TILONIA, India — It’s the Harvard of rural India, minus wingtips or heels: a 50-year-old institution called Barefoot College that offers lessons for empowering people worldwide. Maybe even in America.
Barefoot College does empowerment as well as any institution I’ve ever seen, and here’s what that looks like in the rural state of Rajasthan: An illiterate woman named Chota Devi who never attended a day of school is hunched over a circuit board, carefully using color-coded instructions to solder resistors and diodes into place.
Chota, who has no idea how old she is, is a Dalit, those at the bottom of the caste system once known as untouchables, and from a particularly low-ranking group called the Valmiki who often cleaned human waste.
But now Chota is learning how to be a solar power technician. Barefoot College trains illiterate, low-status villagers like her to make solar-powered lanterns and install solar lighting systems. After three to six months of training, they return to their communities and earn a decent living as they bring solar power to communities without reliable electricity — and in the process, they upend the social hierarchy.
“I will have more knowledge than my husband,” Chota noted slyly. When she goes home, villagers now call her “Madam.” It’s partly a joke, partly a show of respect.
With a new income of perhaps $80 a month, Chota plans to pay off debts, buy a simple cellphone and build an outhouse.”