Women Transforming India – Awarded
Niti Aayog awarded 12 women to recognise the transformational impact of work undertaken by them across India’s villages, towns and cities.
‘Women Transforming India Awards’ was launched by Niti Aayog last year in partnership with the UN in India and MyGov.
The awards received 3,000 entries from across the country.
The awardees included goat veterinarian Sunita Kamble for creating alternative livelihood opportunities for women, Raji Borthakur for creating a smart glove which can predict epileptic seizures before they occur, Safeena Husain for her work to transform girls’ education in rural areas and Arunima Sinha for being India’s first amputee to climb Mount Everest.
A jury comprising former foreign secretary and ambassador Nirupama Rao, Indian Olympian P T Usha, Wing Commander, Indian Air Force Pooja Thakur, Niti Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya, and UN Resident Coordinator Yuri Afanasiev undertook a rigorous process to shortlist 12 top awardees from awe-inspiring stories of women change-makers across India.
Meet the 12 incredible winners who transformed India
- Laxmi Agarwal, Uttar Pradesh
In 2005, a shy 14-year-old Laxmi Agrawal, who nursed dreams of being a singer and participating in reality TV shows, was waylaid by her 32-year-old stalker and his friends. Laxmi rejected his advances and turned down his proposal for days before the man and his friends threw acid on her face to “teach her a lesson”. The stalker felt her fate would be worse than death if he destroyed her face. Laxmi was left to die on a busy road, with cars hitting her unconscious body, till a Good Samaritan helped get her to a hospital.
The following trauma, nightmarish months spent in the hospital and disgusting yet predictable reactions from people, failed to shake Laxmi’s indomitable spirit.
Gradually, she took back control of her life and used her experience to help other survivors like her. She became an activist campaigner for Stop Acid Attacks and also realised her childhood dream of being in front of the camera by becoming a television host. In 2014, she received the International Women of Courage Award by the then US First Lady Michelle Obama. She was also chosen as the NDTV Indian of the year.
- Subasini Mistry, Hasnapukur, West Bengal
Subasini lost her husband at a young age due to lack of medical care. But 65-year-old Subasini toiled for two decades to realize her dream of building a hospital for the needy. She prooved the one does not need to be young, rich or educated to be an achiever.
Subasini’s husband, a vegetable vendor, died at a young age because he was too poor to get medical help for a common ailment. Within a month of his death, his illiterate wife and four children were on the streets. Like her late husband, Subasini too started selling vegetables to make ends meet but she vowed that one day she would build a hospital for the poor and needy in the very village her husband breathed his last.
People laughed at her “impossible dream.” But for the next 20 years, she worked as a domestic help, manual labourer and vegetable vendor. She saved most of her earnings for her dream hospital, while spending the rest on raising her four kids. Subasini used her savings of two decades to buy an acre of land in her husband’s native village.
She appealed to the community to help in any way they could and they did. Her son, Ajoy, managed to raise Rs 50,000 from acquaintances, friends and organizations. A one-room clinic came into being, the beginning of the hospital-to-be. Three doctors from adjoining areas were persuaded to attend the sick for free. Patients started streaming in and Subasini became a household name.
In 1995, the foundation stone for the hospital was laid and was open to the public a year later. Today, the 45-bed hospital spreads over three acres and has the best of doctors and medical equipment. Major surgeries for the poor are done for less than Rs. 5000 and minor ailments are treated for under Rs. 10.
- Safeena Husain, Mumbai, Maharashtra
Safeena Husain, is the founder and executive director of Educate Girls, a non- profit organization working for girls’ education in some of the most educationally backward districts of India. She has has been involved in development projects across South America, Africa and Asia for the past decade.
A London School of Economics graduate, Safeena has built upon her a cause closest to her heart: ensuring girls have access to quality education and get equal opportunities to better their future. With the help of a local team, she successfully conducted a 500-school pilot in Pali, Rajasthan and established Educate Girls as an NGO in 2007. Educate Girls focuses on community mobilization to increase girls’ enrollment and retention and improving learning outcomes for all children in government schools. The organization works with community-level volunteers in each village called Team Balika, who serve as the champions for the cause. These champions go door-to-door to identify out-of school girls and convince their parents to send them to school, conduct village meetings, work with school management committees to prepare school improvement plans, and facilitate the use of Educate Girls’ creative learning and life skills kits to improve learning quality and create girl leaders.
Educate Girls has evolved into a 12,000+ schools program, with over 1,50,000 girls enrolled in school till date, reaching over 3.8 million total beneficiaries. Her efforts to bridge the gender gap in education in India have been widely recognized. Educate Girls has received the prestigious 2015 Skoll Award, 2014 WISE Award, the 2014 USAID Millennium Alliance Award and the 2014 Stars Impact Award and the India Development Marketplace Award in 2011 from the World Bank. She also received the British Asian Trust’s Special Recognition Award from HRH Prince Charles for outstanding contribution in education. Safeena won the 2016 NDTV-L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Award in the Education Category.
- Arunima Sinha, Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh
From being thrown out of a train, losing her leg and facing an uncertain future to becoming the first female amputee to scale the highest mountain in the world, Arunima Sinha’s awe-inspiring story is one of grit, perseverance and conviction.
Arunima Sinha, 24-year-old national level volleyball and football player, dreamt of joining the Central Industrial Security Force and was on her way to take the examinations, when she was thrown off a train by a group of hoodlums for refusing to part with her gold chain. She lost her left leg, and with it, seemingly, her chance of making a mark in the world of competitive sports. Arunima, however, seemed to draw strength from the incident, and even as she was being treated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, she resolved to climb the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. Fund raising helped procure a prosthetic leg for Arunima to realise her mission.
After being discharged, Arunima enrolled for the basic mountaineering course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, which she excelled at. She then contacted Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, and trained under her at the Uttarkashi camp of the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) 2012. In 2012, Sinha climbed Island Peak (6,150 metres) in as preparation. On April 1, 2013, two years after her horrific accident, Arunima, along with Susen Mahto, TSAF instructor, started the ascent to Mount Everest. After 52 days of hard climbing, Arunima reached the Everest summit at 10:55 am on 21st May. She has made history by becoming the first female amputee to scale the mighty peak.
Arunima has since received several awards and financial aid for her inspiring achievement. She is donating all the financial aid that she has received to open a free sports academy for poor and differently-abled persons, the Pandit Chandra Shekhar Viklang Khel Academy. In 2015, the braveheart was awarded the fourth highest civilian award of India, the Padma Shri and was also honoured with the Tenzing Norgay Highest Mountaineering Award.
- Kamal Kumbhar, Osmanabad, Maharashtra
Daughter of a daily-wage labourer, Kamal walked out of poverty and a failed marriage to set up Kamal Poultry and Ekta Sakhi Producer Company. Her organisation has enabled 3,000 women in the drought-prone region of Osmanabad, Maharashtra to set up small poultry ventures for a premium variety of chicken. This initiative has helped provide an alternative and sustainable source of livelihood to women trapped in poverty like Kamal herself was once. A serial entrepreneur, Kamal today owns six different businesses and is a role model business leader. Kamal was also a winner of the CII Foundation Women Exemplar Award 2017 in the field of micro-enterprise. Kamal has actively mentored more than 5,000 women to set up micro-enterprises.
- Jamuna Tudu, Maturkham, Jharkhand
Maturkham’s Lady Tarzan Jamuna Tudu and her band of women activists have managed to conserve 50 hectares of forest land around her village in Jharkhand, taking on the forest mafia with little more than bows and arrows and a whole lot of courage.
For years, the dense Sal forest surrounding Maturkham village in Purbi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand was plundered by the forest mafia for its precious Sal timber and rare fauna. Till, a young woman from Odisha married into a family in the village. Young Jamuna Tudu was incensed to see the mafia chopping down Sal trees. She was even more bewildered by the passive response of the community at their habitat being attacked. Seventeen-year-old Jamuna decided to take matters in her own hands. She mobilized a group of 25 women from the village, armed them with bows and arrows, lathis and spears, and marched into the forest to take on the intruders.
Over 15 years of many fierce encounters with the mafia and relentless sensitization of the community, Jamuna and the Van Suraksha Samiti she formed have succeeded in protecting and conserving 50 hectares of forest land and its flora and fauna. For her courage in the face of odds, the community calls her, Lady Tarzan.
The Van Suraksha Samiti has about 60 active women members, who patrol the jungle in shifts thrice a day, morning, noon and evening. And sometimes even at night when the mafia set fire to the forests in random acts of vandalism and vengeance.
The President of India has awarded her conservation efforts. The Forest Department has ‘adopted’ her village, which has led to Maturkham getting a water connection and a school. In 2013, Jamuna accepted the Godfrey Phillips Bravery Award in the ‘Acts of Social Courage’ category. Maturkham and its nearby areas are deep in the heart of Naxal territory; Jamuna faces a dual challenge running an environment conservation campaign in the volatile region. Today, she runs awareness campaigns through various forest committees in Kolhan division. Around 150 committees formed by Jamuna, comprising more than 6,000 members, have joined her movement to save the forests.
- Rajlakshmi Borthakur, Bengaluru
Her young son’s severe epilepsy left Raji Borthakur devastated. His seizures would come suddenly without warning. Living in constant fear, she never knew when the next seizure would strike. And neither did the doctors. Determined to save her child’s life, Raji channelled her inner researcher and innovator. She researched epilepsy obsessively for more than three years and came up with a simple wearable device, a smart glove, that can predict epileptic seizures before they happen. The sensors inside the glove get vital stats from the body and send these to the inbuilt processor. The processor works on the data immediately and sends it wirelessly to patients and caregivers anywhere, thus alerting them to a possible episode of seizure that could prove fatal. Raji’s simple yet ingenious solution to her son’s life-threatening condition has the potential of saving millions of others living with seizures.
- Kiran Kanoji, Faridabad
Survivor of a horrific accident, Kiran Kanojia, is a champion blade runner.
On a December day in 2011, Kiran Kanojia, an Infosys employee, boarded the train from Hyderabad on her way home to Faridabad, excited about celebrating her upcoming birthday with her family. Kiran landing a job in Infosys was celebrated as a turning point in her family’s fortunes. She is hazy about what happened next but remembers two boys attempting to snatch her bag and pushing her out of the train. On the eve of her birthday, Kiran lay in a hospital bed catching snatches of conversation about ‘saving the leg’. Life as Kiran knew it would never be the same again. When Kiran returned to Hyderabad six months after the accident and her amputation, she fought to get back control of her life.
The Dakshin Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) helped her do just that. Mohana Gandhi, a consultant from DRC, got her and other amputees to form a running group. Mohana suggested Kiran try the prosthetic leg. When she first wore it, Kiran was unsure it could even support her. Gradually, the blade felt like second skin. In 2014, Kiran attempted the Hyderabad Airtel Marathon and won her first medal. Today, Kiran, 28, is a champion blade runner and is invited to Delhi and Mumbai to run and flag off marathons. Her immediate goal is to participate in the Paralympic Games and make the country proud.
- Harshini Kanhekar, Nagpur, Maharashtra
Harshini Kanhekar rewrote the history of National Fire Service College, Nagpur and the country’s fire services to become India’s first woman firefighter. Growing up, Harshini discovered her appetite for adventure after signing up for the National Cadet Corps Air Wing. Her ultimate dream was to don a uniform and serve the country. Fresh from university, Harshini applied to Nagpur’s National Fire Service College (NFSC), an all-male bastion. When she qualified for NFSC, her parents were apprehensive. Harshini, however, was determined to overcome all obstacles. Harshini worked as hard as her male peers to clear the course.
Her drills included working with heavy water hoses and suction hoses. As the first woman ever to take the course, the expectations from her were much higher; she could not afford to make mistakes since her performance would set the benchmark for other young women aspiring to join NFSC. After graduating from NFSC, Harshini joined the fire fighter services at the age of 26. She was selected and designated as a fire engineer at the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC). Before joining ONGC, Harshini helped douse several big fires in Delhi and Kolkata. Her longest operation was in Delhi when a shoe factory caught fire, and she as part of her team had to fight fire for six hours at a stretch. As part of her service, she has also rescued civilians during floods, building collapses, wildlife attacks, and river swelling.
After joining ONGC in 2006, she was posted at the company’s Mehsana station, where she was in-charge of one of the three fire stations. Owing to her bravery, Harshini was also granted access to offshore rigs recently and is currently the deputy manager, Fire Services.
- Shima Modak, Meghalaya
For almost a decade, Shima Modak has been working relentlessly towards the welfare of the deprived and distressed. With little financial assistance, Shima has helped restore dignity to the lives of marginalised women and children. Moved by the plight of the underprivileged, Shima Modak drew funds from her own earnings to start her NGO, SPARK, which helps educate and enable marginalised groups to lead lives of dignity. In 2010, Shima started small educational centres in community spaces to take education to the doorstep of those kids who cannot make it to school. These centres were run with minimum basic facilities and the expenditure incurred was personally borne by Shima. Today, there are five such centres staffed with 16 teachers across Shillong, catering to nearly 450 students, mostly slum kids, ragpickers or domestic workers who have to work to support their family. Basic education (nursery to 10th grade) is provided free to children who could never have dreamt of going to school.
Those who have completed their schooling are then linked to a formal school. Students from these centres have been participating in and winning state and national level sports tournaments. A key achievement has been a group of students who’ve been trained in animation and film-making skills participating in the Chicago Film Festival 2015.
Starting with 73 underprivileged children, the centres run by SPARK have as of date been able to cover more than 3,000. Shima has also been working to counter human trafficking, rescuing and rehabilitating women who are trapped into sex work and domestic labour. Recognising the importance of educating women for the development of society, Shima’s NGO organises evening classes for women in Anjali, Shillong. Awareness and sensitisation programmes and health camps for women are some of the other praiseworthy initiatives undertaken by Shima and her team.
- Sunita Kamble, Mhasvad, Maharashtra
Sunita Kamble fought the odds to become the first woman goat veterinarian in her region, working with her team to protect her community’s livestock and create alternative and sustainable livelihood opportunities for women. Sunita Kamble belongs to Mhasvad, a severely drought-affected area in Maharashtra. Livestock farming is the key source of livelihood for the marginalised community in this region. Given the lack of veterinarians in the remote area, the community’s prime assets, their livestock, were highly susceptible to diseases that could prove fatal without timely and appropriate treatment. Ms Kamble, like other rural women in her community, had limited avenues for growth; the thought of helping the community protect and sustain their sole source of livelihood might have seem farfetched to most. However, Sunita was unlike the others.
She persevered in the face of opposition from her family and ridicule from the community to become a doctor. And not just any doctor. Sunita became the first grassroots woman goat veterinarian in the region. Livestock farmers in the Mhasvad region finally had help at hand. Sunita and her team of seven barefoot veterinarians have performed artificial insemination on over 2,000 goats in the area. The idea to artificially inseminate goats was first introduced by a few state governments in order to crossbreed and create a hybrid that can be a good source of milk and mutton. Sunita and her team have also successfully trained over 350 women in the technique, thus creating an alternative and sustainable livelihood option for women-headed households in the area.
From being jeered by the community for her aspirations to being respected as “Doctor madam”, Sunita Kamble has come a long way.
- Kanika Tekriwal, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
A self-made aviation entrepreneur and cancer survivor, Kanika Tekriwal exemplifies the power of positive thinking and strategic risk-taking. Kanika Tekriwal started her journey in the aviation industry at the tender age of 17. She took up a part-time job helping set up the aviation division for real estate powerhouse, Indiabulls. Recognising the potential in the aviation sector early on, Kanika viewed the lack of easy and informed hiring of private aircrafts at the time as a market waiting to be captured. At 21, Kanika was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma.
Looking back, she considers the battle with cancer as a phase in her life which gave her time to think and strategise around her ambition to be a part of the aviation industry. After successfully battling cancer, Kanika went back to the drawing board and launched her company, JetSetGo in 2013. JetSetGo, India’s first marketplace for chartered jets, is an interactive technology-driven platform enabling users to charter aircrafts and helicopters around India. India has about 200 airstrips of which less than half are connected by commercial flights, making the aircraft charter market a viable option for many. Revenues at the Delhi company have grown from $64,200 in fiscal 2015 to $3.2 million in fiscal 2016 to a projected $17 million for the year that ended in March. JetSetGo either manages or has exclusive marketing contracts for 16 aircrafts, making it the largest fleet in India. The company operates four to 20 flights a day. At the age of 28, Kanika has won several accolades—chosen as one of the 100 most inspirational women in the world by BBC, recognised by Forbes Asia as one of the 30 under 30 leading entrepreneurs in Asia, CNN’s 20 under 40, and awarded the National Entrepreneurship award in E-commerce by Government of India. Next on Kanika’s to-do list: creating a global presence for her brand.
The jury to select the winners comprised Nirupama Rao, Former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador, P.T. Usha, Indian Olympian, Pooja Thakur, Wing Commander, Indian Air Force, Dr. Arvind Panagariya, NITI Aayog Vice Chairman, Amitabh Kant, NITI Aayog CEO and Yuri Afanasiev, UN Resident Coordinator.