Padma Shri awardee Sindhutai Sapkal passes away in Pune
The social reformer and activist, best known for her efforts in raising hundreds of orphaned, abandoned and destitute children, breathed her last, in a Pune private hospital on 4th January 2022.
Born on 14 November 1948 in the Pimpri Meghe village of Maharashtra, Sindhutai Sapkal grew up as an unwanted child in a poverty-stricken family. At the age of 12 she was married off to an older man and had three children by the time she was 20 years old. On the night of 14 October, 1973, after being beaten and thrown out of her house by her husband, a pregnant Sindhutai gave birth to her daughter in a cowshed outside their house. Without any doctors or midwives attending to her, she cut her own umbilical cord with a stone by hitting it 16 times. That same night, with a newborn infant in her arms she walked several kilometers to her mother’s house only to be refused help or shelter. For survival, she used the flour left at a crematorium to make chapatti which she baked upon the fire from a cremation. Eventually she made her way to a railway station where she would beg and sometimes sing for money, to get by. She contemplated and even attempted suicide a few times – until one day, when she noticed several orphan children abandoned at railway stations. She started to look after them with what limited resources she could. That was the turning point in her life. Many years later, in an interview she spoke about what motivated her to do this work. She knew what it felt like to be abandoned and rejected by everyone and caring for these children made her feel like she was dressing her wounds.
With the help of some social workers she was able to set up her first orphans’ home and gradually set up more orphans’ homes and ashrams throughout Maharashtra.
Sanmati Bal Niketan, the orphanage founded by her in Pune is home to not just orphaned children but also to women who have been abandoned by their families and have no other accommodation. All the children in these orphanages set up by her are given, not just a safe and loving home, but are also enrolled in schools and colleges and are encouraged to complete their education.
In her lifetime she has nurtured nearly 1500 orphaned children, earning the title of ‘Anathanchi Maye’ or the ‘Mother of Orphans’. Many of them lovingly refer to themselves as her sons-in law and daughters-in law.
Other than orphans and women, she also fought for the rehabilitation of Adivasi villagers being displaced by the government’s environmental projects and was able to secure compensation for them.
She raised funds for her orphanages by donating her award money to buy land and other necessities. She is the recipient of 750
awards, including Padma Shri as well as the Nari Shakti Award, India’s highest civilian award for women. The 2010 Marathi language biopic Mee Sindhutai Sapkal directed by Anant Mahadevan inspired by her true life story was screened at many international film festivals.
Supporters and friends fondly remember her as their ‘mai’ (mother) and ‘farishta’ (angel). Her inspiring life story is a lesson in how an individual can make tremendous contribution to society despite undergoing severe adversities.
The issue of orphan children in India
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), India has 29.6 million orphaned and abandoned children. They are vulnerable to child labour exploitation, human trafficking, crime, etc. In the recent Covid-19 second wave in 2021, several thousand children have lost their parents to the virus leaving them as “Covid orphans.”
India’s complicated legal process means that many of these children are unable to be adopted even though there is no dearth of couples wanting to adopt orphans.
There is also very little that the government has done so far, to home and rehabilitate these children. They are thus left to the mercy of society.
Sindhutai Sapkal’s life’s work has brought this much neglected social issue into the limelight.
In Islam, it is considered a highly noble and pious act to care for orphans. Almighty God says in the Holy Quran,
“And they give food, in spite of love for it, to the needy, the orphan, and the captive. [Saying], “We feed you only for the countenance of Allah. We don’t want from you either reward or gratitude. Indeed, we fear from our Lord a Day austere and distressful”’. (76:8-10)
Looking after orphans was something particularly dear to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him.) as he, himself was an orphan. He is reported to have said,
“ The one who cares for an orphan and myself will be together in Paradise like this”, and he (pbuh) held his two fingers together to illustrate. [Bukhari]
It is the responsibility of civil society to compel government authorities to make appropriate provisions for the welfare of orphaned and abandoned children. Children are the future of society and every child deserves a loving and nurturing environment.