For the Day:

Sister Act

It was, for Sr. Magi Maria, a leap into the dark. Neither she nor her congregation had any idea what lay ahead, when she quit a comfortable teaching job to plunge into social work. Now after 25 years, more than 50,000 residents of 105 drought-prone villages in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh thanks her for making their life ‘green.’ Her intervention has helped them break free of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, illiteracy and enslavement.

Selling Dreams
“We did not have even a hand-to-mouth existence when we met her,” says Gayatri Sahu, a mother of three sons. The 45-year-old woman lives with her husband Beny Prasad Sahu and sons in Chota Khera, a village on the outskirts of the state capital of Bhopal.

When Sr. Magi met the family eight years ago, the husband, a daily wage worker, was earning rupees 50. “We had to go to bed, empty stomach, since he had no regular work,” Gayatri adds. But now, “we have enough to eat and a good house to live in. Sr. Magi taught us how to make the best use of our one-acre farm.”

Sahu, 49, stopped working on others’ farms as he began cultivating his land. He got help from ‘Cyriac Elias Rural Organisation for Women and Children,’ a group the Sister started in 1991 to help the villagers.

Initially, Sister encouraged the family to start a poultry farm to meet the family expenses as Sahu had no income for sustenance. As the crop production increased, the family stopped the poultry and focused entirely on agriculture. Since they started rotating crops, the family earns around rupees 2,00,000 annually.

Devi Ram Lodhi, 45, another farmer Sr. Magi helped, was trained also in modern farming techniques. Lodhi began earning an average of rupees 1,50,000 a year through multi-crop farming. He has, recently, rented a 9 acre plot from his relatives and increased his income tenfold.

He and his wife work on the farm, and their 14-year-old son, Pavan Lodhi, waters the vegetables before going to school. In the evening he sells the farm produce in the local market. Lodhi, who is illiterate, now wants his five children to study as much as they can because money is no longer a problem. Such comments are heard from thousands of farmers in Bhopal, Raisen and Sehore districts where Sr. Magi now operates.

Seeking the poorest
Sr. Magi chose the area as it was very vulnerable due to poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment and superstition. “They suffered all sorts of exploitation, including physical abuses. Many worked long hours but were not paid even the minimum wages,” she recalls. Another fact is that the government projects for poverty alleviation hardly reach these people because of official apathy and lack of political will.

She was 18 when she joined the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC). She was trained as a teacher but her heart was with the poor. Her initial requests to engage in social work were rejected. No one in the Congregation had ventured into that area until then. Also, the superiors were concerned about the safety of a young nun in north Indian villages.

In 1989, she was allowed to follow her heart. Thus inn 1990, she started off from Deepdi, a village in Bhopal district, with Rs 2,80,000, donated by Karl Kubel Foundation. The project supported non-formal education and skill training. Since then, Sr. Magi has not looked bac

Collaborative endeavour
Jeevan Singh, programme manager of her organization says, “We empower and train women to earn additional income for their families. Field trips, study tours, films, workshops and seminars for training farmers and their wives are introduced. The Organization has improved the standard of education in villages and has taught people how to care for their health. We have built 400 houses for the homeless, 37 ponds, two medium-sized dams and hundreds of embankments for rain harvesting to fight drought. 500 homes have been repaired.”

About 400 financial support groups benefitting almost 6,000 women in the region were helped. Each group has a minimum of 11 members who engage in micro financing. Each member deposits a small amount every month. In an emergency, members can borrow money from this deposit, at one percent interest and escape the trap of money lenders. The support group women now play lead roles in social and political circles. At least 24 have become Presidents of ‘Panchayats.’

The village youth were trained for trade – electricians, mechanics, hand pump repairers, masons, tailors, plumbers, health workers and teachers. She has started 150 grain banks that are now sources of additional income for the farmers. The grain banks, managed by a committee of villagers, collect quality seeds for cultivation.
The rough paths
The landlords were annoyed with her as the villagers had stopped going to work in their farms and houses. They ganged up to chase her out of the region, accusing her that her charitable works are for trapping gullible poor Hindus to Christianity. Sister Magi survived the first attempt against her in 2004 because the local ‘panchayat’ head, impressed with her work came to her support.

The following year, 12 members of a right-wing Hindu armed group barged into her office, ransacked it and took away files. They also desecrated a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They left threatening to kill her.

Manoj Pal, 31, a part-time worker with her, terrified of the attacks, sought to quit the job. But Sister persuaded him to stay on. The local Police, hand in glove with the Hindu activists, did nothing to help her.

Love gives life
Divine Word Fr. George Payattikattu, a social worker in the region, says the nun has restored human dignity to the poor and strengthened them economically and socially. “It is not easy to live in remote villages without basic facilities for such a long time. It shows her real commitment to the poor,” says Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal diocese.

Sr. Magi’s former Provincial, Sr. M. Regis says, “Her work has changed the mindset of the Congregation that was earlier focused only on education. Now many more have followed her lead to engage in social service.”