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  Poor and female, but smart

Meet Kausalya of Buharu village in Ajmer District of Rajasthan. She is 19 , a ‘solar engineer’ and an effective troubleshooter. At 13 she was elected ‘Prime Minister’ in the Bal Sansad of the 50 schools in her district. In the three years she was in ‘power’ her ‘cabinet’ solved many issues ranging from providing electricity to a village school, to solving a land dispute between two local sarpanchs. Impressed? But this is not all, when her parents discontinued her school, she went and trained as a solar engineer. Her parents then sent her to her husband’s home in Pandwa village [-- she had been married very early] but her spirit was not deterred. She went on to tackle the problems of her new home by installing solar lights and a new water pipe line. And above all she gained the respect of her in-laws and even her husband. ‘He is very proud of me though he will never say it,” says Kausalya with a smile.

Ritma Bharati is 26 and belongs to West Champaran District in Bihar. Her village, Buharva had no electricity. All activities stopped at sunset including at the shop her husband runs. She heard about solar energy workshops and decided she wanted to attend one. In spite of her mother in law’s disapproval she took off and six months later returned with 80 solar lanterns. She has trained many villagers and today over 75 lanterns are being used to run schools, shops and medical centres late into the evening.

Gulab Devi is 45 and illiterate but talks about circuits and transformers as other women would of sewing or cooking. Ask her what she does and she will answer with pride that she makes electronic circuits for solar lighting panels, and before you start wondering if you heard wrong, she adds that she can install and maintain hand pumps, water tanks and pipelines. Gulab is the sole bread earner for her four children and ailing husband who has not had a job in the 24 years of their marriage.

Devi hails from Sikkim. She has been a solar engineer since she was 15. She helped establish solar panels in 4 remote districts of the state and people now use solar energy for heating, water supply and running STD booths! “When I first talked of solar energy, boys would laugh and say I would look ridiculous climbing poles to set up panels. Now my work speaks for itself and the same the boys come for advice. I have even started joining their football games” says Devi with a glint in her eyes.

Who are these women? GoodNewsIndia ran a story in May 2003 on the activities of Bunker Roy and mentioned the Barefoot College run by his organisation. Kausalya, Gulab, Ritma and Devi are proud alumni of this institution.

Barefoot Solar Engineers are now working across eight states in India: Rajasthan, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Uttaranchal, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Sikkim. They set up solar energy systems in areas where electricity supply is either non existent or erratic. Most of them are illiterate but their dexterity with spanners and screw-drivers is impressive. They are all products of the Solar Engineering Programme of the Barefoot College also known as Social Work Research Centre [SWRC], an NGO based in Tilonia. SWRC is supported by the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy, the European Commission and the UNDP. “The focus is on sustainable solar energy,” says Bhagwat Nandan Sewda, the focal person of the BSE programme.

“The project has empowered women” says Maurice Dewulf, Deputy Senior Resident Representative of the UNDP. “It has also proved that solar energy provides a solution not just for cooking but for education, health and income generation” he adds.

The stories of these women show the impact technology can have on simple lives; but more than that, they show how poor Indians --female, at that-- can master frontier technologies and put them to use.

Click here to read more about the Barefoot College.

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Research and report by Anuradha Bakhshi