08/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gandhi Would Be Proud -- But Puzzled

Mumbai, India -- The 1,000 seats at the Ravindra Natya Mandir auditorium are jammed, mostly with college students wearing yellow Sierra Club Center for Green Livelihoods t-shirts. The essential heavy hitters are there -- the U.S. consul, a member of the Planning Commission, the leading environmentalist in India's business community. But the young audience comes alive when the gray-haired grassroots activists from Barefoot College and Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), and their younger counterpart from Ecosphere Spiti, tell their stories as they stand to receive the Sierra Club's first Green Energy/Green Livelihoods award and the $100,000 in prize money that goes along with it.

Three generations of Gandhi-inspired environmental activists are on the stage. They haven't forgotten Mahatma's emphasis on empowering local people and developing India from the bottom up. But their methods might well puzzle and perplex the great advocate of hand-spun clothing. What our Green Livelihoods winners are doing is putting modern technology -- something Gandhi never trusted -- in the service of his ideals of self-sufficiency and dignity. Barefoot College, for example, has trained 6,000 village men and women, many illiterate, to be barefoot solar technicians -- installers and maintainers of high-tech, but simply-designed, village solar systems. The systems are also assembled in the villages, to make certain that they are both sufficiently rugged and sufficiently simple to be relied upon under the challenges of leaky roofs and dusty mud houses.

One key Barefoot College leader told of her beginnings as an organizer. Working on a road-building project, she and the other workers were supposed to earn seven rupees a day but were getting only three. So she organized a union of the road builders, filed a writ in the Delhi High Court, and won. She then went to work with Barefoot College, which may be the only all-solar campus in India - built entirely by local villagers. When she arrived she was illiterate. Today she is not only computer-literate; she has become a computer trainer.

Responding to the challenge of those who say that India cannot afford to lead a green-energy revolution, Reema Nanavaty, the president of our third winner, SEWA, pointed out that under SEWA's leadership poor village women were organizing and creating green energy and green jobs in the hundreds of thousands. "If we can do it, what excuse does the rest of the world have?"

Reema closed by saying, "I've been to a lot of awards, but there was an authenticity about this one that was very special." The winners of our Green Livelihood Award made it that way. It was the Sierra Club's attempt to honor the incredible leadership and creativity going on here --- I hope we succeeded.