Even as the annual Neerja Bhanot award was conferred on noted social worker, better known as ‘mother of orphans’ – Sindhutai Sapkal, on Saturday at Ahmedabad, the Pune-based braveheart has decided to use the award money to help the cause of malnourished children of Chikhaldara in Maharashtra. The award worth Rs 1.5 lakh recognises women having faced social injustice and emerged out of the situation with grit and having helped other women in distress. It was instituted in the memory of Pan-American flight purser Neerja Bhanot, an Ashok Chakra recipient who saved 359 people out of 379 on board a flight and was shot dead while helping passengers escape from emergency exits during a hijack by terrorists in September 1986.
Pune-based Sapkal, who runs four orphanages and is mother to 1400 children orphaned children, was conferred the award by Akhil and Aneesh Bhanot- brothers of Neerja Bhanot and Reema Nanavaty- Padma Shri awardee and Chairperson of SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre.
Speaking about her arduous journey of having been left for the dead by her husband at the age of 20 with a 17-day old girlchild, Sindhutai recapped her life spent begging for food and money at railway stations and spending nights at crematoriums where she found safety at night. She also told the audience gathered at the award ceremony on Saturday how she gave up her own daughter to a Pune-run trust so she could dedicate her life to helping orphans and distressed women.
“Just the other day I was called to inaugurate a crematorium in Pune and realised that life has come a full circle for me…I used to beg at railway stations and travel a lot. One day I had decided to end my life with my daughter at a railway station after eating a hearty meal that I had managed to get by begging. After the meal, on the way I found another beggar almost on the brink of death asking for water. I fed him and he survived, which is when I decided to live my life in service of others…Today it is heartening to get this award as Neerja gave up her life for others while I decided to live in service of others. This award is like Roti (bread) for my kids.”
Sindhutai also spoke about using the award money to begin an organisation in Chikhaldara Taluka -a hill station and a municipal council in Amravati district of Maharashtra to combat the issue of malnourishment among children there. She said, “I have spent 16 years of my life in Chikhaldara and wish to work there. While people told me that a lot is being done to curb malnourishment in Chikhaldara but 4 children are dying every week. I think the mothers themselves make sure one child is malnourished so they can get aid for the other 4 children. I will tell these mothers to let me raise that malnourished child to become an officer so he can later support the family out of its distress in the future.”