Tulasi Munda was born exactly a month before India won independence from the British. Very early in life, this poor Adivasi girl from one of the most backward regions of Orissa began exhibiting her independence and unconventional way of thinking. She grew up with her own notions of freedomand slavery – notions that were strikingly different from the beliefs held by the people in her milieu.
While other children played, tended goats in the fields or worked in the iron-ore mines, Tulasi wanted to study. She wanted to educate herself, learn new things, speak exciting languages like Hindi and English.
Instead, she sat at home and helped her widowed mother with housework. Her four sisters and two brothers went out to work. She being the youngest stayed at home. She yearned to study, but it was a futile desire. There was no school in their village, Painsi. In any case, nobody in the area educated their girls.
She was about 12 years old when she went to live with her sister in Serenda, 65 kms away. She earned Rs.2 a week by cutting stones, sifting iron from the waste. Whenever she could, she taught herself the alphabets. It was difficult, but she plodded on. In 1961, her passion for learning catapulted her into the orbit of women like Malti Chaudhury, Roma Devi and Nirmala Deshpande, well known women who were committed to social work, especially educating women. She joined them and participated in their village forays and struggles in different parts of the country. She met Vinobha Bhave and was inspired by his vision and commitment to donate land (Bhoodan) and improve the lives of poor villagers.
In 1964, she returned to Serenda. Her mission in life was clear. A victim of illiteracy, she would dedicate her life to eradicating this scourge. She resolved: “As long as I have breath in my body, I will fight illiteracy.” She would devote herself to teaching and educating children, especially girls. Illiteracy, she believed was the worst form of enslavement. It was the root cause of the evils she saw all around her – poverty, unemployment, drunkenness, superstition, fear. Education was the tool to free people’s minds from the darkness of ignorance.But executing her mission proved to be tougher than she anticipated. Villagers found the concept of educating girls preposterous. And boys had to work in the fields and mines to earn money, not waste their time learning alphabets and numbers and alien languages like English and Hindi. But Tusli Munda was undeterred, even though she had neither students nor a venue for that matter. She persuaded Serenda’s local pradhan to lend her the use of his verandah for a few hours. As children could not be spared during the day, she started evening classes. The trickle began. Before she knew it, she had 30 children. She taught them the basics. Just alphabets and numbers and a smattering of English words. Says she: “Even if he grew up to be a driver, a few words of English would help him to get a better job in Bhubaneshwar or even Kolkata.” She taught in the evenings and attended to Bhave’s bhoodan work during the day.
But soon, her school began to take up more and more of her time. Villagers who worked all day long, began sending their small children to Tulasi’s verandah. They treated it like a crèche, but Tulasi didn’t mind. Even three year olds were welcome. Some children were spending the whole day with her. The verandah got too small. So in 1966, she shifted her school to a plot of land with a shed, a little distance away. It was almost outside the village. Dense with trees and shrubs and sparsely populated, the children were at first afraid to come to their new school. But Tulasi was unafraid. She spent the night all alone in this wilderness. Said she: “I was doing God’s work, why should I worry? I had a picture of Rama and Krishna and soon the children realized that I had God’s protection”. Tulasi went on to spend the rest of her life here.
As there was only one tin shed where she slept at night, she began by teaching the children under a tree. It is a tribute to her indomitable will and indefatigable energy that over the next 40 years, Tulasi helped establish 17 schools and succeeded in educating 20,000 boys and girls. Currently, she has over 500 students, almost half of whom are girls and her school provides education all the way up to Class X. A self-made educationist, Tulasi has some strong views on education. She feels the government and the public have a skewed attitude to education. She explains: “People get education for the sole purpose of getting a job. But jobs enslave too: you are beholden to your boss, to the tyranny of routine.
People have jobs, but their minds are still oppressed by fear and darkness”. She ardently believes “The goal of education is to improve Life, to make things better around us, to do things better. With education, you can do a better job of farming. Instead, what is happening is that after getting an education, instead of becoming farmers, everybody wants to become a clerk ora factory worker or a school teacher. So joblessness remains. And so doessuperstition, lack of hygiene, drunkenness, wife beating and all sorts of backward thinking. All of life’s important issues – whether it is the rights of women, children or Adivasis – can be tackled better if people have a higher level of education.”
Doughty Tusli felt that marriage enslaved too. So she chose to remain single. Said she: “I wanted to be free, to travel, to do what I wanted to do, to dedicate myself to what I believed in. I would never have been this free if I had a husband, children and a home to take care of.” A great fan of Vinobha Bhave, Tulasi shares his conviction that reforming society should be one of the biggest goals in Life; and so dedicated her life to reforming society by imparting education. She wanted to rescue the next generation from her fate.
Transforming 20,000 young lives is no mean achievement, especially for someone who was born poor and went through life without any facilities or patronage. How did she do it? What is the magic formula of her success? When asked such questions, Tulasi stares blankly. She doesn’t judge her life with words like “success” and “failure”. She sees it more in terms of work that needs to be done, work that has been done, work that remains yet undone. Pressed further, she finally answers thoughtfully: “If at all I have achieved anything in life, it’s because I wanted nothing for myself. If you really want to make a difference in society, you have to be selfless. We come into this world with nothing. We leave with nothing. In the meantime, we can make ourselves happy by bringing happiness to others.”
Despite her personal commitment to improve the lives of people around her,Tulasi feels a tide of discontent and unhappiness is rising in the Adivasi countryside. She warns: “There is injustice and inequality. The tribals are being displaced by big companies that are robbing them of their land rich in iron-ore. Far from protecting the rights of the Adivasis, the government is in the payroll of the big companies.” The devastation of the Tribals is symbolized by the ongoing gang-rape of their land. This entire iron-ore belt of Orissa has been plundered and ravaged for the iron ore that lies deep within. Open cast mines have become festering sores that have feathered the coffers of the rich, but ruined the fertile land of the Adivasis. In the summer, the iron ore dust hangs heavy in the air, stifling the lungs of humans, animals and plant life. In the monsoon, rain sweeps the iron ore into the surrounding lands contaminating them. The displaced tribals live like animals in shanty towns set up by rich mine-owners and big steel companies so that they can work in the iron ore mines. Some go to live in the faraway slums of Kolkata or Bhubaneswar or even Delhi. Warns Tulasi: “Our jungles are gone. Our farmlands are arid. Our villages are destroyed. Our tribals are jobless. Our environment is ruined. Our lives shattered.
Adivasis are crying out for help, but the authorities are deaf, dumb and blind. People are getting desperate. If their condition deteriorates, Maoist extremism will rise.”
For her work, Tulasi Munda has received the Padmashree and a fair amount of donations to run her schools. Despite the recognition and the accolades, she feels much more needs to be done. Problems and challenges are mounting in every sphere of human existence. Today, this Midnight Child of India feels the nation must launch a new freedom struggle to liberate her downtrodden sections of society from the yoke of poverty, disparity and injustice.