Daya Bai – the name says it all. She is a woman known for her magnanimity and generosity. Her life-long dedication towards Indian tribals of Central India has proven to be a boon in their lives. Even at 70, she relentlessly works to uplift them through education and awareness while fighting for their rights.
Daya Bai, born as Mercy Matthew, was brought up in a pecunious Christian family in Pala, Kerala resolved to become a nun at the tender age of 16 but witnessing the plight of tribals, especially in central India, she decided to serve the God by serving his fellowmen. Initially, the tribals were sceptical and accused her of attempting to convert them into Christians. She gained their trust only when she helped a pregnant woman deliver a baby safely. In order to coalesce with the tribals, she started to dress like them and slowly adapted to their culture and lifestyle. She realized that there was a dearth of education and awareness in tribal communities. Neither did they have access to basic healthcare, nor were they aware of their rights enough to voice against the atrocities by bureaucrats.
Daya Bai began their upliftment by organizing various campaigns and satyagrahas to coerce the authorities to open up schools as she believed that education is the only escape of these tribals, especially the youth, from their misery. She played a major role in bringing the light of education into the dark lives of the tribals in the rural areas. ”I trained barefoot teachers and guided then to travel to different places in order to reach out to the children”, she had said with a satisfied smile when she was questioned about her activities. Daya Bai even set up a school in the Barul village. She started the Swami Sayatha Group in the late 90s in an attempt to eradicate poverty. Her inspiring speeches and multiple efforts to empower the lost and forgotten villages helped her gain respect and admiration from everyone, including the tribals who were once hesitant to even accept help from her. Apart from her solo endeavours, she was also associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Chengara agitation.
As she travelled all around central India, she lent her services to every village in different, yet effective ways. She would provide villages medical, political or education aid depending on the requirements. Social service had once been simple research work for Daya Bai but had transformed into a full-time fight against injustice that the tribes were subjected to. She considered the lack of educational and economic facilities to be the primary bane of their difficulties. Her main goal is trying to uplift the communities by providing them with modern healthcare, education, and economic facilities while maintaining their cultural integrity and traditions intact so that these tribes do not lose their individuality to history.
At present, she lives in Barul village of Chhindwara district and even at the age of 70, she assists the people around her in every way possible. Her struggles and efforts were recognized by the government and she was awarded the Vanitha Woman Of The Year award in 2007 and the Good Samaritan National Award (issued by the Kottayam Social Service Society and Agape Movement, Chicago) in January 2012. Furthermore, in order to bring more attention to her selfless deeds throughout her life, an hour-long documentary was created by Shing Jacob Benjamin.