“I worked for my daughters like every parent does. Why the award?” whispered Muktaben Dagli, evoking a chuckle from President Ramnath Kovind as they posed for the cameras. Amidst a thunderous applause, Dagli walked off the stage with India’s fourth highest civilian award — Padma Shri in March last year.
I could not help but smile myself when I heard her recall the incident.
In 1995, Dagli started the Pragnachakshu Mahila Seva Kunj (PMSK) with her husband. It is a non-profit organisation in Surendranagar and provides education, food, accommodation to blind girls.
Till now, the 58-year-old has shaped the future of around 200 blind girls. In addition to that, she has also undertaken the responsibility of taking care of 30 people with various disabilities and 25 elderly abandoned by their families.
The Incident that Propelled Dagli to Work for Blind Girls
At 7, Dagli lost her vision to meningitis and had to drop out of school.
A resident of Ankadiya Nana, a small village near Gujarat’s Amreli district, Dagli’s parents did not feel the need to educate their daughter.
But even that age, Dagli was drawn towards academics for she knew it was a gateway to a better life. She convinced her parents to send her to a school—Udyog Shala for the Blind in Bhavnagar district.
It was at the age of 14, that she heard of a news that changed her life.
Her best friend had not turned up post vacations, and when the school authorities enquired, they found out that she had died. Her parents had allegedly burnt her after feeding her poison.
“My friend had often told me about the cruelty she faced at home. She would be served leftover food, not allowed to interact with other family members or neighbours. Her parents would make her live in the shed at times with other animals,” she shares with a heavy voice.
“That incident affected me a lot. Though I was sad about losing a friend, I was fuming with anger. My life’s purpose became clear. I knew I wanted to help blind girls who were a burden to their parents,” says Dagli.
Going forward with Her Mission
“I was fortunate to get parents and friends who did not treat me any different. It was because of their immense support and encouragement I was able to study and pursue my dream of opening a school-cum-hostel for the blind girls,” she shares.
She was fortunate to find a life partner who was in sync with her goals.
“I did not want a child of my own as I wanted to dedicate my life to the girls. Secondly, I was not ready to compromise on my freedom and independence. Now, this was in the 80s when marriage was the most important thing for an Indian girl. I still cannot believe I found Pankaj, who has been my strongest pillar.”
The newly-weds taught in a blind school in Amreli for nearly 12 years before embarking on their shared dream of opening a residential school for blind girls in 1995. The couple soon adopted four blind girls and accommodated them in their one-bedroom flat lent by a relative in Surendranagar.
They would teach them on weekdays and on weekends go around asking for donations from relatives, friends and strangers.
Bringing A Change, One Life At A Time
It took nearly 13 years and innumerous trips to corporates, schools, organisations, government for donations for the couple to establish the school and hostel on a five acre of land.
The campus houses a school for girls from classes 1-12, a guest house, music school, computer lab, hostel, conference room, playground and houses for abandoned senior citizens and the disabled.
The campus also has a hostel for blind college-going girls. Their accommodation and food is taken care of by Dagli.
The girls are taught vocational courses like home science, sewing and computer and are also trained in life-skills like cooking, commuting, and documentation work to help them become independent.
“I was only two when my parents shifted me to PMSK. I grew up here learning life skills that I wouldn’t have at home. If today, I am living my life fearlessly with an aim to become a teacher, it is because of Dagli ma’am,” Bhoomi, who is currently studying Arts, tells TBI.
Like Bhoomi, most of the girls come here at a very young age and stay till they complete their education. However, among these, there are girls who were abandoned by their parents or were brought here by the police.
For those who wish to get married directly after college, the organisation helps them find partners after doing a thorough background check about the boy’s education and family. Dagli bears all the wedding expenses if the bride’s parents are not financially stable.
The school encourages the girls to participate in extra-curricular activities like sports, cooking competitions and cultural performances. They also have their own women cricket team which has gone on to win state-level matches for the blind.
It has been over two decades since Dagli started out her selfless mission. Along the way, the braveheart gracefully turned every problem into an opportunity that would go on to touch various lives.
“I laughed, cried, felt empowered and vulnerable. I have seen myself grow as a person with every lesson and experience. All the accolades and awards I have received can never match the heartfelt gratitude and blessings from my daughters and their families,” she signs off.
Write to Muktaben Dagli at: email@example.com
To make donations to Dagli’s school, click here.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)