“I went to a very snobbish, expensive, elitist school in India,” humanitarian Sanjit “Bunker” Roy said Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York. “And that almost destroyed me.”
For Roy, a visit to a rural village changed the course of his life. “I saw death, hunger, and starvation for the first time,” he said. “I wondered why such an exclusive college never exposed me to the other side of India. I told my mother I wanted to work in a village. I said I want to be an unskilled laborer digging wells.” He added with a laugh, “Mother went into a coma.”
That was some 40 years ago. Today, Roy runs Barefoot College, a renowned organization that runs solar-powered schools to train marginalized and poor people in an array of jobs—midwives, dentists, solar engineers, artisans, phone operators, blacksmiths, carpenters, hand-pump mechanics.
He joined another Indian activist, Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, at the summit to talk about tapping the power of the sun to lift people from poverty. Raju is the founder of a group called Social Awareness Newer Alternatives, which provides clean drinking water and eco-friendly toilets to people in need in India. She uses solar panels to run water-treatment plants, then sends the waste water to community toilets.
Like Roy, she could have chosen a more glamorous life. The daughter of a member of parliament and a filmmaker, she went to law school and traveled the world with her parents, often helping her father, Ramesh Sharma, produce his films, which include The Journalist and the Jihadi, about slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
It was on one of those trips with her dad that she found her calling. Her father was making a documentary film about technology and agriculture in southern India, and she began to think about how she could use technology to help people in poor villages.
“There comes a point in life that if you don’t take that risk, you become so comfortable in your daily life that you will never take that risk,” she said. She started doing her own research on solar power and water, then launched her organization in 2011, with some start-up funds from her parents. Within two years, she won a Google Impact Challenge award, receiving a $500,000 grant. She is using the money to set up the water-treatment and toilet systems in 10 villages in southern India.
The projects are sustainable, according to Raju, because the villagers take care of the systems. There is a small fee for clean water so people don’t waste it. And there is a limit on how much water people can buy, so the wealthy don’t buy up all the water.
Both activists talked about how they work with people on the ground in the villages to come up with solutions that work, as opposed to swooping in with preconceived notions. “When in doubt, always listen to Gandhi,” Roy said. “Mahatma Gandhi said that if you don’t take the people into confidence, you will never improve the quality of life.”
The two activists also prioritize women in their work. Roy said he has found grandmothers to be particularly useful. “What’s the most powerful way of communicating today—is it television, is it telephone, is it telegraph? It’s tell a woman,” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Moderator Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, described the pair of activists as “people who think outside the box,” then added, “quite frankly, I’m not sure they even know there is a box.”
In closing, she asked Roy if the young Raju, who is 32, made him feel optimistic about the future. Said Roy, “She intimidates me.”