At a time when girls in her community were married off at the age of 12-13, Tulsi Munda revolted, ran away from home – and stayed a spinster.
Today, at 62, Munda, a tribal and a Gandhian, who has never attended school, runs 28 education centers, which provide free education to more than 5000 children of mine workers in Orissa.
“I was under tremendous pressure from my six elder siblings to get married. So, I ran away,” she told HT.
That was in the early 1960s. Munda worked as a child labourer in the iron ore mines of Orissa’s Keonjhar district, 200 km south west of Bhubaneswar, for several years before joining Utkal Navjivan Mandal, an NGO based at Angul, 90 km west of Bhubaneswar, as a volunteer.
It was here that she taught herself to read and write and went on to become a teacher. “I had always dreamt of becoming a teacher,” she said.
Working at the mines, Munda had experienced the hardships that children of mine workers had to face. She decided to dedicate her life to their uplift.
“Several hundred thousand children of mine workers in Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa work as child labourers and are deprived of access to all essential services including, health nutrition, care, education and protection,” Munda, who is known as appa (elder sister) in the Badbil region, 230 km west of Bhubaneswar.
She started her education campaign with a night school in Badbil in the verandah of a village head in the late seventies. The going was not easy.
“There were jungles all around the place I lived, and very few parents agreed to send their children to my school,” she said. “For several days, I stayed alone in a hut, fighting evil spirits.”
To win the confidence of the illiterate mine workers, Munda, who participated in Vinobha Bhave’s Bhudan Andolan (Land Donation Movement) in the seventies, began helping them read medicine prescriptions, write letters and sign on payment bills.
“Once they realised the significance of education, they started sending their children to me in hordes,” said Munda, who won the Padmashree in 2001.
Her schools run entirely on donations. “The first big donation came from Tata Steel, which owns iron ore mines in Joda, in the form of seven lanterns,” she said, adding, the steel major later built two buildings in her residential school in Badbil, which houses 760 students from poor, tribal families. All her schools are located in mine areas.
Munda says she never hesitates asking donation from anyone, big or small, for her cause. ‘The first time I met Chief Minister Navin Patnaik at his office WHEN (five years back), I collected A donation of Rs 10,200,” she said with a grin.
Over the years, her work has won many her many admirers who send her regular donations that keep her schools running.
“Education doesn’t necessarily mean you become a doctor or an engineer. I am educating the children to become good citizens of tomorrow,” said Munda, pointing towards a Class VIII student, Hemanti Bilum, whom she brought to her residential school when she was an infant playing in a mine as her parents worked loading and unloading iron ore in train wagons.
She has also turned her village, Kainshi, into an ideal village. “Every house in my village has a toilet and water tap; we have smooth metalled roads, a high school and a health centre,” said Munda, who has turned down several offers to fight elections from almost every political party.
“I am a Gandhian,” she said. “Our motto is to sacrifice and serve, not indulge in fanfare.”