Bunker Roy: Barefoot College of India
By angela neal
Bunker Roy, Founder: Barefoot College of India
When most people feel a calling to quit their day job and test out their entrepreneurial spirit their motivation is usually based around improving their quality of life. For Bunker Roy, that motivation was infused with such a sense of generosity that it led him to improve the quality of life for thousands of people around the world.
India is a country of rich cultural heritage but is still a largely fractured nation, with a distinct contrast between poor rural regions and wealthier urban areas. Bunker Roy was one of the fortunate individuals who was able to get a formal education, followed by a well paying job. He spent 5 years studying at two of the most prestigious institutions in the country where graduates regularly continue on to become successful business men or get well paid government positions. As a student, he showed great promise and determination, excelling in many areas, including becoming the Indian National Squash Champion.
After graduating, Bunker took a job deepening wells in rural communities. Although the job itself was dangerous, involving being lowered into deep, open wells and using explosives, Bunker says that it was the experience of spending time within the local communities that really changed his perspective on life. "I lived with very poor and ordinary people under the stars and heard the simple stories they had to tell of their skills and knowledge and wisdom that books and lectures and university education can never teach you."
This change in perspective was pivotal in Bunker's life, as he realized that his own paper diplomas meant little compared to the wealth of knowledge held by people who were largely considered worthless because of their lack of formal education. "My real education started then when I saw water diviners, traditional bonesetters and mid-wives at work," says Bunker. "There is a difference between literacy and education. Literacy is reading and writing and what you pick up in school. Education is what you receive from your family, your community and your environment."
Realizing that the impoverished people of rural communities had so much to offer if given the opportunity, Bunker founded the Barefoot College in 1971. The principle was simple: to "demystify education" by separating literacy from true knowledge. Barefoot College shifted the focus to the legitimacy of skills, and created an environment where anyone could learn valuable and practical skills which could then be applied within their community. It is a concept that creates independence, a sense of purpose and an increased quality of life for both the students and the people they work with.
Many Westerners would have a hard time coming to terms with the basic lifestyle offered by the college, but Bunker describes it in his typical matter-of-fact way. "Living conditions for everyone in Barefoot College are simple and down to earth. Everyone sits and works on the floor. Everyone takes a living wage and not a market wage. The highest salary one can get is $ 100/month. The working relationship depends heavily on mutual trust and faith." It is a humbling viewpoint.
Although his newfound way of simple living among the "uneducated" poor was frowned upon by his peers and family, it was a concept that quickly showed to be successful. This success was due partly to the obvious passion that Bunker holds for his project. He displays a genuine desire "to build the confidence and competence of these ordinary people by training them to provide a service to their own community thus making them as self reliant as possible."
Bunker is so dedicated to the ideals upon which he has based the college that he himself takes home a salary of less than $75 per month. While this is enough to provide the basics for him and his wife, Aruna, it has meant some tough choices. Aruna and Bunker have been married for forty years, and at 64, he admits that he has never become a father because he "cannot afford children." While choosing to run the college rather than seeking a higher paying job has meant giving up the chance to start his own family, this has meant that hundreds of other families have enjoyed improved health and amenities. Thousands of people have benefited from dental care, help delivering and caring for new babies, fresh water from improved wells and electric power from solar technology. Hundreds of schools have also been set up to provide safe environments for children to learn not just conventional literacy and skills which can help them to earn a living but also principles such as self-governance and problem solving.
The fact that so many people have been helped by Barefoot College is something that has kept Bunker motivated. Yet he still does not see himself as the extraordinary person that most others do. "I do not expect gratitude or thanks. I am doing it for myself. It is a personal, exclusive journey finding [out] more about yourself. I never felt like giving up. I have not given up or sacrificed anything." He also admits to a pride in knowing that he is making that "a tangible difference." And that difference just keeps spreading!
Barefoot College has now grown to include 20 other locations around India and many more in other developing nations such as Africa, Bolivia and Afghanistan. Although all adhering to the basic Barefoot philosophy, each unit is run independently. "All have a legal identity of their own, all independent with their own sources of funds, their own Governing Boards," explains Bunker. This, of course, gives them the freedom to create programs that will meet their own specific communities' needs.
"The impact the barefoot approach has had on changing the mindset of the urban “expert” and influencing their attitudes to the poor identifying and solving their own problems has been enormous," he says. "The barefoot approach has worked. The results are there for everyone to see and feel : Development with dignity.
You can find out more about Barefoot College at their website Barefoot College.org
About the Author
Angela Neal is a freelance writer and serial entrepreneur. After a mixed bag of education covering psychology, Russian literature and criminology and a failed attempt at joining the rat race in a 9-5 job she gave in to her creative streak and began writing for a living. She has written for newspapers and magazines around the world and now runs a thriving online media company. Part Gypsy at heart, she loves to explore new cultures and has lived in the US and Spain. She now lives in her home country of Scotland with her Westie, Sam.