Sr. Wandana Dabhi: A Fearless Crusader for the Poorest of the poor

(The following article recounts the details of the journey I undertook in the Narmada District. This study concentrates on the role of microfinance among rural agro related women in Narmada district of Gujarat, India.)

Keywords: women in agriculture, tribal community, tribal women, forste produce, rural development, women’s empowerment, self-sustaining women

“My motivation to work among the poorest of the poor comes from my commitment to my religious life and the God whom I serve.”

The Journey

To meet Sister Wandana Dabhi, who strives for the impoverished tribal communities, you have to travel to Ankleshwar in Gujarat and then undertake a 70-kilometre journey through rough terrain to Dedia Pada in Narmada District. From there, you travel through reserve forests to reach a little known village called Nani Singoloti near the Soolapaneshwar Game Sanctuary. The arduous journey on bad roads is well compensated with the sight of the deciduous, tropical forests along the way: For Dedia Pada is part of 1,17,377 square kilometers of forests in the Narmada District.1 As one travels along an 8-kilometre road, from Dedia Pada town to Nani Singoloti, one sees the landscape is splashed with varying shades of green. In the distant horizon the green hills seem to merge with the blue sky and the white clouds, while the yellow-green corn fields and grassy glades below glisten with the silvery raindrops in the monsoons.2 Nestling amidst the hills and valleys of this picturesque countryside are tribal hamlets of the Vasava people. The houses (built with the help of family and friends) are skillfully constructed with teakwood, while the walls are woven with bamboo reeds and the red roofs are tiled with shingles or tiles. Close to these dwelling places, it is possible to hear the sound of the water gushing in full force through a nearby stream or a rivulet.

The enduring beauty of these houses stand in stark contrast to the ugly, nondescript, concrete houses that one passed along the national highway No. 8 enroute to Ankleshwar. These towns along the highway (with their box-like houses and garbage strewn indiscriminately) remain an indication of how alienating a mindless quest for modernity could be. The tribal hamlets are a nostalgic reminder of all that humankind has lost in the name of progress and a mad quest for profits— a reminder that there was another way of living in harmony with nature. It is also a stern reminder to us of the need to conserve the rich biodiversity of the land and the cultural diversity of the people. What is painfully apparent is that the indiscriminate felling of trees and the over utilisation of the resources are eroding a heritage, far older than any civilisation that we know of.

It is in the context of the various efforts made to protect the rights of indigenous people and enable them to integrate into the fast changing economy that we need to locate Wandana Dabhi’s work. Her work represents attempts to help the tribal communities to survive and live with dignity. But in order to appreciate the impact of her work, we need to understand the land, the people and culture. It is only against this backdrop that we will be able to understand her motivation, work and struggles.

The Land

Nani Singoloti, the village where Wandana lives and works, is located in the Narmada District, the homeland of tribal communities, such as the Bhils, the Dhodias, Chodhras and the Grasias. Located on the foothills of the Satpura range, the district is bound by the Narmada, and Karajan rivers.3 Its hills and valleys are covered with deciduous, tropical forests (comprising teak, bamboo and a variety of jungle trees). Rich in bio-diversity, the Rajpipla forests are the habitat of a variety of wild animals (such as tigers, panthers, leopards, cheetahs, sambhars, hyenas, civet cats and bears) and birds (such as the painted partridge, magpie, robin, spotted babbler, bulbul and blackbird). The forest also provide a variety of forest produce that have commercial value: The apta and tunsu leaves found in the forest is needed for rolling beedis; the chilari bark is used for tanning; the grass is needed as cattle fodder; the resins exuding from the trees for the manufacture of gum; and the mahua flower used by the tribal community as food and for the preparation of toddy, while the oil pressed from the mahua seed is useful as cooking oil and for the preparation of soaps. 4

The hilly terrain of the region allows very little land for cultivation. The crops that are grown here, such as paddy, tuver (lentil) jowar, maize (corn) and cotton are cultivated in the valleys and on the gentler slopes of the hills. But this crop yield is insufficient to meet the food needs of the tribal communities. The people face hunger and deprivation. The main reason for this sad state is because of the rapid deforestation in the region; this has eroded the top soil and affected rainfall to the detriment of the crop yield. Moreover, the forest laws since the colonial period have curtailed people’s access to the forest resources. In earlier times, the tribal communities were not entirely dependent on the food crops they grew. They were able to supplement their nutritional needs by foraging and hunting in the forests. But now, the stringent forest laws and the depleting forest resources effectively push tribal communities to the edge of poverty.

In the Narmada District, this downward slide of the tribal communities into poverty has been escalated by this process of deforestation. It is estimated that between the Narmada Sagar dam and the Sardar Sarovar dam 50, 000 hectares of rich forests in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat will be submerged and displaced over 40,000 people. It will also submerge over 101 villages in and around the Shoolpaneswar Game Sanctuary. 5 Although Nani Singoloti and the other villages on this side of the Shoolpaneswar Game Sanctuary are not directly affected, they will pay the hidden costs of development: For the deteriorating forest cover, the decreasing rains and the increased soil erosion will affect the livelihood of these communities as well.

The People and Their Culture

The Vasava tribe living in and around Nani Singoloti is identified in anthropological literature as one of the Bhil tribes.6 Living in the forest of the Satputra ranges, the Bhils constitute the third largest group of tribal communities after the Gonds and the Santals7. Each of these tribes had evolved a distinct identity, which was threatened by the process of development introduced since the British period. The growing market for timber and other forest produce brought the tribes into an exploitative relationship with the traders and moneylenders from the plains, while the forest policies increasingly alienated them from their traditional entitlements to the forests.

The Vasava culture is a synthesis between the dominant Hinduism and tribal beliefs. For along with the worship of tribal deities (like Manto Dev, the rain god, and Mogra Dev who is married to Raja Panth) with the sacrifice of cocks or goats, the Vasavas celebrate festivals such as Mahashivarathri, Divali and Holi. Anthropologists have described the religion of the Vasavas (as well as that of the other Bhil tribes) as animism. 8 To them their gods are not transcendental deities living in heaven, but rather emanate beings inhabiting their intimate world of the village community, the plants in the forests and the animals within.9 It is this idea of divinity in nature that enables them to live in harmony with nature. The tribal communities worship the seasons of the year and celebrate the harvest by offering the first crop to their gods. They also worship their ancestors and believe in spirits, ghosts and witches.

The social composition of the Vasavas (like the other Bhil tribes) comprises a number of clans, each claiming descent from the same mythical ancestor. Each clan occupies a distinct palya (hamlet) and observes village exogamy. The villages are scattered and spread over the hills. The village boundaries are not clearly demarcated; nevertheless it is known and respected by the people. 10 Their homes, built near their paddy fields also house their domestic animals. When a son gets married, he builds another home near his father’s home and he is given a share of land. Since marriages are expensive and involves the payment of bride price, a man might often elope with his chosen bride.

Life cycle events (such as, marriages, births and deaths) are celebrated with singing and dancing. The dead are cremated and the funeral rites involve the community members. dancing through the night carrying the dead body. Before the body is taken to the cremation grounds, the dead person is presented with money for his last journey and personal effects such as a comb and mirror. Children dying young are however not cremated but buried.

The underlying culture of the community emphasises egalitarian norms and recognises an ancestral brotherhood between the various exogamous clans. The relationship between the sexes is fairly egalitarian and there is no gender discrimination with children. The Vasavi women, however, work very hard. For, apart from agricultural labour, they have to manage the home and cattle. They also have to walk long distances in search of firewood and to fetch water.

Although, pre-marital sexual relationships are condoned, there are sexual controls over a married woman. 11 Disputes between the members of the community, or within families are settled by the jati panch comprising elderly men. On divorce, the child is usually left in its patri-clan to be brought up by its paternal grandmother. But in the intimate world of the tribes, where kinships exist between the families, there is scope for negotiation. There are instances when the Panch may decide that the custody of the child after divorce should go to the mother. In an instance, narrated by Wandana, a young woman eloped and subsequently married a man from the neighbouring village. Shortly afterwards, the marriage turned sour. The man abandoned the woman, but kept the custody of the child. The woman pined for the child and stopped eating food. Fearing for her life, the Panch from the two villages forced reconciliation between the husband and wife.

Economic Hardships

This culture that lived in harmony with nature for centuries is eroded by the changing economy. Traditionally, the Vasavas practiced shifting cultivation in the forests. It is only in the 19th century, that they have taken to plough cultivation. But they own very little land and grow only one crop during the monsoons. In the past, they were able to supplement their food by hunting small animals and foraging into the forests for fruits and herbs. The prevailing forest laws prevent them from accessing these sources of food. Consequently, most of the Vasavas are reduced to living as agricultural labourers. 12 Increasingly drawn into a market economy, they seek to eke a living by selling honey and other forest produce in the nearby markets. But they are exploited and get poor returns for their produce. For instance, the contractors pay them only Rs. 40/- for hundred bundles of timru leaves that they collect from the forests. During summers, they are compelled to migrate to cities like Surat, Bharuch, and Ankleshwar in search of work and often find work on construction sites (such as dams and bridges) or brick kilns.13 As unskilled labour, they earn a paltry wage of Rs. 50 per day.

Illiteracy is widespread and out of the 214 villages in Dedia Pada, only 169 have schools; out of which 135 schools are only up to Std IV, 34 are up to Std. VII and only 9 are high schools. Medical facilities are minimal and the people are exploited by the quacks in the nearby towns. Many of the interior villages in Dedia Pada have no electricity and are unconnected by roads. During monsoons they remain isolated. Even if in need of medical treatment during monsoons, they have to swim across raging rivers carrying their children and possessions in cane baskets/ or large mud pots. They also face harassment by the police and forest officials who restrict their access to the forests.

Wandana’s Inspiration

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand Wandana’s dedication to the empowerment of tribal communities and to appreciate the significance of her work for over 27 years. She now lives in a beautiful convent called Asha Kiran in Nani Singoloti. This double storied, whitewashed building, built a year ago, contrasts with the nearby tribal hamlets. The nuns live on the first floor as they need solitude and space for reflection. There is a beautiful little chapel there. The ground floor of the convent is a beehive of activities as it has a dispensary and a hall. The dispensary provides medical aid to the sick children as well as the villagers living in the vicinity, while the hall is an important meeting place for the credit cooperative run by tribal women. There are also two bedrooms in the ground floor reserved for visitors.

This convent grew out of the dedicated services rendered by Wandana who came to Nani Singoloti in 1995 and established a base in 18 tribal villages. When she first came to Nani Singloti she lived with an elderly nun who worked in the local ashrama school. She now lives in this convent with Sr. Rekha, the Superior, Sr. Lucy and Sr. Savita. All of them have dedicated their services to God and the convent exudes an aura of purity and simplicity. Staying with them in the convent and waking up to the sound of the early morning hymns was a beautiful experience. Sr. Rekha has a deep knowledge of the scriptures and manages the convent, Sr. Lucy runs the dispensary and trains the Village Health Workers and Sr. Savita manages the hostel for tribal children and teaches in the Primary School.

Wandana’s inspiration and strength are her religious convictions and complete dedication to the God whom she serves. She speaks of his protection and guidance in her work. She says:

“There have been times, when I have slipped and fallen, while walking through the jungles and yet remained unhurt. There have also been instances when poisonous snakes have crossed my path and have not been bitten me”.

In her quest for spiritual growth in the service of humanity, she seeks to follow the footsteps of Marie Therese Haze, who founded the religious congregation that she belongs to. With global linkages, the congregation of the Daughters of the Cross has a long history of service to the poorest and most helpless. Marie Therese founded the congregation in the 19th century, following the aftermath of the French Revolution. During those tumultuous times, Marie Therese’s family faced persecution. Her immense personal suffering, however, did not make her bitter. She channeled her energies towards the service of the poorest of the poor. Inspired by the life of Marie Therese, Wandana had at the age of 20 entered the convent.14 This decision was not easy, and her parents opposed it. Nevertheless, seeing that she was firm in her decision, her parents let her join the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross. 15


Recollecting her childhood in Baroda, Wandana says that she was born on 12 October 1945, to a well placed Christian family as the eldest of 7 children. Her parents were enlightened and wished to give their children good education. She was therefore sent to school at a time when few girls had access to education. Their home life, she adds, was indeed ideal. Her father, a train driver, was often away from home and it was her mother who was a devoted wife and mother, ensured that the home was a place of peace and happiness. Wandana remembers that her mother always stayed awake late in the night waiting for her husband to come home and only then would she eat her dinner. Wandana’s father was equally committed to his wife and children. He would give his entire salary to wife. Wandana went to the school run by the Daughters of the Cross. It was here that she found her vocation. Inspired by love for Jesus Christ, Wandana decided at a very young age to devote her life to the service of God and humanity.

Work and Evolution of Her Idea

Since 1968, Wandana has worked for the empowerment of women in rural/tribal areas of Surat, Baruch, and Banaskantha districts.16 These districts were among the most backward districts of Gujarat. The educational level was abysmally low and there was no health care facility available. In order to establish contact with the people, Wandana would often walk through the jungles for about 10 to 12 kms from one village to another. She would even stay with the people and eat with them. In order to be able to effectively communicate with them, she learnt the Vasavi dialect and in course of time has been able to develop an audio- visual training kit (comprising slides and a commentary) called ‘Adivasi Jivan Programme’ to make the people aware of their rights.

Wandana began her community service by initiating the mother and child health programme. Under this programme, she would (through the use of innovative teaching techniques such as role plays, puppet shows, etc.) give the women rudimentary information about health, nutrition and hygiene. Subsequently, she sought to establish balwadis and encourage the mothers to send their children to schools. She organised a balwadi teacher’s training programme for the local girls who had studied from Standards 2 to 5 to enable them to work as balwadi teachers.

It is possible to discern the evolution of ideas in the course of her work. At the outset Wandana’s work was based on the idea of “doing good” to others. Gradually she has come to recognise the need for enabling the community to take charge of their lives. This has meant a shift in the nature of her work. Wandana now believes that the empowerment of women has many components. It includes economic, social and cultural aspects: 1) To enable women to be able to express themselves, she has encouraged them to compose and sing songs in their language. Through these songs women are able to express themselves and also raise people’s awareness about their rights. 2) To expand their social horizon, she has organised exposure visits for the women to Mumbai, Baroda, Ahmedabad and Daman. And 3) she has also organised women into Mahila Mandals and enabled them to start savings accounts in the local banks.

Current Work

Wandana says that it was not easy to establish contact with the villagers. She would have to walk from village to village and even spent the nights in the villages hoping to reach out to the women. These women were wary of strangers; whenever they saw her, they would hide in their homes or run to the neigbouring home to avoid meeting her. She was at a loss to know how to establish contact with them. One day, she was walking by the river side and saw a middle aged woman bathing in the river. Wandana decided that she had to establish contact with the woman. She too got into the river and started bathing by her side. This helped to break the ice. The woman Fullibai Narpatbhai, from Gadi village, thawed and started speaking to her. Through Pulliben, Wandana was able to build rapport with other women. Gradually women like Gimbuben Dadubhai, Kaluben Singhbhai, Rajuben Margiabhai, Bhuriben Fetchsinghbhai, Khasluben Rameshbhai, Kaluben Ramesh, Vanita Guguji, Shantaben Ketiabhai and Iruben Bamaniabhai came to her and have now work with her. They now treat her as a member of their community and turn to her for help and advice. For instance, when Kaluben faced domestic violence in her home, she came to Wandana for shelter. Wandana kept her in the home and did not reveal her whereabouts for three days, until she felt that she could return to her family.

What Wandana wanted to do for the community was two-fold:

1) to empower women economically so that they would not be dependent on moneylenders; and 2) to develop their leadership capacities. In order to get women out of the clutches of the moneylenders, Wandana organised women into mahila mandals and encouraged them to save money in the Deha Bank in Dediapada in the names of two leaders from each village. The financial security that the savings gave women, made the women bold. They were thus open to the idea of establishing their own credit cooperative society. To motivate them, Wandana organised training programmes and exposure visits to other cooperative banks. Following which the women had to struggle for 11 months to start their own credit cooperative called Dediapada Vibhag Advasi Mahila Credit Cooperatives Ltd.

Wandana got the idea of setting up a credit cooperative from her father, who after his retirement from the railways took up community service. Wandana says that he continues to work and has established a credit cooperative in Baroda. Following his example Wandana motivated the women to set up a Women’s Credit Co-operative Ltd. on 27th February 2001 which became a registered body 11 months later. The Cooperative is indeed a source of pride to the women, for it was built with perseverance and hard work. The women had to frequently visit the District offices and negotiate with the officers. This has given the women confidence to speak and express themselves. In April 2001, they had their first General Body Meeting. Currently more than 800 women are members of the Cooperative. They have learnt to conduct meetings and maintain meticulously the necessary books of accounts. It is being managed by 11 committee members who are illiterate. Only the General Secretary is literate and has studied up to Std. IV.

The project has enabled the women to come out of the clutches of moneylenders. The moneylenders would charge them Rs.10/- as interest on an amount of Rs.100/- per month; now through the Credit Cooperative, the women are able to borrow at the rate of Re.1/- as interest on Rs.100/- per month. This access to funds enables women to meet the various expenses of the family and the costs incurred in cultivating their land. It has enhanced their status in the community. Men now turn to their wives and seek their help in getting the necessary loans.

Wandana also feels that it is not enough for women to save. They need to enhance their earning capacities. More importantly, she felt, the community should be prevented from migrating to work as manual labourers in the cities. She, therefore, initiated the ‘Buffalo Project’ in 1996 with the cooperation of the District Development Authorities and the Adivasi Samajick Kendra. Through this programme, women were trained in animal husbandry and taken on site visits to Mandivi, Vyara, Mogar and Dedipada to enable them to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cattle. Until then, the rich merchants of Mehesana would routinely cheat women by selling them sick and dying cattle. Now, after learning how to select cattle, the women were able to bargain with the Mehesana merchants and purchase cattle at a reasonable rate. The next problem confronting the group was the transportation of the cattle to Nani Singoloti and other villages. This problem too was satisfactorily solved and now more than 600 families have been able to supplement their income with the sale of milk.

Wandana now aims to get more and more tribal women to become members of the village panchayat. She feels that it is only then that they will be able to overcome the prevailing inequities in society. Speaking of the change that has been initiated in the region, Wandana says:

“Earlier women would remain home-bound. Now many of them have become panchayat members. They attend meetings and are able to participate in the decision-making process. There is a significant change in the region. With their access to education, many tribal women are now holding posts as balwadi/ anganwadi teachers, nurses, para-medical/ educational workers, and health care workers.”


These achievements have been realised only after a struggle. Apart from the shortage of money, there are several political factors seeking to disrupt her activities. These include Hindu fundamentalist groups (who accuse her of proselytising) and other political leaders who have a stake in keeping the tribal groups under their control. She has consequently faced accusations of misappropriation. Subsequent investigation by the district authorities proved that these accusations were baseless. She was able to overcome these accusations because of the support of the women.

Speaking of the ongoing process of social change, Wandana says, the impact of her work can be gauged from the confidence with which the women are able to speak. They are now able to question the forest officials when they are wrongly accused of poaching in forest land. Narrating a particular incident, Wandana says:

“Murthiben Magan’s brother-in-law and son were cultivating forestland with the other men in the forest when the forest guards came there. The other men ran away but Murthiben’s brother-in-law was caught by the guards who wanted to take him into custody. Murthiben knew that this would mean that he would be beaten. She therefore refused to let them take him away. She got into the jeep with them and went to the forest office in town. She kept arguing with the guards to release him. Finally they told her that her brother-in-law would be released if she paid them a sum of money. Murthiben said that she would do so if they gave her a receipt for the amount. The guards then released the man.”

Wandana says that instances such as these are the test of her success. Women are now aware of their rights and they are able to challenge oppression. Moreover they have been able to overcome their shyness and are able express themselves at meetings. They now look forward to the meetings that are invariably concluded with their dancing and singing. Wandana too feels that she has benefited from the interaction. She is now able to appreciate the culture and belief system of the villagers.


1 It must be noted that the region was historically the princely state of Rajpipla. After Independence it was part of the Baruch and Baroda Districts in Gujarat. It is only in 1997 that the area (historically identified as Rajpipla) was bifurcated and named Narmada District. This is the third most backward districts in Gujarat and has a predominantly tribal population. (DEO- Narmada District; Commissioner of Schools and Midday Meal Programme, Gandhinagar).

2 Sadly as Wandana says, these forests are green only during the monsoon season and are dry during the rest of the year.

3 The river Narmada (known as the Reva in Madhya Pradesh) is born in the Amarkantak hill in the Sahadol District of Madhya Pradesh and flows through the Vindhya and Satputra ranges, through Maharashtra and Gujarat into the Gulf of Cambay. The dams constructed on this river has resulted in the loss of prime forest land and displaced the tribal communities that lived on its banks.

4 Government of India. Gazetteer of India: Gujarat (Broach District). Ahemedabad: Government Printing Press. First Pub.1877. Reprint 1961.

P. 29

5 Roy, Arundhati. The Greater Common Good.India Book Distributors. Mumbai. 1999. P. 48.

6 Anthropological literature indicates that the term ‘Bhil tribes’ is a generic term to describe endogamous communities (such as Tadvi Bhil, Valvi Bhil, Vasava Bhil, Garasisa and Bhilala) who inhabit the hilly regions of western-central India, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Doshi, Shambhu Lal. Bhils: Between Societal Self Awareness and Cultural Synthesis. Sterling Publishers 1971. Pp.10 -15.

7 Deliege, Robert. The Bhils of Western India: Some Empirical and Anthropological Issues in India. New Delhi: National. 1985. Deliege writes (Pp. 10-15) that some of the other ethnic groups in the region include the Dodias, Dublas, Chodharas, Grasia and Varlis. These tribes see their identities as distinct from the Bhil tribes. It must be noted that the tribal population in Gujarat is concentrated in Panchmahal, Baroda, Broach, Surat, Dangs, Bulsar, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha. During the British period, this vast tribal area was protected under the Schedule Districts Act of 1874. Nevertheless, these communities have often been in confrontation with the British because of their forest policies. Unfortunately, these confrontations have spilt over into post-Independent India, as the forest policies continue to deprive the indigenous people their rights and entitlements to their forests.

8 Op cit. 120.

9 How intimately their idea of the divine is interwoven into their lives became apparent to me when Sr. Wandana asked the tribal women the question, ‘what did their god do?’ The women replied, ‘Nothing in special, they live in our midst and do things that we do.’

10 Op.cit. P. 86.

11 Mann, Kamalesh. Tribal Women: On the Threshold of 21st Century. New Delhi. M.D. Publication 1996 Pp. 71-88

12 Opcit 103.

13 The Vasavas were not always marginalised like this. They were proud, warlike people who fought on the side of the Marathas against the Mughals. Moreover, their kings until the turn of the twentieth century ruled over the kingdom of Gsagbara in the Baroda District. Their language, Vasavi, is part of the Indo-Aryan linguistic family and shows the influence of Gujarati.

14 Marie Therese Haze (1782-1876) founded the congregation in 1833. She was born in an aristocratic family in Leige, Belgium. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 affected the fortunes of the family when the revolutionaries invaded Belgium in 1794. She founded the congregation, the Daughters of the Cross and was beatified in 1991 for her services to humanity and God. See O Neill, L.W. The Venerable Marie Therese Haze A Treasure for the Archives and Neville, Christopher. OFM The Song of Love: Mother Marie Therese Haze

15 The constitution of the congregation, says that the Daughters of the Cross will always work for the poorest. They will serve Christ through education and the care of the sick, the aged, the abandoned, the physically and mentally handicapped, and the socially deprived. Additionally they will undertake local pastoral work and the various needs of the Church.

16 Her work experience is as follows: Between 1968 and1970, she has worked in the 30 villages of the Mangrol and Mandvi talukas of Surat district; between 1974 and1988, she worked in the Valia taluka in Baruach district; and between 1992 and 1995 she has worked in the 7 tribal villages of Banaskantha district.


VEENA POONACHA. Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

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Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

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