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GLOBAL NEWS | spring 2009

Electrifying Women
India’s “barefoot engineers” light up the world

By SATHYA SARAN

NEITHER SATYANARAYAN SINHA NOR THE FOUR WOMEN HE INTRODUCES AS HIS team look like adventurers. Dressed in clean cotton clothes that have seen better days, they might be a group of peasants in any rural Indian village. And, indeed, they work out of the village of Tilonia, bordering the desert of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, a place where life includes smoky wood fires, poor-quality drinking water and other hardships imposed by climate and poverty. But these women are used to transcending their circumstances: They are “barefoot solar engineers” who bring solar-powered light to rural India.

For example, during a trip they took to the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, they cut their way through dense jungles, venturing into remote areas where no government official would go. There, the team trained two women chosen from each nearby village at a workshop in the city of Hyderabad—trainees who in turn taught others in their villages to construct and run solar energy units. One hundred batteries, hung on long poles, were carried through the 20-kilometer-long mud paths to the main post office servicing the region’s villages, and that became the battery pickup location. Sinha and his team then visited each village in turn, training women to install the units. Adequate spares were left to replace damaged or worn parts, and a workshop for maintenance was set up at a central locale. In all, the team brought electric light to 200 homes, and ensured that village women learned how to maintain the electrification project after they left. “The effort was funded by the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] and India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy,” Sinha explains, “but it cannot work unless the villagers themselves make it their own project.”

And they certainly have.

Such solar projects are part of a campaign run by the Barefoot College in Tilonia, founded by Bunker Roy in 1972 to help make Indian villagers self-sufficient, with an emphasis on using women’s skills. The college (www.barefootcollege.org) has now reached out to more than 125,000 people in 160 villages over an area of 500 square miles, addressing such problems as sanitation and safe drinking water by building toilets and underground reservoirs, where rainwater is harvested and stored. It has also focused attention on rural unemployment, income generation and waste recycling. A key priority is the education of girls, normally taboo in rural Rajasthan. Furthermore, the college trains girls and boys from other Indian states to work together, discover their own skills or acquire new ones, and set themselves up with forms of income generation.

The Barefoot College is also home to the Women Barefoot Solar Cooker Engineers Society, the first registered organization of semiliterate and literate women in Rajasthan. These women design, produce, install, maintain and repair parabolic solar cookers—some of which have already been installed in nearby villages to meet cooking needs of more than 400 people daily—and the cooker engineers also train the women who purchase their products.

But it’s the Barefoot solar engineers who install electricity who pique the greatest interest of visitors to the college’s villager-designed and -built main campus. That’s because all electricity needs of the entire 80,000 square feet of the solar-electrified campus are maintained by women, and because these “Sunshine Warriors” comprise a force for change that the college sends out to transform lives around the world.

Kamla, Lada and Dhapu—three women between the ages of 19 and 24, each with less than secondaryschool education—were the first solar engineers trained. Of the three, only Kamla had the support of her fatherin- law who, despite family disapproval, allowed her to complete her training. Today Kamla is in charge of maintaining solar systems for two field centers.

Over the years, Tilonia’s solar engineers have not only gained acceptance in the community but earned respect as trainers of women from other Indian states and from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Ghana, Syria and Uganda. These days, the campus bustles with women: 36 new recruits from eight countries will live and learn at Tilonia for six months, leaving fully equipped to set up and run solar electrification for their villages. Most of the women are unlettered, extremely poor and often widowed or abandoned. But their eyes blaze with newfound confidence. Many have been inspired by women in nearby villages who left for Tilonia with hope and returned grasping the power of light. Repeat attendance from already electrified communities is common, since new groups of women come to learn soldering and repairing so they can share the work or spread the knowledge to neighboring villages.

Considering that the students speak a number of different languages, “We have a communication problem, of course,” Sinha explains. “But we have a system that seems to work well.” Training includes a lot of practical work, including making transformers by hand. A workbook contains every key word needed for communication and instruction in Hindi, English and the language of the foreign student, plus a color-coded system. Posters in black, brown and red display different aspects of the technical work, with all three languages used here, too.

“By the time they are ready to go back [home], women who arrived weak with malnourishment, shabby [and] sometimes ill-kempt look cleaner, have gained weight with regular meals and show new confidence in their step, carrying the knowledge they are empowered to help their villages,” says Sinha.

At one location on campus, an instructor is teaching a woman apprentice to assemble a solar panel. They sit sawing an iron strip, while the instructor’s baby plays nearby. These are the panels that have helped provide three hours of light per evening to 1,530 homes in 28 remote villages in Ladakh, in the northern reaches of India. Elsewhere on campus, solar lanterns—another aspect of solar energy— are being assembled by Tilonia women from components brought from the city of Jaipur. When charged in sunlight for eight hours, a 40-watt lantern can light two lamps for four hours, enough for a household’s evening. More than 3,500 such lanterns have so far been manufactured at the college.

The statistics are formidable, the work incessant. But the radiance of these Sunshine Warriors continues to grow, illuminating in more ways than one the most remote, impoverished corners of the world. It is a story, literally, of women’s energy.