India's Unsung Heroes


To celebrate India's 67th year of independence, Melissa Fernandes and Abigail Menezes reveal a lesser known side of Indian society. A country otherwise famous for its corrupt politicians and corporate billionaires, India is also home to some hard working heroes who often go unrecognised. These heroes have brought about a change in their environment, helped uplift Indian society or achieved unique milestones. Here’s a look at some of these extraordinary people and their inspiring stories


Claim to fame: Flight attendant who failed a hijack attempt in 1986

Neerja Bhanot was a 23-year-old Mumbai-based flight attendant for Pan Am Airlines. She was killed while saving passengers from a terrorist attack on board the Pan Am Flight 73 on September 5, 1986 while it was on the ground at Karachi airport in Pakistan. This is what happened—as the terrorists rushed in to capture the aircraft, Bhanot, the senior-most member of the cabin crew, dashed to inform the captain in the cockpit and shouted across the hijack code. It is believed that some members of the aircrew slipped away, leaving the aircraft, 400 passengers and the 13-member cabin-crew at the mercy of the four terrorists. Bhanot took over command of the plane and worked to protect her passengers, even hiding American passengers' passports from the gunmen. At some point during the struggle, Bhanot managed to throw open the emergency exit to let the passengers out. She was caught by the leader of the terrorists and shot at point blank range. Bhanot passed away before any medical assistance could reach her. For her bravery, she was awarded many different honours, including Chakra, India's highest peacetime gallantry The Indian Postal Service also released a stamp 2004 to commemorate her.

Claim to fame: Outstanding physicist

Ashoke Sen, a famous physicist, is a professor at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. He is the recipient of the Fundamental Physics Prize, which is considered as one of the greatest honours in the field of physics. He also received a $3 million prize for his pioneering work on string theory—a theory that attempts to explain everything we know about matter and energy in the universe. For his pioneering work, Sen has been awarded with the Padma Shri (2001) and the Padma Bhushan (2013). He also won the fellowship of the Royal Society of London in 1998, where his name was nominated by famous physicist Stephen Hawking.


Claim to fame: Former freedom fighter and social worker

Madhukar Mordekar is a 93-year-old former freedom fighter from Margao who struggled for Goa's freedom. Mordekar was only 12 years old when he participated in his first freedom procession in 1932, when he was detained by the police for more than four hours. He was later part of the 1942 Quit India Movement at Belgaum, working with leaders like Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Barrister Nath Pai. During his Satyagraha on October 18, 1946 at Mapusa, Goa, he was taken to the then Portuguese Military Court and sentenced to imprisonment for 60 days. He was deprived of his political rights for five years after his release and so he went underground and continued struggling for freedom. That’s when he started to focus on work and service to humanity. Teaching yoga was his helping the people of Goa find their grounding again. He founder member of Gomant Vidya Niketan Yoga Kendra has taught yoga for free to more than 20,000 people.

Claim to fame: Auto-driver who provides free Wi-Fi and cellphone charging services

Annadurai, an auto-driver in Chennai, Tamil Nadu is one of his kind—he drives his autorickshaw with the sole aim of providing his customers with complete satisfaction. In his autorickshaw, he provides services like mobile charging, TV, Wi-Fi, books to read, mobile and DTH recharge, a bumper prize contest and discounts to teachers on special days. All of these services are provided for free. He generally ferries people working for IT companies who need Internet access for their work and doesn't think twice about investing his own money for their needs. Additionally, Annadurai spends Rs 4,000 out of his pocket to subscribe to 35 publications that he offers to his customers.


Claim to fame: Provides free education to slum children Rajesh Kumar Sharma, a 40-year-old general store owner, offers free education to slum children in New Delhi.

He is the founder of a school that was originally initiated to familiarise children with their rights but then went on to provide education. His school is situated under a metro bridge where he uses three squares on a wall that have been painted black as his blackboard. Over the last three years, many children living in the nearby slums have received free education thanks to his effort. Though his classroom doesn't have desks and chairs, the children are provided with reading and writing materials.

Claim to fame: Runs a clinic for the tribals of Melghat 

Dr Ravindra Koelhe is not only a doctor, but also a social worker. He runs a clinic in Melghat, Maharashtra where tribals pay a fee of Rs 2 for the first consultation and Rs 1 for the second. Dr Koelhe was recognised after he filed a case against the government for not protecting the Korku tribals of the region. An ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, he decided to dedicate his time to the people of rural India after completing his MBBS and has been working with them for the last 24 years. In order to treat them and understand their problems better, he also got an MD in preventive and social medicine. In his earlier days, he used to walk 40kms to reach his clinic from Dharni to Bairagarh as there were no roads and only two public health centres in the area.

Claim to fame: Social activist and educator

Sanjit Bunker Roy is the founder of the Barefoot College Movement in India, an initiative that helps rural communities become self-sufficient. He founded this college in 1972 in the village of Tilonia, Rajasthan to provide basic services to rural communities. The college provides solutions to rural people in different categories—solar energy, water, education, healthcare, rural handicrafts, communication, women's empowerment and wasteland development. The education programme teaches people skills and encourages learning by doing, which in turn has resulted in a drop in migration to larger cities. Roy has empowered rural people to produce their own electricity via solar panels and manufacture their own lighting equipment. The solar panels are made by women who have received very little education, but are now able to support themselves through their own work. Roy was selected as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential personalities in 2010. He is recognised to have trained more than 3 million people in skills including solar engineers, teachers, midwives, architects, weavers and doctors.

Claim to fame: National junior chess champion

J Saranya, an 18-year-old B Tech (IT) student from St Joseph’s College, Chennai, Tamil Nadu recently won the Junior National Chess Championship at the Balewadi Sports Stadium in Pune, Maharashtra. She dedicated her victory to her mother J Thangarani, who sells flower garlands and mud and plastic toys on the pavements of Chennai for a living. As a child, Saranya was a spectator who watched children learn chess at the Bloom Chess Academy. It was here that M A Velayudhan, the coach, noticed her and her sister and called them in to have a go at the game. The duo was later coached by another trainer in Chennai. With this national junior title, Saranya is ranked among the best chess players in India.


Claim to fame: First medal-winner at the

World Wrestling Championship Sandeep Yadav, a 26-year-old wrestler, created history by winning the bronze medal in the Greco-Roman category at the World Wrestling Championship, 2013 in Budapest, Hungary. Yadav was raised in a slum alongside cattle sheds in Jogeshwari, Mumbai. He began wrestling at a local 'akhaada' (training centre) and soon started training professionally. After this victory, Yadav hopes to win more tournaments in the future. However, he hasn't received much acknowledgement and support from the government.


Claim to fame: National Award-winning

Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, a 36-year-old filmmaker, recently received the Grand Jury Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival for his Marathi film, 'Fandry'. 'Fandry' is based on the experiences of Manjule, who hails from a small village in Maharashtra. Through the movie, Manjule depicts how he came to terms with caste discrimination in rural Maharashtra. Manjule is also known for his first short film, ‘Pistulya’ for which he won the National Award. He is known to make movies based on uncomfortable issues. Manjule is also a published author and poet and his book of Marathi poetry called ‘Unhachya Katavirudhha’ has won the prestigious Bhairuratan Damani Sahitya Puraskar.

Claim to fame: Children's rights activist

Kailash Satyarthi has been actively involved in the movement against child labour in India since the 1990s. His organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, has been responsible for freeing over 80,000 child slaves from numerous industries. After rescuing the children, Bachpan Bachao Andolan helps them with rehabilitation and education. Satyarthi is a global voice against child labour and works very closely with the international advocacy body, the International Center on Child Labour and Education (ICCLE)—a worldwide coalition of NGOs, teachers and trade unionists. In 1994, he established Rugmark, now known as GoodWeave International, an organisation which monitors and provides certification of rugs manufactured by the rug industry in South Asia, certifying that their product is made without the use of child labour.

Claim to fame: International women's kabaddi player

Abhilasha Mhatre is no ordinary Mumbai resident. She has two jobs—one of a Central Railway clerk and the other of an international women's kabaddi player. She was an integral part of the Indian team that won the inaugural Women’s Kabaddi World Cup in 2012 and the gold medal at the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in Colombo, Sri Lanka a few years earlier. The 27-year-old has battled several obstacles, including a career-threatening knee injury, before she brought glory to the country.

Claim to fame: Social entrepreneur

A social entrepreneur and a filmmaker, Nawneet Ranjan and his crew decided to help out a few women from the Dharavi slums in Mumbai. These women designed laptop bags out of old saris and were interested in learning about technology so that they could make apps to market their products. Ranjan met the women while interviewing the residents of the slum for a documentary he was making. But as soon as he started talking to the women, their entrepreneurial spirit and desire to improve their daughters' futures made a mark on him. He soon began a three-monthlong "technovation" programme with 20 women using a few tablets, laptops and a classroom space. Today, the women have designed three other apps that help them simplify their lives. These apps are based on water access, health education and safety.

Claim to fame: World's youngest headmaster

Babbar Ali is a 16-year-old boy who is determined to provide education to every child in his village. Known as the world's youngest headmaster, he attends school in the morning and after that he teaches children at Anand Shiksha, a school in the backyard of his house in Murshidabad, West Bengal. Hundreds of students, both boys and girls, attend this school, which is completely funded by donations. Anand Shiksha has also been recognised by the West Bengal government, which allows students from Anand Shiksha to migrate to other schools for higher education. In 2009, Babbar Ali won a prize awarded by a television programme called 'Real Heroes Awards', telecast on the Indian English news channel CNN-IBN.


Claim to fame: Environmentalist


Saalumarada Thimmakka from Karnataka is known for planting 284 banyan trees along a 4km stretch in her home state. Thimmakka was once a casual labourer and earned the name 'Saalumarada' which means 'of the row of trees' in Kannada for her efforts. The management of the trees planted by Thimmakka has now been undertaken by the government of Karnataka. She has become a spokesperson for the cause of afforestation in India and has been involved in other social causes including the construction of a tank to store rainwater for the annual fair held in her village. Thimmakka also hopes to start a hospital in her village for which a trust has been set up. Thimmakka won the National Citizen's Award of India and also has an environmental organisation named after her in the US called the Thimmakka Resources for Environmental Education.

Claim to fame: Football


In July 2013, a group of young girls-members of Yuwa Football Club-secured the third place in the Gasteiz Cup, a football tournament in Spain. Aged between 12 and 14 years, all the girls belong to financially struggling families of Jharkhand who had never before stepped out of their hometown near Ranchi. If newspaper reports are to be believed, bureaucrats ridiculed the girls when they asked for their birth certificates to procure their passports. Nevertheless, the team fought against all odds thanks to the perseverance and guidance of their team guru and the founder and executive director of Yuwa-India, Franz Gastler, a 30-year-old American who came to Jharkhand four years ago to educate villagers. The girls now hope to go to the US and participate in the USA Cup, but don't have the required funds to make the trip.


Claim to fame: First blind trader at J P Morgan


Despite being blind, Ashish Goyal was an A+ student at the leading management institute Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) in Mumbai. During his college placement interviews, a corporate house recommended he look for a government job owing to his disability. However, he paid no heed to this advice. He stood second in his batch in NMIMS and went on to pursue an MBA from the Wharton School, Philadelphia, USA. He won the Joseph P Wharton Award, given annually to a student who symbolises ‘Wharton’s way of life’. In 2010, Goyal was felicitated by the President of India with the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. He was the first blind trader at J P Morgan's London operations and is possibly the first blind trader anywhere in the world. He is now a portfolio manager at J P Morgan's Chief Investment Office and hopes to bring awareness about the abilities of people battling with disabilities.


Claim to fame: Entrepreneur

She was called an untouchable in school and at the age of 12, she was forced to marry a man in Mumbai who was 10 years older than her. She soon ran away from the marriage and moved back to her village in Roperkheda, Maharashtra. But after being cast out by the villagers, at the age of 16, Saroj decided to move back to Mumbai and started working in a garment factory to support her family. She later made use of government loans for members of lower castes to start a tailoring business while simultaneously working for a furniture store. She toiled for 18 hours a day and with her savings, she bought Kamani Tubes, a debt-ridden metal engineering company. Saroj slowly transformed the company into a profit-making business that is now worth over $100 million. She was awarded the Padma Shri for Trade and Industry in 2013 and was appointed to the board of directors of Bhartiya Mahila Bank, a bank for women started by the government of India. One of the most inspirational entrepreneurs today, Saroj has battled social evils to reach the top and aims to change India for the better. 


Claim to fame: Preservation of the heritage architecture of Goa

Gerard da Cunha is a 57-year-old architect who is identified with efforts towards preserving Goa’s heritage. He has built Houses of Goa, a museum that pays homage to the way Goa is built. The museum resembles a ship, but is triangular in shape and has been built as a traffic island in Torda, Salvador-do-Mundo, Goa. Viewed from the outside it seems like a mystery, but once you enter it, the magic of the structure slowly starts to unravel. The three storeys of the museum's building are created to inform visitors of Goan heritage. Da Cunha also promotes green architecture including the use of locally available materials and structures that are in harmony with their ecosystem. His design for a Jindal steel township in Karnataka called Vidyanagar won the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Urban Planning and Design. Five years ago, Da Cunha was hired to restore Goa's oldest fort, the Reis Magos.

Claim to fame: Provides support to prisoners' children

VS Mani was an assistant general manager at the Reserve Bank of India in Bengaluru, Karnataka. On his way home, he would pass the Central Jail in the city and would feel sad for the prisoners' relatives, particularly children standing outside the premises waiting to visit their loved ones. He soon decided to do something about this and in 1999, after his retirement, he and his wife Saroji started SOCARE an NGO that looks after prisoners’ children. The main focus of SOCARE is to provide these children with an education and teach them about their rights. Mani’s NGO also encourages the children to take part in other activities like singing, classical dance, sports and crafts. Children at SOCARE are provided with higher education and vocational training after class 10. The NGO's representatives also visit the prisoners and their families, counsel the families and update them about their children's progress. The children from this NGO have performed outstandingly well. Among them, two boys have participated in national-level taekwondo competitions.

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