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Durgabai G. Deshmukh was the first woman member of the Planning Commission. A freedom fighter, nationalist and social worker, she was also member of the Constituent Assembly and the Provisional Parliament in 1946–52.

She was born on 15 July 1909 at Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, to a Hindu Brahmin middle class family. Her father’s early death meant the family had to face hardship during her childhood. Her mother was the secretary of the district Congress Committee. At the call of the Congress to adopt Hindi as a national language, Durgabai learnt the language from a neighbourhood teacher. In 1923, she started a Balika Hindi Pathshala in Cocanada, South India, to teach girls in the new national language. Gandhiji awarded her a gold medal for her efforts. She joined the khadi movement, participated in the Salt Satyagraha and was imprisoned for three years in 1930. In prison she learned English, and on her release she enrolled with the Andhra University and in her MA examination secured five medals. She went on to acquire a law degree from Madras University and practised at the Madras Bar for a few years. She was then elected to the Constituent Assembly and the Provisional Parliament. She married C.D. Deshmukh in 1953. He became India’s first finance minister and later Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

In 1958 she headed the National Committee on Women’s Education, formed the Andhra Women’s Association and served on many committees. She worked relentlessly for the country’s laws to be simplified, modernised and cleared of the colonial debris left behind after Independence. She was a powerful orator and used her gifts to the full in service to the cause she had chosen to fight for. Her last years were given mainly to social work. She was the founder chairperson of the central social welfare board and compiled the Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. She pioneered the creation of a nationwide network of non-government organisations (NGOs). Durgabai received the Paul G Hoffman Award, the Nehru Literacy Award, and the UNESCO Award for outstanding work in the field of Literacy. Along with her husband she received the Padma Vibhushan in 1975, for their respective contributions in public affairs and social work. The National Commission for Women instituted an annual award in her name to voluntary organisations for excellence in women’s welfare and development.
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