PRabhaben Shah of Daman was 12 when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in 1942 during a session of Congress in Bombay (now Mumbai).
Associated with the Swaraj Ashram in Bardoli from an early age, Prabhaben took a vow to contribute to the freedom struggle and slept on a burlap sack for almost six months. In a symbolic gesture of boycotting foreign products, she used charkha to make cotton khadi at school.
Driven by the principles and ideology of Gandhi, Prabhaben continued her contributions to society after India’s independence. She then worked in various social sectors such as education, health, women’s empowerment, relief operations in the event of natural disasters and during wars with neighboring countries.
For her immense hard work, she was awarded India’s fourth highest civilian award, Padma Shri in January 2022.
“I am very proud and moved to receive the prestigious award for my services. This award, however, is not mine alone. It belongs to every individual who believed in me and encouraged me to render service. I thank my late husband, Subhash, for letting me pursue my passion in a society that was far from gender equality,” Prabhaben said. The best India.
Although she retired at the end of the 1990s, she continues to guide the new generation and give her opinion on various subjects.
She is about to turn 93 on February 20, but even at this age her spirits are as high as when she started the playgroup in the Vapi district in the 1960s. Her memory is vivid then. as she settles into the couch to chronicle her three-decade journey.
be the change
Taking Gandhi’s saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” as gospel truth, Prabhaben became a catalyst for change. She interrupted her studies in Class 7 and got married to Subhash who was working for Gujarat Electricity Board.
When the couple moved to Bardoli district due to an employee transfer, their eldest daughter was only 1.5 years old. There was no school in 1960 and Prabha wanted her children to graduate.
She therefore opened a “Bal Mandir” (primary school) in the Gujarati language for the children. At first she taught her daughter and other children in the neighborhood herself, then hired teachers. To fund the school and teachers’ salaries, she even started working at a Khadi Ashram as a clerk.
“Two years later, another transfer took us to Daman and there too there was no school. So, instead of creating a school directly, I decided to create a Mahila Mandal and open the school through them. In 1963, we officially formed the Daman Mahila Mandal and started our operations,” she says.
Forming a women’s group wasn’t as easy as Prabha makes it seem. The setting was rural and the era was the 1960s, a situation where women still observed the purdah system and did not venture out.
The first meetings were held in her home so that the women could speak freely and through these discussions, Prabhaben educated them about basic education and health care.
Through crowdfunding channels, the Mahila Mandal has established two English and Gujarati middle schools each.
“The women couldn’t even sign their names, not to mention the importance of education for their children. I remember we used to hold classes for women in the evenings after they finished their chores. Most of the time we didn’t have electricity, so we looked into using candles,” says Prabhaben.
As more and more women joined the Mahila Mandal, Prabhaben and his team took a step forward and opened a credit company to lend to women who wanted to start small businesses like papad making, sewing, groceries, etc.
Along with empowering women, the organization has also kept an eye on other projects like helping the needy. One of their notable contributions came in 1965 when they opened a vegetarian canteen in a public hospital for relatives of patients.
Prabhaben recalls, “There were no shops, hotels or restaurants around the hospital and people from other neighborhoods came there too. Stranded parents had very few options, so with the help of hospital staff, we opened a canteen that still operates today.
Between 1965 and 1971, the Mahila Mandal was very active in collecting donations for soldiers and families of martyrs. During both wars, Prabhaben and other members knitted sweaters and sent them to soldiers fighting on the frontiers.
“Our prime minister at the time, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was traveling the country to raise funds, but we failed to raise much, so we made sweaters and sent rations by truck. This period was surreal for me after witnessing the independence movement. We did not ask for freedom just to suffer at the hands of our neighboring countries,” she says.
Prabhaben and his colleagues carried out similar tissue banking projects during the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, the devastating Kutch earthquake of 2001 and more recently the Kerala floods of 2018.
“We donate, sew and buy clothes for adults, elderly people and children whenever such a crisis arises,” says Prabha.
Over the years, Prabhaben has worked on several issues and improved the lives of many people, from children to women. Her zeal and drive make her an award-winning social activist.
The journey, she says, was not easy as at first she had to manage the Mahila Mandal with very little money available.
“Subash was earning Rs 250 a month so I was saving most of it and instead of using it to buy things for myself, I was giving it to the Mahila Mandal. Ek ek pai jod ke hum ne kaam kiya hai (We worked saving every penny),” she adds.
(Editing by Yoshita Rao)