Sister Sudha Varghese may look like a very ordinary woman. But look inside her heart, and she shines out as an extraordinary nun. It must have taken something to inspire her to dedicate her life for 30 long years working for the welfare of the Bihar’s Musahars. Varghese, who started an NGO called Nari Gunjan in 1987, set up a residential schools for girls of this downtrodden community and also offered livelihood programmes for women. It was a no surprise that the government of Bihar took notice of her noble work and recommended her for the Padma Shri award, one of the four coveted top civilian awards conferred b the President of India.
Varghese, who hails from Kottayam, Kerala, moved to Bihar in her late teens, and has been living and working with the downtrodden there for three decades now. Known for their vocation of rat catching, the Musahar community lived on village fringes and faced caste and gender atrocities from upper castes. The young nun did not know about the prevalent caste system and such rampant discrimination and untouchability were new to her until she came face to face with the Musahars, the rat eating community. Moved by their plight, her heart ached to do something so that this community could live a life with dignity. The nun decided to stay in a mud hut within the Musahar settlement and fight for their rights and work for their betterment.
Undoubtedly, it was a struggle initially. “I had little knowledge of English when I came here,” says Varghese, recalling her earlier days. She learned Hindi and English and went on to pursue her graduation and took a degree in Law to handle legal hurdles and empower this hapless community. In 2005 the nun she set up a residential school called Prerna on the outskirts of Danapur, Patna, specifically for girls who worked on farm as labourers. Impressed with her work, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asked her to open a branch in Gaya. At present over 3,000 girls are the first generation learners at Prerna schools.
Today Nari Gunjan has branches in five districts of Bihar and works with 850 Self-Help Groups of women. To reduce malnourishment of the Musahar community, the social activist introduced poultry and goat rearing as alternative livelihood programme. At present over 750 families have kitchen gardens to grow their own vegetables and even sell excess produce. Way to go Sister.