“I had no one with me; everyone abandoned me. I knew the pain of being alone and unwanted. I didn’t want anyone to go through the same.” – Sindhutai Sapkal
Popularly among her people as ‘Mother of Orphans,’ Sindhutai Sapkal from Pune is a woman with a golden heart. A devoted social worker, Sapkal has been the force that has changed hundreds of destitute children in the countrysides of Maharashtra, India.
Early life and Marriage
Sindhutai Sapkal was born in 1948 to an impoverished family in Pimpri Meghe, a remote village in Maharashtra. Her father, Abhimanji Sathe, was a cowherd by profession. Though living in poverty, her father wanted Sapkal to get an education. But her mother was against this. So, Sapkal used to go to school under the pretext of cattle grazing. Due to sheer lack of finance, she did not have a slate to write on. In place of slate, Sapkal used the ‘leaf of Bharadi Tree.’
But, Sapkal could not study ahead of 4th class as an early marriage forced her to quit the school. Like many girls at that time, Sindhutai was married off at a tender age of 10 to Shrihari Sapkal, a cowherd from Navargaon, Maharashtra. She had already mothered three kids by the time she reached 20.
Start of the struggles
In 1973, she organized a successful movement against an influential local man who was swindling the rustic folks on the collection of dried cow dung, then used as fuel in the country, and selling it in complicity with the forest officials, without paying the villagers anything at all. As a result of her objections, the district collector visited the village to confirm the ongoing fraud. As it turned out correct, the officer passed an order which did not favor that influential person. Repulsed by this, he plotted against Sapkal which led to her abandonment by her husband. That time she was pregnant and had reached the delivery time. Denied entry into the house, a helpless Sapkal gave birth to a baby girl in a cow shelter near their home. In hours, she trudged miles away to her parental home. But her mother refused to let her stay there. Dejected and devastated, Sapkal was forced to think about suicide. But, the thought of her newly born gave her courage to struggle through all odds. She started begging on railway platforms so that she could at least provide food for her infant.
During this period, she realized the pain of abandoned children. She started to adopt them. In her zeal, Sapkal decided to parent anyone who came across to her as an orphan. She later donated her biological child to a Pune-based trust, so that there would be no feeling of partiality between her natural daughter and the adopted ones.
Fighting for the helpless
Sapkal also fought for the rehabilitation of many rural areas. During her campaigning, she met many officials and ministers. Chhedi Lal Gupta, then Minister for Forests, agreed to her proposal that the villagers could not be displaced without proper arrangements and compensation being done by the government. Sapkal even protested before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who arrived there to inaugurate some project, by showing her photographs of a tribal who had lost his eyes to a wild animal. It immediately got rewarded as the Prime Minister ordered compensations for such cases.
Sooner, Sapkal came to know the plight of orphaned and abandoned tribal children. Earlier, she used to take care of them in return for hardly anything but some food. Later, it became the most important part of her life.
Sapkal’s later feats
Committed to the cause of orphans, Sapkal is fondly called ‘Mai,’ which means ‘mother’ in the native language. She has raised over a thousand children. But she never looks at them as different from hers; for her, they are a part of her big family. Many of her adopted children are now highly qualified, and working in reputed fields like law and medical. Some like her biological daughter are themselves running organizations to help forsaken children. Even one of them is doing research on Sapkal’s life. Sindhutai has been honored with hundreds of awards for her great selfless efforts and achievements. Even the award money has been contributed by her to build a house for her adopted boys and girls. The house that would is named Sanmati Bal Niketan is under construction in Manjari locality of Pune. It would be the home for over 300 children.
This exceptional woman has over hundreds of awards for her social services, like Mother Teresa Awards for Social Justice (2013), The National Award for Iconic Mother (2013), etc. Her great journey has even inspired a Marathi movie, ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal,’ released in 2010. It records the real story of Sapkal. The film was even premiered at the London Film Festival.
But fame is of no use for her. Her happiness lies in to be with her children, live their dreams, see them getting settled in their lives. Moreover, this generous woman, who has a genuine motherly feeling towards every forsaken soul seeking her protection, has also forgiven her husband who returned to her.
Sindhutai Sapkal seems to be a source of Life and Hope, an epitome of Grace and Divine. Indeed she is an embodiment of Humanity. From begging to helping others, from being a dejected wife to providing for helpless, Sapkal has come a long way, defying all odds and difficulties. Still, at 69, she is more than ever fervent in her mission.