In English

Every girl after me

Indian woman Shashi Tyagi has done her life’s work for the poor and been a founding member of an organization that also does development cooperation with Tamy. In the light of statistics, she should not have even received education. How did she do all this?

Aino Heikkonen, text and images
Jenna Pikkarainen, translation

Bihar is a state in East India, bordering Nepal. In the latest census of 2011, the population of the region was over a 100 million; an incomprehensible number of people live on this rural area. The population growth has been immense: in 1971, the population was not even half of that. But even then, it meant a plethora of people, and many of them poor.

“We walked from village to village by foot”, tells Shashi Tyagi.

Opposite to me sits an Indian woman, born in 1947. She is a long-standing cooperation partner of the Student Union of University of Tampere Tamy’s development cooperation, and a founding member of the non-governmental organization Gravis. In 1970–71, Tyagi did social work by foot. The aim was to persuade land owners to donate land to the landless.

“In the beginning, I hesitated to go there, but I went. It was a difficult way to live, but I found some social workers there, very prominent social workers. That gave me more encouragement.”


Doing relief work among the poor was an extraordinary choice, especially concerning Shashi Tyagi’s background. She comes from Uttar Pradesh, the state next to Bihar, with a population of over 200 million.

Both states are a part of the religious India, where Hindi is spoken. In his 2015 book Vastaus on Intia (The Answer is India), non-fiction author and reporter Tommi Nieminen compares the area to the Bible Belt of the United States: “both are conservative and backward, and in both the social norms comply with the sacred texts of the sects”.

As a girl, Tyagi’s fate could have been different. The 2013 report of UNFPA indicates that giving birth to a girl in India is a burden for many parents for several reasons, one being dowries. Little girls die more often than boys. Girls also compose a minority among newborn babies.

There were several girls in Tyagi’s family. Her father worked for the army.

“I lost my mother when I was 2.5 years old, but my father never married again. He brought up us, my father raised all the children. There are five of us, four sisters and one brother.”

Tyagi is grateful to her father. She describes her father’s take on upbringing as equal. There was no discrimination.

And so Tyagi was able to go to school. The education statistics of the time would have predicted otherwise: in 1950, the number of girls beginning their education in India was only 41 per cent of the number of boys. In Uttar Pradesh, every other woman is still illiterate today.

After primary school, Tyagi went to study English literature, and she also completed teacher training. Her education path was not without its difficulties: Tyagi describes how her studies were discontinued for three months when her father was sent on a mission and the rest of the family forbade her from studying.

”My family was saying that I am living in miserable conditions.”

“My father said send her. I was lucky. And I worked hard. But after that, every girl in my family would go to school. I was an example for them all. Because of that, they wanted to go. They were saying, we can go because she went, too. I was an example for them all.”

After graduating as a teacher, Tyagi married. Her husband, who had studied agriculture, introduced her to relief work. Six other people accompanied Tyagi on her first field work trip. She saw the group live like a family.

“I thought: Why I can’t do this? It is also a good life. So, I thought I should live there.”

Even though discrimination on grounds of caste is in principle illegal in India under constitution, the age-old system is still strong. Tommi Nieminen describes the system as one of social hierarchy, power, and distribution of wealth. There are four caste classes in India, and outside the castes live the Dalits, who are excluded from the system altogether. Brahmins are the traditional Hindu teachers and priests, whereas Kshatriyas constitute the ruling and military elite. Vaishyas are the agriculturalist, cattle-rearing and trader class. Shudras traditionally perform functions of serving.Tyagi met people who were malnourished and lived in poor conditions. No education was available. She says that seeing all this was hard for her.

Not everyone was pleased with Tyagi’s choice.

“They (my family) were saying that I am living in miserable conditions. I was not wearing good clothes, and I lived in huts. These were all humiliating factors for them.”

When Tyagi and her husband were discussing equitable land ownership, they were assigned into different groups. Shashi Tyagi travelled from village to village in a group of women. They were a part of a bigger movement, where volunteers travelled across India discussing the issue of land ownership. After this, the couple went to work together in the border districts of Bihar to promote agriculture, health, and education. They spent approximately 10 years there. It took over 20 years before Tyagi’s family accepted her career and way of life.




During the interview, Shashi Tyagi discusses Gandhism on several occasions. The term refers to Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, an Indian independence movement activist, who strove for truth and a non-violent resistance.

Gandhism is also the underlying factor in the activities of Gravis, the non-governmental organization Tyagi and her husband found in 1983. The word sarvodaya is mentioned on the organization’s website. It is a compound of two Indian words: sarva, meaning everyone, and udaya, meaning ‘to rise’. The organization states that it is working for the collective rise of people regardless of their gender, economical situation, caste, or religion.

Tyagi founded Gravis with her husband in 1983, after they had been asked to work in the state of Rajasthan, where the landscape is dominated by parched desert. Tommi Nieminen describes Rajasthan as the most squalid and backward part of India in for example gender and caste issues.

Tyagi notes that there was a practical reason for founding Gravis:

“When we came to a new place, we needed everything, a different organization and different arrangements. In the beginning, the work was really hard”, describes Tyagi.

Once again, they started their work by marching from one village to another. Their first objective was to understand the people of the region.

Only after this could they settle themselves.

The couple has two children, who were still quite small during the time the family moved to Rajasthan.

Among other issues, Gravis started working for women’s rights. Tyagi describes how in the small villages of Rajasthan, women had no rights for example to property, education, or health care. Tyagi concentrated on educating the women. The women educated by the organization then passed on the message in their villages. Tyagi has witnessed how several girls have for example received education as a consequence.

Nowadays Gravis has dozens of cooperation partners.

Nowadays Gravis has dozens of cooperation partners. One of them is Tamy, the Student Union of University of Tampere. The cooperation of Tamy and Gravis started as early as in the 1990s. Gravis was a fund-raising target for students’ voluntary development cooperation fees for the first time as early as in 1990. A cooperation project was launched in 1993. At first, the development cooperation was coordinated by an organization called Ympäristö ja kehitys (Environment and development). Tamy took charge of the projects in 1998.

“Tamy’s help has a big importance in our work. They planted a big forest, which is still there, for example”, says Tyagi.

The current development cooperation project is funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and it will last until the end of 2017. The project is focusing for instance on health, clean drinking water, and improving sanitation. Varpu Jutila, Tamy’s Specialist for International Affairs, states that the project is doing well.

“Looking at the internal and external evaluations, it seems that our projects have advanced the health and advocacy opportunities of women in the target regions: family planning and people’s knowledge of their rights have increased, menstrual hygiene, pregnancy health, and disease diagnoses have improved, and along with this improved awareness, girls are no longer sent to their partner before they turn 18.”

During the course of years, a large number of students from the University of Tampere have visited the Thar Desert. The latest monitoring trip was arranged last year, and the well-mannered students get a praise from Tyagi. She has also visited Tampere several times. The latest cooperation trip brought her to the city at the turn of August and September.




When I ask Shashi Tyagi to list matters that have improved in India during her career, she comes up with several: women’s status, education, health.

“Girls are coming in every field, even in the army.”

There is, nevertheless, one thing Tyagi considers to have worsened: the willingness to do voluntary work in India has decreased.

“Education is such that people want to make money first.”

One of the biggest issues in India is the gap between the rich and the poor. According to Tommi Nieminen, even today the gap is deep in every way: people can still inhabit the same city and nevertheless live in completely different realities. Tyagi says that Gravis lobbies politicians on a local and national level in order to narrow down the gap. Nieminen also writes about another Indian gap in his book: one that separates the reformists from the conservative people. The issue also concerns the question on generations: the population in India is immensely young. According to Nieminen, the majority of the country’s 600 million children and adolescents live in poor or low-income families, and “they desperately want to be a part of India’s economic growth and the growing middle class”. If this comes to be true, it means that poverty will decrease in India. The ultimate mission of the development cooperation work is to make itself useless. Will Gravis run out of work some day in India?

“I think so. But the circumstances are always changing. And not only in our country. Other countries are also facing these things. Like we have worked in Africa as well”, answers Tyagi.

Tyagi is almost 70 years old, yet still actively working in her organization. On Gravis’ website, the experience, guidance and advice of Tyagi are described as treasured. The organization, which employs 180 full time employees and over 400 part-time employees, is nowadays directed by her son, Prakash Tyagi.

Shashi Tyagi’s husband and Prakash’s father, the founding member of Gravis, Laxmi Chand Tyagi, passed away in 2005.

“He was always saying that people should not mourn for so long, they should not sit and mourn but work. So I decided to work more. I don’t want to retire.”



Tommi Nieminen Vastaus on Intia (2015), Tamy’s historical work Elämää ja taistelua (2013), UNFPA’s report, Laws and son preference in India, a reality check (2013), Asia 2015 and Global Finland websites, websites of Tamy’s development cooperation project, Gravis and the states of India that have been mentioned in the article.




1980s: Students raised money for different targets with the aid of campaigns and direct donations. An old annual report is cited in Tamy’s history book: “Tamy’s development cooperation was renowned across the country. It was radical, progressive, well-argued and a hell of an uproar was held about it.”

1990s: The profits from the development cooperation fees were used to do work for example in Brazil and Kenya. The cooperation with Gravis began with an environmental project during 1993–1995. In 1996–1998, a project coordinated by the Ympäristö ja kehitys organization was continued. Tamy took charge of the projects in 1998. The work continued in 1999 with the theme of preventing desertification.

2000s: In 2002, a new three-year project began. The objective was to improve the opportunities for a self-sufficient life and to strengthen the village communities. From 2005 onwards, the focus of Tamy and Gravis’ cooperation shifted into health. The first health project was executed in 2005–2007 and another in 2008–2010.

2010s: The projects have continued. A hiatus occurred in 2014 because of issues with applying funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. After a demand for rectification, Tamy was granted funding. A new project focusing on sanitation, fresh water, and health began in 2015. The project has funding through 2017. Due to the workload, responsibility of the project was distributed among more actors in Tamy in 2015.

REFERENCES: Tamyn historiateos (2013), and Tamy’s annual reports 2012–2015.


Read more: Will development cooperation continue in Tamy after 2017?



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