“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous statement goes beyond the waves of time to find relevance in the remotest parts of rural India. It accurately depicts the struggle and strength of women who did it all. From standing up against exploiting landowners to starting a revolution with all-women vigilantes to protect forests, rural women are transforming into influential leaders of change.
And, in recognition of their contributions to the society, the government of India bestowed one of the highest civilian awards of the country, Padma Shri, to such exemplary women. Every year, the President of India presents the Padma Shri to people who have shown excellence in various fields of work like public affairs, science and engineering, social work, education, and civil service among others. This year on March 16, a total of 94 individuals were presented with the prestigious award of which 19 were women.
Here’s a list of 6 such TBI superwomen who have been singlehandedly driving mass change within and beyond their communities:
1. Kamala Pujhari
Originally from Odisha’s Koraput district, this 69-year-old has been preserving more than a hundred traditional paddy varieties, in addition to several endangered breeds of black cumin, turmeric, sesame, maha Kanta, phula and Ghantia.
Now a prominent agricultural activist, Kamala was recently offered a position on the Odisha Planning Board in 2018 by the State’s CM, Naveen Patnaik.
“I had never dreamt of getting such a prestigious Government post. I came to know about the announcement from the media. I would give priority to provide drinking water supply in the villages,” she said. In 2004, the government of Odisha awarded her with the Best Farmer Award too.
From mobilising her community, better farming techniques, to waging war against chemical farming, her incessant efforts to initiate sustainable and organic methods of producing food have not only won her several awards, but also inspired hundreds.
2. Chinna Pillai
Married off at the age of 12, Chinna Pillai’s life was like that of many others in the villages of India who toil on borrowed fields for meagre wages alongside their husbands and children.
Unlike most, she wasn’t the timid kind to quietly accept whatever the landowners or the moneylenders would give or ask from her. She became the first voice of dissent in a rural settlement of Pullucheri in the Madurai district.
With her constant questions and demands for fair wages, Chinna Pillai soon rose to become a labour contract leader (kothu leader) of a group of female farmers.
As a leader, she initiated Kalanjiam (self-help groups) with their own banking system to push the community toward a self-sufficient future. The SHG soon changed into Kalanjiam Mutual Movement—a microcredit undertaking that has empowered hundreds of women and their families in the last three decades now.
Her courage and grit not only helped her but the entire village to rise above their problems, and eventually break the oppression being perpetrated for decades by the tyrannical triad of landlords, money-lenders and the monsoon.
Read more about her here.
3. Rajkumari Devi
Rajkumari Devi, a farmer, popularly known as Kisan Chachi (Farmer Aunty), cycles across many villages to share her expert tips on kitchen farming and instills the spirit of entrepreneurship in rural women.
Her objective is to show how these women can become financially independent through farming and small-scale businesses. But, her journey was not so easy.
A resident of Anandpur in Saraiya block of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Rajkumari was initially pushed into cultivating tobacco leaves. But, with time and patience, she learnt how to grow local and organic vegetables and fruits, on the same arid lands, something that other farmers had deemed impossible.
By dividing her 1-acre land into two parts—the low-lying part for paddy and wheat, while the rest for fruits like papayas, mangoes and bananas—she had created a small paradise.
As her efforts paid off, other farmers began to seek her expertise.
In a matter of years, Rajkumari had opened a non-profit organisation, Anandpur Jyoti Center which picks up fresh produce from various SHG-run farms and takes it to a group of women employed to make processed products like jellies, jams and pickles.
Read more about her here.
4. Jamuna Tudu
In a small village of Jharkhand, Purbi Singhbhum, a group of women assemble around the trees for a holy ritual every year.
While this image might seem familiar, the intent is rather novel. A trend started by Jamuna Tudu, these women tie colourful rakhis (threads of protection) around trees, vowing to protect them forever.
The ritual is both a spiritual and a social statement of non-violent war against the forest mafia and poachers, who for years have been plundering the natural resources while the villagers stayed mum in fear.
With her group of vigilantes who patrol the forests during the course of the day and even at night, she has started a revolution.
Much like the others, her journey also began after she was married almost 20 years ago. She was shocked at the massacre of natural resources around her. Abreast with the knowledge of how deforestation can impact the environment, she began to spread the much-needed awareness among other women and created her team to protect and ensure the survival of nature.
Today, she is known as the Lady Tarzan of Muturkham, who with the support of over 6,000 members, has managed to save 50 hectares of forests in the last 20 years.
Read more about her here.
5. Friederike Irina
At the age of 18, Friederike Irina Bruning came to India from Germany, in search of a guru. Like many before her, she had come seeking inner peace.
Contrary to her expectation, she found the meaning of her life after she bought a cow on a neighbour’s suggestion. The usual practice of abandoning the bovines once they grow old or stop milking deeply bothered Friederike, and she ended up starting a cowshed called Surabhi Gauseva Niketan in Mathura that earned her a title of adoration, Sudevi Mataji.
With the help of 60 workers at the cowshed and steadfast love and passion, she has saved as many as 1,200 cows, most of which were abandoned, injured and sick.
Read more about her here.
6. Saalumarada Thimmakka
In her 40s, Saalumarada Thimmakka had hit a dark phase when she wanted to end her life for not being able to conceive. But, with the support of her husband, she found solace in planting trees.
The couple loved and cared for the trees like their own children, and their family increased from 10 to almost 8,000 trees.
Now popularly known as the Mother of Trees, 107-year-old Thimmakka has emerged to become one of the most prominent environmentalists from Karnataka, and shot to fame for planting and nurturing 365 banyan trees along a four-kilometre highway stretch, between Hulikal and Kudoor village, near her husband’s native place in Tumakuru.
For her work, she has won the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award, Hampi University’s Nadoja Award and National Citizen Award by Government of India, among many other national and international awards.
Each changemaker’s story reflects the power of passion and love that stirred a positive change in thousands of people. Hopefully, the thousands will go on to inspire lakhs and the lakhs, crores to herald the winds of change in the country and by extension, the world.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)
(Update: An older version of this article had erroneously mentioned Saalumarada Thimmakka’s age to be 65 years instead of 107 years. We have updated the same and regret the mistake.)
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