My Favourite Social Reformer Baba Amte Essay About Myself

Baba Amte tends a respectful patient: A superman among social workersThere is no one quite like him. He has given a lifetim

Baba Amte tends a respectful patient: A superman among social workers
There is no one quite like him. He has given a lifetime to curing and revitalising the human hordes stricken by leprosy; he has proved that their economic development is possible through self-supporting rural communes.

Starting out alone, he has undertaken path-breaking work among the extremely backward Madia-Gond tribals of central India: he has established non-formal schools, hospitals and rudimentary agricultural training facilities to help shield them from the cultural shock caused by the onslaught of civilisation. If the achievements are out of the ordinary, so too is the man behind them.

Murlidhar Devidas Amte, 67, superman among social workers and rural developer extraordinaire, shuns the dogma of religion, refuses to join any political platform, and teaches his leprosy patients to spurn welfare aid: he wants them to produce enough to satisfy all their wants.

No known stereotyped mould can quite suit Amte. While he wears khadi, the hallmark of all social reformers, his reasons are not nationalistic. The khadi, along with slippers made from discarded truck tyres, is a part of his attempt to form an entirely independent community, one which does not rely on the outside world for any of its needs besides sugar and salt.

He dresses, not in the customary dhoti or kurta-pyjama but in a kachha (shorts) and vest. He sports long sideburns, probably a hangover from his student days when, the son of a rich jagirdar, he used to drive to law college in a Singer sports car with leopard skin upholstery.

Personal Supervision
: He does not drink or eat meat, but does not object if his sons choose to do so, and has an intense admiration for the hard-drinking, fun-loving, free-sex culture of the Madia-Gonds. He lives with his wife, in a simple cottage at the leprosarium, but boasts about the five-star comforts on his projects, refusing to subject either himself or his men to any unnecessary hardships. And yet, when the need arises, Amte will undertake the bone-rattling journey to his farthest projects without a thought for the weakened spine which has made him, technically at least, a bedridden person.

Today Amte, or Baba as he is popularly called, continues to personally oversee and supervise the sprawling projects started 30 years ago by his Maharogi Sewa Samiti. A programme which started as a small leprosy relief camp with six patients, now has projects spread across Chandrapur, Maharashtra's largest district (25,641 sq km).

Anandwan, which borders Warora, a small town 120 km from Nagpur, has today grown into a 450-acre complex. It encompasses 300 acres of lush farmland, residential accommodation for 1,400 leprosy patients, schools for the blind and handicapped, a 1,300-student college of arts, sciences and commerce, and an agricultural college for 500 students.

Massive Programme
: A hundred kilometres from Anandwan, in opposite directions, lie two other projects, Ashokwan and Somnath. The Ashokwan farm, run by 100 cured-or negative-lepers, is a model seed farm which produces agricultural seeds for the state-run seed agency, earning enough to partially subsidise the treatment at Anandwan.

Somnath, on the edge of a reserve forest, was a barren parcel of rock-strewn land 15 years ago. Today 450 negative leprosy patients in six communes have reclaimed 600 of the 1,300 acres of land, and every year another 100 acres are brought under the plough. The 25 family communes are not only independent in their needs but also manage to produce such large surpluses that they support the non-earning projects and hospitals.

Farthest away, at the end of a gruelling 10-hour bus drive from Anandwan, is the Lok Biradari Prakalpa at Hemalkasa, a complex consisting of a general hospital, a 140-student non-formal school and five satellite training centres set in a radius of 30 kilometres.

These aim to teach agricultural methods by demonstration, distribute improved seed varieties to the tribals, and perform the role of primary health centres under the umbrella of the general hospital. With the natural food sources of the Madia-Gonds destroyed following the exploitation of forests by government contractors and paper mills, Amte is determined to help them develop an agricultural economy to prevent large-scale migration to the cities.

(From left) Leprosy patients on the site of a school at Hemalkasa, a dam being constructed at Somnath, lepers at work on a firm: Extraordinary success story
: Thirty years after its inception, the Maharogi Sewa Samiti has a long list of achievements behind it. Over 130,000 leprosy patients have been successfully treated by the society since it was first set up and today there is residential accommodation for almost 2,000 positive and negative patients, though the Government grant covers only 300 of them.

Explained Amte: "I had decided, long ago, that I would never turn away any person who came to Anandwan, no matter how crowded we got. And today you can see that we have managed to provide for everybody."

The general hospital at Hemalkasa, run by Amte's younger son. Prakash and his wife, Mandakini both doctors -has treated over 100,000 Madia-Gonds in the seven years since it was set up.

Moreover, complex surgical operations are performed in an area which has no electricity or running water, no telephones, and is cut off from the world for six months every year by the monsoons. The Samiti's projects, between them, produce enough grain and foodstuffs to be virtually independent, though government grants are received for the educational institutions and a portion of the leprosy treatment.

Last year Amte's projects produced 47 tonnes of foodgrains, 55,000 litres of milk, over three tonnes of vegetables and 13,000 eggs. Government grants paid for only 30 per cent of the Rs 50 lakh budget.

Eighty per cent of the grant is used to run the university-affiliated Anand Niketan College of Arts, Science and Commerce and the Anand Niketan Agricultural College. Private donations account for another 6 per cent of the budget, and a medical research grant from Oxfam, a British social welfare group, provided another 4 per cent.

The rest came from production by the patients themselves, something which makes this programme stand out from other social welfare efforts. Explained Amte: "My basic concept is that charity destroys and only work builds a person. These outcast people needed a chance, not charity, and you can see the tremendous use they have made of the opportunity given to them."

Mandakini Amte treats a patient with the help of a young volunteer (left) and Madia-Gonds in the Hemalkasa hospital
Difficult Start
: But "Amte's Miracle", as BBC economist Graham Turner described it in his book More Than Conquerors, was as remarkable in the making as it is today. Begun with half-a-dozen lepers.

Rs 14 in cash, a lame cow and 25 acres of forest land in a stone quarrying area, Amte's fantastic dream was gradually converted into reality through sheer perseverance and an incredible faith in himself.

With only the lepers, his wife and himself to do all the work from forest reclamation to leprosy treatment, it was a battle for survival at first. But soon, the first well was dug, and a year later a pair of ageing bullocks was donated to them. At the end of three years they were self-sufficient, apart from sugar, oil and salt. By then, the numbers had grown: there were 60 patients and six wells.

Anandwan thrived and grew through the '50s and early '60s and the Government donated more land to the Samiti. Trees were felled, rocks uprooted, and lush green fields, which produced three times the local crop yields, appeared.

"But I was determined that Anandwan should be as much like a normal community as possible," says Amte proudly, "and, like any good community, should make a contribution to the outside world."

In 1962, at the time of the Chinese aggression, the lepers staged a drama for local villagers, and raised Rs 2,000 for the National Relief Fund. Two years later, they decided to build a college for the town of Warora. Everything, from brick laying and construction to furniture-making and electricity installation, was done by Anandwan's residents, and most of the Rs 2.5 lakh spent on it came from the farm produce. Says Amte: "The beneficiaries had become the benefactors."

New Targets: By the mid-'60s Anandwan had become a bustling community with cooperative farms, communes and a school for the blind. A workshop for the handicapped included printing presses, a tin can project, carpentry, metal works and a hand-spinning and weaving unit. Ashokwan, too, was a fully-developed cooperative farm and Amte was ready to reach for broader horizons.

He developed a plan for a "workers' university", which would educate students in everything from science and technology to agriculture, personal hygiene and lifestyle. Every student would be given two acres of land to cultivate and experiment with, and would be entitled to the yield from his land, after paying for his board.

"A true teacher is one who lets you hatch your own eggs," he explains. "And with this concept both learning and extension education would be at the same spot. The incentive to study exists because he carries away the produce of his farm, not just a paper degree."

With the blessings of the Planning Commission, Amte was given 2,000 acres of barren forest land in 1966, and Somnath came into being. In the following year, student volunteers from all over India came to help develop it, and 25 acres were brought under the plough. But local politicians had mobilised the population against the project, and claiming the the land rightfully belonged to them, they started a struggle to oust Amte and his men.

Sarvodaya leader Vinoba Bhave was called to arbitrate, and he asked Amte to relinquish 700 acres of land, along with all rights to the natural irrigation from streams and springs. Without irrigation, Amte's dream was shattered, but he proceeded to build a model farm on the land that remained.

A cobbler who makes custom-built shoes for leprous feet (left) and Tukararn, a cured leper, sits at his sewing machine
Reclamation: Amte and the lepers, led by Shankardada Jumde, one of his earliest patients, started building a series of earth bunds and small reservoirs to hold rainwater through the dry season. Land was gradually reclaimed and concrete dams built on the slopes above the farm. Today 600 acres of the land are irrigated. Every year another 100 acres are reclaimed and a new community comes into being.

The Somnath farm produces yields which are five times higher than those of local farms. An extension campus of the Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth, which borders it, is barren and dry by comparison. Says Amte of the Somnath success: "We have no secretary, no executives, no graduate agronomists to help us make a profit. Why then are the Government farms, which have all these, losing money?"

While the earnings of Somnath and Amte's other projects are used to subsidise non-earning units, every person on the communes is allowed to earn a small sum. Kitchen gardens, fruit trees, and small herds of goats and sheep are maintained by community members and the produce from these is treated as a personal income.

Over 600 patients in Anandwan, and several more in the outlying projects, maintain post office savings accounts and regularly despatch money to their relatives. Cackles Amte gleefully: "These men who were cast out of their homes now send back money. And when they go home for a holiday they are received like kings." Deoman, whose disease was arrested so late that his hands and feet were reduced to stumps, runs Anandwan's dairy and flour mill, since "his administrative abilities are still first class".

Babu Shiwde, a tailor who became incapable of using a sewing machine, has nevertheless trained 25 men to stitch all the clothes for the residents. Says Shiwde proudly: "My hands may be useless but I do more important work here than I did as a tailor in the outside world, and I am respected for it."

Stressing Culture: In 1973, Amte embarked on yet another ambitious programme: the education and uplift of central India's Madia-Gonds. who were just emerging from the stone age. Building a small thatched hut in the heart of Madia territory in Hemalkasa, he spent a year among the tribals he had first seen when he ran away from home at the age of 14. The next year his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom had recently qualified from Nagpur Medical College, took over from him. They treated the diseased, dispensed medicine, and started a small demonstration farm on the land around the hut.

Cut off from Anandwan and the world for half the year by floods, they nevertheless managed to build, among other things, a general hospital which treats 2,500 Madias a month. The school and satellite centres are manned by lepers and Madias. Amte's latest project at Hemalkasa is a residential school for tribals which will house 140 boys and girls. "My aim is to offer them an education that will make them proud of their culture," he says. "You can't impose your textbooks and modern educational techniques on them. These people should grow up proud of their grandfather's culture, not shunning it."

But the constant physical work, coupled with crippling jeep rides between Anandwan, Somnath and Hemalkasa, finally began to take their toll on Amte's health. By 1971 two of his vertebrae had to be replaced by animal bone after he developed cervical spondylitis from the jarring drives over dirt tracks and untarred roads.

Seven years later five of his lower vertebrae had given way, and had to be partially removed in a complex spinal operation. Amte has since been unable to sit up for any length of time, and can only stand or lie down.

Amte in his bus-ambulance, driven by Mistry a cured leper: Total dedication
Undying Loyalty
: Undaunted, he had an ambulance-bus built from funds which had been donated to the Samiti, and resumed the arduous trips between his development projects. Last January, Amte was knocked down in a road accident, fractured his skull and suffered from prolonged concussion as a result. But only a month later he had hit the road once again, making the trip of Hemalkasa and Somnath. "My pain never makes an appointment with me," he says, "but my work does."

And it is his work that has earned him the undying loyalty of the outcast and mutilated "human ruins" whom he has helped to regain confidence and self-respect. In the colonies he has meticulously built, Amte is revered and respected, though he makes it clear that he will not allow a gulf to develop between his patients and himself.

At Anandwan, former patients stroll into the small cottage he shares with his wife, Sadhanatai, squat on his bed, and discuss problems of administration. Although accused by many of being an autocrat and of running his projects dictatorially, Amte displays a sense of fellowship and equality with the inmates that is nothing short of remarkable.

On arriving at any project he is invariably greeted by a crowd of residents. Unfailingly, he goes round the group, meeting each person, asking after his health, the progress of his assigned work, and any problems that he may have.

Government Indifference: There have been, however, sounds of disapproval from World Health Organisation (WHO) officials who question the validity of segregating and colonising leprosy patients in an age when the disease is wholly curable and no different, in principle, from other communicable diseases like tuberculosis and cholera.

Says Dr K..K. Koticha, director of the Acworth Leprosy Hospital in Bombay: "Amte's admirable work can never be questioned, but today it is increasingly felt that the concept of segregation only perpetuates the myths and misconceptions about leprosy. It would be ideal if every patient is kept in his own social and economic environment and given regular treatment like for every other disease."

In the outside world Amte's efforts have not gone unnoticed, though he maintains such a low profile that the national press has taken little notice of his efforts. Dr M.S. Swaminathan, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, has repeatedly lauded his role in the country's development, but little has been done about using his agro-economic models on a larger scale.

His projects have been visited, the models studied and praised, but governmental follow-up on these visits remains pathetically slow. "There are too many paper pregnancies in India," said Amte bitterly.

Mahatma Gandhi once called him the "abhaya sadhak", or fearless seeker, but there is little trace on the records of either his search or its findings. Finally, in 1971, he was awarded the Padma Shri after which the Government, feeling its duty was done, buried his name somewhere in the files of the Health or Agriculture ministries.

But a string of private trusts took over where the Government left off, and Amte was awarded the FIE Foundation Rs 1 lakh award in 1978, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1979, and last year the Nagpur University made him an honorary Doctor of Letters.

Foreign Recognition: Characteristically, Amte and his work have been far better received abroad than in his own country. Lady Barbara Ward Jackson, an economist who specialises in Third World problems, recommended his name for the Nobel Prize. In a letter to Mrs Gandhi, Jackson called him "a most remarkable Indian" and a "saint". Given the Rs 1 lakh Nehru Award for her contribution to development earlier this year, she donated the entire sum to Amte.

His name came up for the International Monetary Fund's Paul Hoffman Award for Innovative Development, but again, with no governmental backing, he was dropped from the lists. Belatedly, the Films Division is now planning a documentary on his work.

Amte, notwithstanding his claim that he abhors personal publicity, has been lionised through the printed word in the West. The Unbeaten Track, a book by Count Arthur Tarnovski about men involved in path-breaking work around the world, and Turner's More Than Conquerors contain glowing eulogies on the man and his achievements.

But Amte is probably best summed up in the words of Robert Hart, the author of a treatise on forest farming: "Baba Amte must be one of the most remarkable men in the world, and his achievements are far more significant than those of any political leader today."

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