India has the largest population of working women and professionally qualified women in the world.
Last year, four Indian women corporate leaders made it to the Asia Pacific's 48 'Heroes of Philanthropy' list and they were Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw CEO, Biocon – India’s first woman Brew Master, Anu Aga ex-Chairman of Thermax, took on to social work and was awarded Padma Shri in 2010 Kiran Nadar, wife of HCL Technologies co-founder Shiv Nadar and Rohini Nilekani, wife of IT major Infosys' co-founder Nandan Nilekani.
Major newspapers, blogs, worldwide websites have a plethora of success stories about all of them and many more. Let me tell you more about a lady who may not match many of them in educational qualifications but has profound knowledge, an enlightened soul, an inspiring personality & a legacy and still looking for help.
She has nurtured more than 1000s of orphaned children and transformed them into doctors, engineers, lawyers and well educated people. She has taken on a dreaded mission that most would not dream ,if they were in abject poverty, hungry, beaten & abandoned by her husband when pregnant and absolutely destitute…
She is none other than Sindhutai Sapkal & also known as Mother of Orphans is an Indian social worker and social activist known particularly for her work for raising orphan children. She loves being called ‘Mai’.
Her nickname was ‘Chindi’ meaning ‘torn cloth’ in Marathi. She was named thus as an unwanted child. Her father, Abhiman Sathe was an illiterate cowherd in Pimpri who was keen on educating her, much against his wife's wishes. So every day on the pretext of sending her out to graze the cattle, he would pack her off to the village school. She could only attend school until 4th grade. She was brought up in abject poverty. "There was no money to buy a slate," recalls Sindhu. "I practiced the alphabet on thick, palm-sized leaves of the bharadi tree, using its thorns to write."
Marriage at the age of 10 put an end to her education. The groom, Shrihari Sapkal, alias Harbaji, was 30. "I was told there are only two processions in a woman's life. Once when she gets married and the other when she dies. Imagine my state of mind when they took me in procession to my husband's home in Navargaon forest in Wardha," says Sindhu tai. In course of time, she bore three sons.
Sindhu tai created a sensation in Navargaon in 1972 when she demanded that the forest department pay the village women for the cow dung they collected. The department used to auction the dung to landlords and pocket the cash. "We won the fight," says Sindhu tai.The taste of success was sweet, but it broke up her family. She claims that an annoyed landlord, Damdaji Asatkar, spread the rumour that the child she was carrying was his. "My husband decided to abandon me," says Sindhu tai. She was beaten up and dumped in a cow shed, where her daughter, Mamata, was born. "It was October 14, 1973," Sindhu tai intones. "I cut the umbilical cord with a sharp-edged stone lying nearby."
She later sought shelter at her parental home, but her mother did not accept her and instead told her to go and die on the railway line. Sindhu tai wandered from town to town, singing and begging near temples. In Faijpur, Jalgaon district, she left Mamata in the care of a temple priest's family while she moved around singing bhajans. "Those were the days of soul-searching. I began feeling I must do something for those suffering like me." she said.
Then one day as she was begging for bhakri(bajra roti) to feed herself and her 2 year old daughter and wandering in the scorching sun for long, she was so exhausted that she almost decided to commit suicide with her 2 yr old tied to her stomach. She was standing under a tree and suddenly its stem caught her attention; she noticed that it was badly axed but it was still giving her shade. She almost screamed ‘No I will not die.’ She hit upon a plan to take care of orphaned less privileged children of Adivasis.
The idea was just taking root when she found herself in Chikhaldara. A section of the Melghat jungles on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh had been earmarked for a tiger project. It meant people from 84 villages would have to be evacuated. "I reached there on a very dramatic day," says Sindhu. A project officer impounded 132 cows of the Adivasi villagers of Koha. "For three days he did not free them; one cow died. The Adivasis stood looking at their cows helplessly. That day I decided to take up their cause." Adivasis are primitive tribal groups which live in utter poverty, have low levels of literacy and health and are a result of severe feud since 18th century.
Sindhu tai fought for the rehabilitation of the 84 villages. In the course of her agitation, she met Chhedilal Gupta, the then minister of forests. He agreed that the villagers ought not to be displaced before the government had made appropriate arrangements at alternative sites. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived to inaugurate the tiger project, Sindhu tai showed her photographs of an Adivasi who had lost his eyes to a wild bear. "I told her that the forest department paid compensation if a cow or a hen was killed by a wild animal, so why not a human being? She immediately ordered compensation."
Those things made people look at her with admiration.
Soon she realized the plight of orphaned and abandoned Adivasi children. Initially she took care of the children in return for some meager food. Looking after them was a source of livelihood. It didn't take long for it to become the mission of her life. She later donated her biological child to the trust Shrimant Dagdu sheth halwai, Pune, only to eliminate the feeling of partiality between her daughter and the adopted ones.
Many of the children that she adopted are well educated lawyers and doctors, and some including her biological daughter are running their independent orphanages. One of her child is doing PHD on her life. Till date she is honored by 272 awards. She used all that money to buy land to make home for her orphan children. She has started construction and still looking for more help from the world.