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Learning the Gandhian Approach to Sustainability at the Barefoot College

This article was written by Rohit Gupta in March 2005. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Keywords: Gandhi, sustainability, walking, the Barefoot College.

Much of contemporary Indian thought seems to suggest that Mahatma Gandhi may have been a eco-pioneer, ahead of his time, even before the global effects of industrial pollution began to raise their ugly head in any significant way.

WorldChanging reader & photographer Jim Panou informs us about The Barefoot College via email, he says : Ed Burtynsky and I visited Tilonia for a few hours back in the fall of 2000 while on a shoot in Rajasthan.

Tilonia is not too far from where I was born, in Jaipur (Rajasthan), and yet I had no clue about this until I received Jim's email. I am fascinated by the principles by which this "college" creates sustainable living among India's poor:

An individual's will to learn and aptitude for learning is more important than any formal degree or paper qualification. This concept of learning is the foundation for the Barefoot College. It is applied in every field at the Centre. For example, the new campus at Tilonia was designed and built by one of the villagers, who can barely sign his own name.

This "Gandhian" campus services the poor of India - "the barefoot" - and consists of Barefoot Architects, Barefoot Solar Engineers, and such.

The story of the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), now known as the Barefoot College, started in 1972 in Tilonia, a quiet village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan. Tilonia, at that time, was a typical Indian village, steeped in seemingly insurmountable problems, the worst of which were probably apathy and a belief in the helpless, unchanging nature of life. In just two decades, the attitudes have changed and the people have come to rely more upon themselves. Tilonia is no longer just a village. It is a living example of local people using their own skills to meet their own needs and manage their own resources.

One of the most striking aspects of the Barefoot College is described by Chotu Singh in this BBC report:

When you graduate from here - as a Barefoot engineer, chemist, architect or teacher - you don't go away with framed certificates and formal qualifications.

"Any illiterate or semi-literate person can be trained," he says, "it is not necessary to be able to read or write."

gandhi model.gif

Further expounding on the mathematics of the Gandhian model (see picture above), in this interesting essay called A Gandhian Approach, Anil K. Rajvanshi writes :

2. All of us who live in a developing country like India aspire to a certain quality of life. Sometimes it may be a wrong quality of life. However pressures to attain it have been exerted by increased global electronic communications.


8. Hallmark of evolution of a system is its size reduction; increase in energy usage efficiency; increase in complexity and its punctuated equilibrium with its surroundings. Societies are like Prigogine's dissipative structures and depend on the quality and quantity of energy passing through them.

The Gandhian model is somewhere between the ideal and the fantastic, for someone as wasteful as me, and if I come even close to emulating anything like that it would be a major personal success. I feel nowadays as if material objects I think I own, they own me. They make me spend more than I should, on more objects and devices that I don't need.

To explore this further, I have recently started taking long walks on the noisy streets of Bombay, although not barefoot. Traffic being what it is, I have found walking a faster medium of getting from place a to place B, provided the distance D is not too much for my feet and faster traversed with a train. Then again, I find that getting anywhere faster, unless in an emergency, helps me to no particular end.

My friend Matti Pohjonen wrote a essay on psychogeography called AlgoYatra in which he defines algorithmic walking:

A Yatra literally means a walk, a pilgrimage, a journey into faith.

When Gandhi took on the colonial power he chose to walk it. The Salt March, his 23-day yatra to the sea to produce salt, became a direct statement against the imperatives of colonial capitalism. Walking was not only a means of getting from point A to point B. It was directly political.

Einstein said of him: "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth."

Another expert on Gandhi's sustainability approach - Kamla Chowdhry, Commisioner of the Earth Charter was quoted by a friend in 2002:

What is the missing link? Spiritual organization. Not religious, but spiritual. We need to find the institutions that can tap into the hearts of people. She says this movement is a river, and if the river is going to flow, one bank must be science, while the other must be spirituality. I agree. Higher values must be addressed for people to open their minds to the idea that we are each responsible for the global situation.

It was not simply the sustainable model of living, or barefoot walking, his applied philosophy, and his tactical genius that distinguished Gandhi from the people of his time. There was much more in that message that was a single life, a dream for humanity beyond the merely conservative notion of a "sustainable" life.

Walking Barefoot With Gandhi is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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