Once the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten. I do not have the comfort of forgetting the foot ever. I still brave endless struggles and hurdles in carrying on social work even after thirty years of dedicated service. I do all of it to make sure that not a single child is deprived of education. I have lived in utmost poverty, penury and pains and have come out of it with excruciating agony, pain-staking humiliation, daring risks. I understand how poverty slays all possibilities and how education can act as a game-changer in scripting one’s destiny. I have continued to work towards this dream of seeing each child getting the right to education and learning. My experience from the past has enabled me to successfully set up and run the world’s largest educational institution for tribal children in Odisha. More than 65,000 tribal children have received holistic education from Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Odisha. Their futures have been constructed at the intersection of food, education, skills for employability in a residential campus, where each one is treated as unique and special and takes pride of the rich tribal identity and legacy.

During these insidious times, thrown at our face uncalled, many good samaritans are relentlessly working to reduce the miseries of people. KIIT and KISS have also extended a helping hand in the last six months. Our work, ‘drop in the ocean’, is about adopting hundreds of orphan children, mostly girls who have lost their parents either due to COVID-19, poverty, migration or difficulties faced due to lockdown. We have assured monthly financial assistance for sustenance. Upon the opening of KIIT and KISS, these children will get an opportunity to study free of cost.

I narrate a story to bring out the point that the darkest side of poverty can kill lives, and lack of formal education makes the situation worse. A heart-rending story of a tribal family devastated due to poverty has emerged from the Sundargarh district of Odisha. Cruel hands of poverty snatched all members of the hapless family one after the other. This family, consisting of parents, two sons and a daughter, was living in a small hut in Kulba village of Sundargarh district. They were landless, and to make things worse, the father was unable to work due to his illness. The mother worked as a daily wage labourer, their only source of income, and was barely able to run the family. Work was not regular and income very less, pushing the family into abject poverty. Most of the days, the family had to battle hunger. The parents felt very sad to see their children go without food.

Such a situation forced the mother to migrate to Delhi, along with some other daily wage workers, in search of better prospects. However, the family lost contact with her soon after. They waited and waited, but she did not return. With their only source of income gone, the family had to struggle for each meal. In the meantime, an unscrupulous person (trafficker) set his sight on their daughter. Taking advantage of their penury, he convinced the father to send his daughter, aged 14, and son, 12, with him on the promise of job and marriage. He took them to Mathura in 2015. He engaged the son as a servant in someone’s house and planned to sell the daughter. However, his reality was discovered by the son, who somehow managed to escape and return to the village.

But the girl was not able to escape from the human trafficker’s clutches, who sold her several times. She was gang-raped several times and was subject to unspeakable inhumanities. She, fighting for her life, somehow escaped from Mathura and reached a bus stand in Haryana. Seeing her alone, two auto-rickshaw drivers abducted her and gang-raped her again. Her ordeals came to an end after Sundargarh Police got information about her and sent a team to rescue her on 15 December 2015. Her news at that time had created a sensation in the media.

Police dropped her in her village after rescuing her and the administration considered its duty over. No local representative, legislator or social organisation came forward to support the family. Suffering from humiliation and hunger, the girl could not stay in the village for long and left home without informing anyone in 2016. Unable to bear the shock, the father passed away, orphaning the two brothers.

The elder brother lost his patience, left for Goa or Mumbai and has not been traced yet. The younger brother was left alone. The family hut, for lack of maintenance and repair, was also destroyed. The young boy, Sashiram, became homeless without any support. He survived on food given by the villagers and slept on the verandahs of others’ huts. On 13 June 2020, he too lost his life in a bike accident. Poverty and hunger smashed the poor family completely.

The family’s tragedy ended after all members lost their lives. But poverty and hunger remain the biggest challenge that we face even after 75 years of independence. This makes me restless to do as much as I can to help all and sundry so that they don’t have to go through what I did!