How one woman is transforming lives of one of India's poorest communities through education | Reimagining India

May 02, 2022

This is the story of Sudha Varghese, an extraordinary woman working with the poorest of the poor communities in Bihar, one of India's least developed states with poor human development indices. Awarded with Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian award in 2006, she has selflessly spent decades among the lowest caste in Bihar, where the pernicious caste system continues to have a stranglehold on local village society. Musahar, literally translated as rat-eaters, is a Dalit community found in the eastern Gangetic plain and are associated with their earlier occupation of catching rats. The community is still forced to continue this work due to destitution and poverty.

Sister Sudha, sometimes fondly called 'Didi', meaning 'Elder Sister’, arrived at Patna's Notre Dame Academy in 1965 with the nuns working for the Roman Catholic School. Sudha has been bringing extraordinary change to their lives, especially the women, by fighting for the rights of the community for their betterment. 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 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.