the roof for hours counting shooting stars (the record was 15). We talked about constellations, about India, about all we had seen during the day, about home, and about our futures.
The final morning a handful of us woke up at 5 a.m. and climbed to the top of nearby mountain in subtle darkness to watch the sunrise. I generally avoid making absolute claims, but it was the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. The sky was so clear you could still see the waning moon in all its glory well after dawn.
I feel extremely fortunate to have visited these villages, to have witnessed firsthand what my professor initially dubbed “The Real India.” Coming from the United States you simply cannot imagine that a place like this exists. India is a very poor country, and even the differences between urban and rural life can prove stunning. Corruption remains rampant, malnutrition a huge problem, and gender and caste inequalities still find their foothold in society.
But coming from these villages, seeing organizations like Barefoot College in action, you see the resilience of the people and remember just how young this country is, just how far its people have come, and just how much fight there exists all the way from Bunker Roy to the poorest farmer who works alongside him.