Few have done more for the upliftment of some of India’s most downtrodden communities than Padma Shri award winner, Sudha Varghese.
Originally from Kottayam, Kerala, Sudha has been living and working with the Musahars, a Mahadalit community, for three decades, bringing extraordinary change to their lives, especially the women.
When she moved to Bihar in her late teens, she knew little of the pernicious caste system.
“I did not know about the caste system. Discrimination and untouchability were new to me till I came across the Musahars—the rat eating community. They too deserve dignity. I decided to do something for them and opted to stay in a mud hut within the Musahar settlement and fight for their rights and work for their betterment,” says the social activist.
Despite the initial struggles, she overcame the language barrier and earned a law degree, which enabled her to better handle legal hurdles that came in the way of empowering the community.
In 1987, she launched Nari Gunjan, a non-profit organisation helping Dalit women become aware of and access their rights. In 2005 she established an all-girls residential school named Prerna on the outskirts of Danapur, Patna. It was designed to pull girls out of farm labour, ensuring that they receive an education. Impressed, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asked her to open a second branch in Gaya.
Currently, the 3,000 students enrolled in both the schools are first-generation learners. In addition, her non-profit also enabled young village girls and boys from the community to excel in sports, music, dance and art, as a result of which they have performed across different competitions in India and abroad.
Her NGO, Nari Gunjan is active in five districts of Bihar and works through 850 Self-Help Groups, which run anganwadis, school dropout and adult education programmes.
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Sudha has also introduced livelihood programmes for the women of the community. “We introduced poultry and goat rearing as alternative livelihood programme. Today 750 families have kitchen gardens to grow their own vegetables and sell excess produce,” she says.
Nari Gunjan also operates a unit to produce inexpensive sanitary napkins.
Sudha’s efforts have earned her several laurels, including the Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian honour) and the Vanitha Woman of Year award, 2017. Riding on her cycle every day, she continues to fight for the Musahars. “I guess I will continue bringing about change as long as I can work,” says Sudha.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)