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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  100 years of Baba Amte

100 years of Baba Amte

Ahead of the birth centenary of one of India's greatest social workers, a visit to Anandwan and Hemalkasa, where his legacy lives on

Murlidhar Devidas Amte in Thane in 1978. Photo: Courtesy Sheetal AmtePremium
Murlidhar Devidas Amte in Thane in 1978. Photo: Courtesy Sheetal Amte

On the night of 1 December, as news of the death of 14 Central Reserve Police Force men in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district filtered in, 37-year-old Aniket Amte sat before a modest fire in his courtyard. At dawn, he would drive down to Kondagaon, not far from the site of the attack. He needed to collect 50 metal horns to gift to the guests who would arrive on 26 December, to mark the 100th birth anniversary of his grandfather, Murlidhar Devidas Amte, or Baba Amte. He hoped the journey wouldn’t take longer than a day, what with the bad roads and now, this news.

Putting out the fire, Aniket entered his home, where he lives with his wife Samiksha and their two sons, brother Digant, elder by two years, sister-in-law Anagha and their two sons, and doctor parents Prakash, 66, and Mandakini. The family lives on the 50-acre Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) campus, in Hemalkasa in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, which also houses a school, two hostels, a playground, a hospital, living quarters for patients, a dining hall, dormitories for visitors, and a zoo. By 9pm, only the squeals of swans in an enclosure across the Amte courtyard broke the silence.

Baba Amte on the banks of the Narmada river. Photo: Courtesy Sheetal Amte
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Baba Amte on the banks of the Narmada river. Photo: Courtesy Sheetal Amte

By this time, Baba Amte had become well known for working with those marginalized and ostracized by society. In 1967, he had embarked on a project for cured leprosy patients to practise agriculture. With a large group of Anandwan residents, he started Somnath, spread over 1,300 acres in the forests of Tadoba; the project now provides all the grains and vegetables consumed at both Anandwan and Hemalkasa.

When Baba Amte and Prakash got involved with the LBP, elder son Vikas stayed back at Anandwan. Over the years, Vikas and his wife Bharati—both doctors as well—modernized Anandwan, mixing scientific temper with grass-root innovation. They shared the late Baba Amte’s vision of Anandwan as a place where everyone would get a chance at a better life, one of equality, dignity and opportunity.


Prakash and Mandakini Amte in their courtyard. Photographs Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Prakash and Mandakini Amte in their courtyard. Photographs Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Clad, like his father, in a simple white cotton vest and shorts, Prakash smiled and spoke in Marathi, his grandsons on his lap. He then took the group to the zoo that is home to 80 orphaned animals, including two acrobatic giant squirrels, a jungle cat, porcupines, and a honey badger, all rescued from the wild. “We put them inside cages for the safety of visitors," he smiled. The students whipped out cameraphones as Prakash walked into an enclosure to pet one of the three leopards who live there. It was a show like no other.

Later, sitting near the guest house that costs 500 a day—meals at the common dining hall are free—he said: “I don’t know what to say to journalists. The work we’ve been doing is for everyone to see."

Prakash in the zoo at Hemalkasa.
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Prakash in the zoo at Hemalkasa.

In 1971, 11.4% of the tribal population in Maharashtra was literate, according to data from the state tribal development department. By 2001, that number had risen to 55.2%. Kanna Madavi, a student from the school’s first batch, is now a postgraduate in gynaecology, and works at a government hospital in Aheri, close to Hemalkasa. Over the years, other students have become doctors, lawyers and veterinary doctors. Four have returned to teach at the school, others have joined the state revenue department and are supervising the collection of data for the Saat Bara, a land survey register that details information on land owners, loans and type of cultivation. For the historically marginalized and exploited tribal population, this form of control over their land is vital.

“The government has many schemes for tribal populations. Unfortunately, they haven’t reached the beneficiaries," says Prakash. “I usually don’t talk about insurgency, but there is tremendous inequality and exploitation in society. The people are starving, in spite of all the schemes. Give them two square meals a day, give them opportunities. Then there won’t be any need for arms."

The handicraft workshop at Anandwan
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The handicraft workshop at Anandwan

The project at Hemalkasa began with the same impetus—to offer aid to a population largely forgotten by the state. The focus has not changed. Each member of this branch of the Amte family has taken over some part of the work—doctors Digant and Anagha, the latter a gynaecologist, look after the affairs of the hospital. Aniket, a mechanical engineer, and Samiksha, a postgraduate in economics, look after the affairs of the school.

People visit Hemalkasa on a daily basis; around 150 have visited since Diwali, but on 26 December, over 100 people are expected to arrive to mark Baba Amte’s centenary year. Right now, Prakash’s biggest concern is accommodation. The guest house can only accommodate 50. “It’s winter to top it all," he says, a frown lining his forehead.


Swaranandwan, the in-house orchestra, performing in Mumbai
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Swaranandwan, the in-house orchestra, performing in Mumbai

At 23, Arti Sukhdevrao Maldhure is one of its newest members. Visually impaired and unlettered, Maldhure—whom everyone calls Sonu—was brought to Anandwan, which has rehabilitation facilities and is now a residence for all persons with disabilities, three months ago. Maldhure didn’t attend school, but stayed at home and listened to the radio, says Maya Jaju, the warden of the blind girls’ hostel at Anandwan. A month back, Maldhure began taking music lessons on the campus, which has a centre affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal. Her teacher Radhika Kaslikar says Maldhure is one of her best students. Since Maldhure is visually impaired, Kaslikar teaches her taal by tapping her fingers on her palm. “She listens minutely to the melody," she says.

On 14 December, there was a vociferous demand for an encore as Maldhure was led off the stage after singing two songs. The master of ceremonies (MC), Sudhir Kadam, who has been living at Anandwan since 2000, turned his wheelchair towards the audience and explained that there wasn’t time for one.

Kadam has been the MC since the orchestra’s inception in 2002. “Vikas bhau said I see your talent. Don’t worry if you make a mistake, just go ahead and do it," says Kadam, who came to Anandwan for a two-year vocational course in television and radio repair, and stayed on.

Vikas, who founded Swaranandwan in 2002, calls it therapeutic theatre, as it helps build the confidence of members. The orchestra also raises funds. At Vile Parle, each ticket cost 500, and the 916-seat hall was full, with people sitting in the aisles as well. As Kadam puts it, the orchestra is also Anandwan’s “advertisement"—the audience becomes acquainted with not just the philosophy, but also the praxis.


Vikas and Bharati Amte with their family
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Vikas and Bharati Amte with their family

There are 10 communes in the 450-acre Anandwan—each commune, built around a man-made pond, has a cottage hospital where a nurse dresses the wounds of leprosy patients and administers medicines for minor ailments. The complex has vocational training centres that offer placements for their students, and workshops where metal goods such as almirahs and desks are made. There are schools for the blind, deaf and mute, hostels for students, an old-age home, a leprosy hospital, a general hospital and an eye hospital, besides a mobile dental unit. Food for the 2,500 inhabitants (which includes those who come to Anandwan for treatment) is prepared in the mega kitchen. A newly constructed biogas plant is expected to bring down the number of LPG gas cylinders used in the kitchen from 25 to six a day, but the strain on resources remains.

Fewer leprosy patients are now coming to Anandwan: Medicines and cure rates have improved and the stigma attached to the disease has reduced. Last year, 439 persons with leprosy reached Anandwan for treatment and half of them chose to stay back.

“Anandwan’s doors are open to everyone," says Sheetal. Together with her husband Gautam Karajgi, who has a master’s in business administration, she is keen to bring in socially responsible individuals too.

In “an experiment" this year, they invited five mid-career professionals from multinational corporations to Anandwan for a course on social entrepreneurship spread over three modules, each a week long. The participants studied the programmes and the self-sustaining residency model Vikas helped put in place. Called Parivartan, the programme is conducted in collaboration with Tiss. The participants were also invited to start their own social ventures.

“Each resident of Anandwan is employed in some manner or form, whether it is to cut grass, or do electrical soldering work. This is very motivating for people from cities, where we see a lot of apathy towards disease and poverty. They come here for inspiration," says Sheetal, adding that such people are fast turning into an important donor base. The next step is to create a year-long fellowship, so people can stay at Anandwan and work on any project related to its functioning.

Many products are manufactured at Anandwan, from dairy items to cloth. The current gross annual revenue is 2.5 crore, says Kaustubh, Sheetal’s brother, a chartered accountant who takes care of the accounts of the Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), the public charitable trust set up by Baba Amte in 1949, which oversees all the projects.

Part of this revenue comes from Anandwan’s cottage industry of handmade craft, such as wall hangings made with dried tree bark and paintings by mouth and foot artists. Volunteers could help expand the market for these works. “We are not looking to corporatize Anandwan—whoever comes here to work has to fit in with the values of this place. The right mindset is needed," says Sheetal.

Govinda cured of leprosy, makes wooden sculptures at Anandwan
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Govinda cured of leprosy, makes wooden sculptures at Anandwan

Former journalist Philip George, a long-time associate of his, first visited this place as a final-year mechanical engineering student of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in 1984. He stayed for more than two years and helped fabricate the starter panels used in agricultural pumps. George says Anandwan ticks because all the Amtes are heavily invested in it. “Baba used to do a round of the hospital at 4.30am every day to meet the people. He was always aware of what was happening in every corner of Anandwan. Ultimately, any organization is based on the people who run it."

In many ways, Baba Amte’s work can be said to have reached fruition—unlike leprosy-patient settlements such as New Delhi’s Tahirpur colony or Allahabad’s Nav Nirman Kusht Ashram colony, whose inhabitants remain ostracized by able-bodied society. Donations to the MSS pour in from several quarters: SwissAid is the single largest donor; Switzerland-based Nouvelle Planète has organized several trips of European students to Anandwan to help in community-building projects, such as greenhouses, irrigation facilities and community biogas plants. There are also several individual donors and successful fund-raisers. In 1984, singers Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar raised 34 lakh through a concert; last year Shankar Mahadevan raised 1.2 crore for the hospital at Hemalkasa.

“Anandwan is not just a place. It’s a thought," says Sheetal. Two generations of the Amtes won’t let that die.

A timeline of events in Baba Amte’s life

26 December 1914: Murlidhar Devidas Amte born in Wardha district of Maharashtra, to Devidas and Laxmibai Amte. Grows up to study law and begins to practice in his hometown. Spends time in Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram

1942: Organizes lawyers to defend imprisoned leaders of the Quit India Movement and is imprisoned for his attempts.

1946: Marries Sadhana Guleshastri, who comes to be called Sadhnatai in Anandwan. His first son, Vikas, is born in 1947, and second son, Prakash, in 1948.

1949: Starts Anandwan on 20 acres of disused land in Warora, with six leprosy patients, and establishes the Maharogi Seva Samiti, the public charitable trust that now looks after all of Baba Amte’s projects.

1951: Anandwan is registered and receives land from the government to expand operations.

1967: Builds Somnath, a project for cured leprosy patients to practise agriculture. Somnath becomes the granary for Anandwan, making it self-sufficient in vegetables and grain. Youth camps are held there annually.

1971: Wins the the Padma Shri award. Undergoes a life-saving spine operation for severe spondylitis. After the surgery, he could only stand or lie down, not sit.

1973: Sets up Lok Biradari Prakalp or brotherhood of the Madia Gond tribals living in Hemalkasa, around 200km from Anandwan.

1985: Starts the Bharat Jodo campaign and travels from Kanyakumari to Kashmir with people from different castes, faiths and ethnicities to counter communalism. Baba Amte travels lying down in a bus. Wins the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service.

1986: Returns to Anandwan in April from the Bharat Jodo campaign. Leaves for Punjab in July to spend time with families who lost members in the violence that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Khalistan movement. Gets the Padma Vibhushan award.

1990: Shifts to Madhya Pradesh to support the Narmada Bachao Andolan; goes on to build and live in the Nijibal ashram in Kasrawad, on the banks of the Narmada river, to protest against the building of the Sardar Sarovar dam that would displace thousands of tribals. Wins the Templeton Prize for progress in religion.

1999: To protest against the Supreme Court order that allowed the height of the dam on the Narmada river to be raised, leads a march of thousands with activists Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh, from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi. He is arrested and taken to Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in New Delhi. Wins the Gandhi Peace Prize the same year.

2000s: Failing health forces Baba Amte to return to Anandwan.

9 February 2008: Baba Amte dies in the wee hours of the morning, in the Anandwan ashram. He was 94.

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Published: 20 Dec 2014, 12:48 AM IST
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