New Delhi: Life has changed for Meena Gayen. “I never thought we would get noted to such an extent,” says the 36-year-old woman, who was recently listed among three Indians in BBC’s 100 inspirational and influential women from across the world.
Meena is credited for working with women in West Bengal’s Sundarbans delta to build a brick road to make their village accessible.
The other two inclusions in the list are Kerala-born 50-year-old Viji Pallithodi, who made efforts to secure better working conditions for women workers in the unorganised sector and Maharashtra-based 55-year-old Rahibai Soma Popere, who works to conserve indigenous seed varieties.
Meena told Gulf News, “When I resolved to work for the benefit of my village, I never had an inkling that the village would some day become famous and people would actually want to know more about our lives.”
Her village named Tridibnagar, in South 24 Paraganas district of West Bengal, is not easily accessible. Villages in the area are surrounded by creeks and tidal rivers, which make it difficult to construct a permanent road in the vicinity. As Meena explained, “Living in a remote area is very difficult and an everyday struggle. We do not have access to many things. The villages have no basic amenities, including good roads, schools and hospitals.”
Even as a child, she faced immense problems. “We are poor and ignorant and because of lack of education, people here have never been able to better their lives,” she said.
Meena’s village has no school. Having studied up to Grade 4, like many girls in the village, she was made to stay at home and did household work.
When I resolved to work for the benefit of my village, I never had an inkling that the village
would some day become famous and people would actually want to know more about our lives.
“My parents refused to send me to school in a neighbouring village and on growing up I was married off. My husband is a seasonal farmer and grows paddy in the fields. To support the family I have been selling gol gappas (a common street snack) near the forest departments ‘boat-house’ of the famous Sundarbans mangroves. During the lean agricultural season, now my husband too assists me in running the enterprise.”
Recalling the traumatic time that led to the construction of the road, Meena recounted that at the time of her pregnancy, she tripped on a slippery path and had a miscarriage. “But even during that medical emergency, I had to travel by a cart on a bumpy road to reach the nearest hospital that was 10kms away.
“Every time I think of it, I get goose bumps,” she said. The night still afresh in her mind, the loss of her first child still haunts her. Having cursed her fate, she finally decided to do something about it.
Understanding the need
“It necessitated me to think ahead not only for my own sake, but also for the benefit of other women. I decided to somehow make my village accessible to the city, where we could get better medical facilities.
"Merely due to lack of road and pathway, we could not continue to lose lives and opportunities. The thought ignited my mind and I engaged with women of the village. Once my heart was set on somehow building a road, things began to fall in place.”
Merely due to lack of road and pathway, we could not continue to lose lives and opportunities. The thought ignited my mind and I engaged with women of the village. Once my heart was set on somehow building a road, things began to fall in place.
Women and children were the worst affected because of the slippery mud road, so, it became easier for Meena to mobilise women to construct a road made of bricks. In some way or the other, families had experienced the drawbacks and also suffered, so could understand each other’s pain and stood in her support.
Since constructing a road required massive infrastructure, Meena approached World Vision India, an NGO, working for the children in rural areas and her own village.
“I requested them to help the road construction project by providing us the bricks. Seeing our unity and resolve, they promptly provided us the required bricks and motivated us in our venture. As women set out on the mission, men needed no convincing. Seeing our passion and determination, they too joined in,” she said.
The 1km brick road was built in 2012 within a span of 15 days It connects Meena’s village to the main road, called the Panchayat Road.
The road has not only benefited Meena’s two sons, studying in Grade 4 and 9, but also other children, who traverse to reach the nearby public school.
Pathway to better education
“Children from neighbouring villages, too, use the road to commute to school and inspired by our model, more such roads covering over 24 villages have been built, she informed.
“Today, we are a group of proud women, who can say we made a difference by bettering the lives of our community,” she added.
The enterprising woman has travelled to Kolkata and seen the city’s wide roads, buildings and schools. The recognition that Meena has got, has enabled her to think further.
“I want to make good use of this opportunity and am already on the path of designing a blueprint and providing more developmental activities in our village. My priority though is to set-up a school in the village, so that children, especially girls, are spared from travelling long distances,” she divulged.