He began his life with an aim to educate and empower tribal girls in the hinterland of Chhattisgarh and after 36 years of hard work, 83-year-old Dharampal Saini is proud of the transformation.
A protege of social activist Vinoba Bhave, Saini said he always wanted to be a social worker and it was Bhave who advised him to work for the betterment of tribals in Chhattisgarh.
"Once I graduated, I headed to Bastar with an aim to educate girls as at that time the literacy rate there was less than one percent," Saini, who was awarded 'Man of the year' by The Week magazine here Tuesday, told IANS.
"I got a grant to set up the first school for 80 girls in 1976 but was mocked by officials. They said that even eight girls would not turn up, leave alone 80," he added.
Saini, fondly called "Tauji" by locals, then visited each house in the district and cajoled the parents of the girls to allow them to attend school.
"It was a Herculean task as no one wanted to let their girls out," he said.
Saini's crusade started off focusing only on girls owing to the sad state of affairs of girl education in the area but later included boys as well.
At present there are 21 schools for girls and 16 for boys spread across Bastar. The movement is funded by the government.
Saini said that he had to get teachers from outside when the movement began but over the years several former students have stayed back in the village, committed to educate the next generation.
"I am proud of where we are today and what we have achieved. The natives are running their own business and have jobs because of education," he said.