The 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service
BIOGRAPHY of Murlidhar Devidas Amte
AMTE was born on December 26, 1914 in British India at Hinganghat, Wardha District in the present-day state of Maharashtra. His father, Devidas Amte, an official under the British, was responsible for district administration and revenue. His mother, Laxmibai Marpakwar-who gave birth to one other son and six daughters-was a housewife and illiterate.
When he was young his father sanctioned his playing only with the children of other large landowners and prosperous officials, but being an adventurous child, the boy made friends and playmates of the household servants' children. Such rebellious behavior led to a clash of wills. The stern father mandated and coerced but was unable to dominate completely the unruly spirit of his young son. Relations between the two, strained early, were to worsen as AMTE in adulthood charted an unconventional life-course.
The cultural gap between his bureaucrat father and unschooled mother also led to conflict. His father, dignified and soft-spoken, emphasized strict adherence to formal behavior. His mother, excitable and loud, was compassionate and charitable especially to the servants and the town's poor. Her generosity, often condemned by her husband, increased the gulf between them. When agitated Laxmibai suffered brief periods of insanity and twice was committed to a mental hospital. During the periods when she was unbalanced and abusive only AMTE could control her, and a special relationship developed between the impetuous youth and his irrational mother. In the words of his own oldest son, Vikas, "she loved him most and he loved her most." Later AMTE was to write "The Madness of My Mother," a tender article about her compassion and how it inspired him.
AMTE was first tutored at home and then enrolled in the Christian Mission School in Nagpur. From the British teachers he received two legacies: a solid grounding in and love for the English language, and an acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth. AMTE's diction and facility with the written word are more characteristic of a professor than a social activist; he thinks in poetry. As for Jesus, AMTE rejects the divinity of Christ, but accepts him and seeks to follow him as a hero.
When 14 the boy began to accompany adults on excursions to the nearby forests. There he met the Madia-Gonds, primitive people living a stone-age existence on a diet of insects, reptiles and edible leaves. Some had never seen a wheel nor heard of "India." Their clothes were immodest and morals slack by "civilized" standards. Yet AMTE delighted in their gaiety and zest for life and admired their natural truthfulness and simplicity. He never forgot these tribesmen who lived an arduous, primitive but unruffled life. Later he would return to champion their cause.
Moved by the plight of the forest dwellers and the poor around him, especially the untouchables (harijans, "children of God" as Gandhi called them), AMTE vowed to become a doctor. But his father, to fulfill an astrological prediction made at his son's birth, enrolled him in Law at Nagpur Universiq.
At college AMTE led a luxurious existence, living in a spacious private house in town, cared for by a staff of servants, and keeping a collection of tame and wild animals including a cheetah, in the compound. He drove to class in a sports car with white mudguards and panther skin seat covers; his clothes were from the best tailor. The cinema competed with law books for his attention and he sometimes bought three seats in a theater, propped up his feet and sat (or slept) through several features. He was so knowledgeable about films that he wrote reviews for Picturegoer magazine. Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, reigning Hollywood beauties, especially appealed to him and he wrote them fan letters to which they replied.
Although fast cars and Hollywood heroines were his delights, AMTE did not completely squander his college years. At one point he took three months off to study in Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, established by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, a Nobel laureate and India's greatest poet, had created a school where people were free to develop along unconventional lines. There AMTE learned Bengali, the language of Tagore's writings, and was influenced by his philosophy which stressed the beauty of the universe, love of children, simplicity and a consciousness of God.
Thus he matured intellectually and evolved his own standard of conduct and view of society. His mother's compassion, the Madia-Gonds's naturalness, Jesus' lonely courage, the poetry and philosophy of Tagore, and the anguish of the untouchables converged to mould in him a distinct outlook: a strong sense of justice, sexual puritanism and respect for women, and a dedication to help the physically and socially handicapped. While he accepted high standards of ethical and moral principles, organized religion repelled him. For him there were no saints, only moral heroes.
AMTE found some of his heroes in darkened corners overlooked by others. One he drew inspiration from was a notorious goonda (goon) who happened upon an attempted rape. Although the victim was a stranger, he challenged the attackers, shouting, "How dare you touch my sister? In the struggle which ensued the goonda was killed. AMTE has said that he drew more inspiration from this thug who gave his life for the honor of a girl he did not know, than from Gandhi. AMTE himself was similarly tested one day when he came upon an Indian girl being harassed by British soldiers. Like the goonda he fought alone; an accomplished wrestler, he struggled fiercely. More fortunate than the goonda, he survived the battle, but still bears marks of the fight.
These wounds are not the only scars he carries because of youthful gallantry. In 1935 on his way to the town of Quetta to assist in earthquake relief, the train he was riding in tilted sharply rounding a bend. A trunk became dislodged from the overhead rack and was about to crash on a young couple, sleeping in the seat underneath. AMTE sprang up and blocked the falling luggage, shattering his shoulder and arm. Doctors advised amputation, but he refused and instead found a local bone setter to treat the injury. His arm was saved, but the damaged shoulder still pains him and he cannot stretch his arm over his head. His distinctive style of dress-short pants and thin under shirt which has become known as the "Babe suit"-was adopted for ease in dressing.
In 1936 Amte received his law degree from Nagpur Universiq and began to practice law in Durg, 200 kilometers east of Nagpur City. In 1941, at his father's urging, he moved to Warora, near his family home in Hinganghat, to continue his law practice and to manage the family's nearby 180-hectare estate. A few years later he became vice chairman of the Warora municipal council.
In December 1941 Japan attacked American and British territories in Southeast Asia, expanding the raging European conflict. By the following summer Gandhi, reasoning that the presence of British troops in India invited Japanese aggression against the sub-continent, called for them to leave India immediately. The "Quit India" resolution was endorsed by a committee of the All-India Congress Party in August and Gandhi appealed for mass disobedience. The British government, acting to forestall violence and retain India as a logistical rear base for the China-Burma war, arrested and jailed Gandhi and other Congress Party leaders. Rioting broke out. Sabotage and destruction of property were widespread. Over 700 died, 1,200 were imprisoned and thousands were arrested in the months that followed.
In the courts AMTE pleaded the cases of many of those arrested. On the streets he burned foreign clothes and sang the nationalist song Vande Mataram (I Bow to Thee, Mother) in protest. These anti-British activities earned him a two-week jail sentence. This was not his first expression of nationalistic fervor. In college he had surreptitiously aided the Indian Freedom Fighters Group" by supplying them with arms and ammunition. He had even engaged his mother's cooperation-in a silent conspiracy against his father, a servant of the colonial administration.
During the war AMTE continued his practice of law which was never to his liking. Although his father considered the jobs of lawyer and landowner an ideal combination, AMTE was comfortable with neither. As a landlord he lived off the labor of his agricultural workers who received little for their toil. In the law courts he defended and gained acquittal for criminals and was paid handsomely for "just mumbling a few legalistic words. " Gradually revulsion grew within him and he began to rebel. As an outward manifestation of this inner rebellion he discarded the look of respectability-grew a beard, wore his hair long and went barefoot. He began to neglect the affairs of the estate. He associated with harijans, eating with them and taking them, uninvited, to caste social functions; soon invitations for him stopped. He left his comfortable house and moved into a hut on a plot near the Muslim cemetery which was made available to him by a family friend, and he acquired the reputation for madness-the mad son of a mad mother.
AMTE next organized a scavengers' (night soil collectors) union, but when they struck for higher wages while he was still vice chairman of the municipality, he refused their demands because the town lacked funds. The strikers charged he was unsympathetic because he had never carried a pan of night soil on his head ("imagine our plight during the monsoon," they pleaded) and challenged him to do the job and then reconsider. He accepted the challenge and was assigned 40 latrines. Daily he collected the steel pans of excrement from the backs of houses and carried them on his head to the disposal sites. It was revolting and sickening labor and affected him profoundly, deepening his regard for, and commitment to, these outcasts. The scavengers received their raise.
In 1946 AMTE was 32 years old and single. Having turned his back on convention, it seemed he would remain so, and he exhibited no interest in marriage. Yet the death of a distant relative was to change his thinking radically. His relative died leaving six unmarried daughters. Their anxious mother asked friends and relatives to find suitable husbands for the girls. When AMTE attended the wedding feast of one, he observed a younger sister, Indu, slip away towards the work area to help an old servant hang clothes. He heard her admonish the woman "not to tell." Without looking, AMTE had found an ideal partner. Later he recalled, "I felt married at that moment."
MTE approached Indu's mother and offered himself as a suitable spouse. As both families were Brahmin, the union was acceptable from the point of view of caste, but the suitor was twelve years older and a known eccentric. Indu, first in her class at school and a local beauty, could have had her pick of suitors, yet in AMTE she found qualities lacking in others and agreed to the match. On his bride AMTE conferred a new name, Sadhana, which means "hard work in pursuit of a goal."
There was a near burlesque look to their wedding ceremony, the bride young and attractive, the groom shaggy haired, bearded and covered with bandages. The bandages were the result of yet another scrape with a villainous character. Just days before the wedding an armed thief surprised AMTE asleep in his bedroom. In characteristic fashion the young man wrestled him to the ground. The robber wounded him several times, yet he held on and called for help, but the thief finally struggled free and fled.
After a honeymoon in Goa (at that time Portuguese India) AMTE took Sadhana to live on the borrowed property near the graveyard which together they turned into a commune for society's rejects. With 20 people, including untouchables, they organized the Sharama Ashram (Ashram of Labor). The group shared work and pooled profits. Sadhana, used to silk clothes and servants, became the commune's scullery maid. AMTE sold vegetables grown on the plot. He employed a simple marketing system, allowing customers to set the price. It amused him that the rich invariably offered less than the poor. His role of vegetable seller did not last long as the commune had to close because of malaria.
An earlier chance encounter that had preyed on his mind and forced him to a reassessment of himself, suggested a new direction.
Returning from his night soil collecting one rainy night he had come across a foul-smelling, maggot-ridden leper lying in the rain. Despite his daily association with human waste, he was revolted. He grabbed some nearby matting, covered the wretch and hurried away. It was not the first leprosy sufferer he had seen-India has four million- but the encounter disturbed him strangely. He had never backed away from a fight and feared neither man nor society's conventions. Yet when confronted with a prone leper AMTE, whom Gandhi once called the "Fearless Seeker," turned away in panic, a coward.
Would I, he later thought in horror, have run away like this if it had been my wife or child? For months the shame of cowardice dogged him. He struggled with his conscience and expressed his inmost thoughts in the words of an anonymous poet: "I sought my soul, My soul I could not see. I sought my God, My God eluded me. I sought my brother, I found all three." He recalled that G.K Chesterton had suggested it was strange man sought sublime inspiration in the ruins of old temples and churches, but saw none in the ruins of man. "I took up leprosy work not to help anyone," he later claimed, "but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked good for others was a by-product."
AMTE discussed his intentions to work with leprosy sufferers with Vinoba Bhave (1958 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership for "arousing his countrymen toward voluntary action in relieving social injustice and economic inequalities") who advised him to undergo formal training at the leprosy colony established by Manohar Diwan at Dattapur near Wardha. For six months AMTE studied Diwan's methods. He learned how to diagnose, give injections, clean ulcers, remove decomposing bones, dress wounds and administer drugs. Then with medicine supplied by Dattapur, he began to treat Warora's leprosy patients at his "clinic under a tree." Originally he treated them surreptitiously so that those not yet stigmatized as lepers would feel free to apply for treatment.
Word spread and soon many more patients came. AMTE, however, felt the need for more scientific knowledge and training, such as that offered by the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine. To be admitted to the above one had to be a doctor which he was not, so he enlisted the support of Bhave and others and wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, requesting an exception. Nehru's intercession worked; AMTE was admitted to the School of Tropical Medicine in 1949.
During his training there a professor casually mentioned that a barrier to curing the disease was the inability to grow mycobacterium leprae germs in animals. AMTE forthwith offered himself as a guinea pig. He later said, "The halo of Brother Damien [a Belgian religious who contracted leprosy treating patients at a colony he had established in Hawaii] was before me. And I knew Sadhana would nurse me. " He was injected with the live bacillus, but the bacillus failed to take hold and the experiment was abandoned. At the end of the course AMTE stood at the head of the class but because he lacked a medical degree he was not awarded a certificate.
On his return to Warora AMTE began to plan a radically different leprosy colony-where patients would be given purpose and dignity as well as drugs. To make a man out of a leprosy victim is important in stopping or curing the disease, he reasoned. He envisioned an innovative settlement as much like a normal community as possible, where sufferers could be taught to be self-supporting by creative work. He saw work as the therapeutic cure to mental depression common among leprosy patients and other outcasts. Such depression he believed inhibited recovery. His slogan became: Charity Destroys, Work Builds.
AMTE established the Maharogi Sewa Samiti (Leprosy Relief Society). He registered it in 1949 as a public trust with the government and applied for land, on a 99-year lease, to set up a facility for testing his radical ideas. The stars was inauspicious. The government offered him 20 hectares of disused rock quarry and scrub forest infested with snakes and scorpions, tigers and leopards. It had once been the hunting estate of the British governor. AMTE optimistically named this desolate place Anandwan (Forest of Bliss).
The first settlers were the AMTEs, six lepers and a lame cow. Fourteen rupees (US$2.94) was their working capital. Their first requirements were housing and water. For shelter, two wall-less thatched huts were built-one for the AMtrEs, one for the leprosy patients. Using hand tools to dig a well through the rock, it took seven weeks before they reached water. Next, fields were cleared for planting. Two bullocks, borrowed from AMTE's father's estate, plowed the ground for the first crops, but it was two years before the little colony was self-sufficient in food. Until then small remittances from the family property and donations from friends kept Anandwan alive.
The environment itself was perilous. Poisonous snakes were numerous, leopards carried off three of the family dogs and Sadhana frequently killed a dozen or more scorpions a day. Yet they survived and soon more wells were dug and more hectares cultivated. By the third anniversary 60 leprosy patients called Anandwan home.
In 1953 a group of foreign volunteers working at Gandhi's Sevagram Ashram, 100 kilometers from Warora, learned of Anandwan and offered assistance. AMTE asked these members of Service Civil International to help in the construction of medical facilities. Working side-by-side with the leprosy patients, they built a clinic and two hospital wards in three months. Their labors did more than change physical aspects of the site; they altered the psychological climate both inside and outside Anandwan.
Previously local children would not play with Vikas and Prakash, the AMTEs' two sons born in 1947 and 1948. Even the doctor who stayed for a few months to treat non-leprosy related illnesses disinfected his bicycle thoroughly after each visit. Vegetables produced on the farm, excellent and inexpensive, found few buyers. As Vikas recalls: "The surrounding people were afraid to come because of leprosy. They even thought the air was polluted. When they saw white-skinned volunteers working and living with us it was the turning point."
Cautious acceptance gradually replaced prejudice. Anandwan and the Maharogi Sewa Samiti began to expand in size and scope. Today Anandwan, with a population of approximately 2,000, is recognized as a village by the Indian government. It has its own elected officials, independent water supply, big-gas plants and a healthy economy based on agriculture. Within Anandwan one finds a hospital; a bank; a post office; five self-supporting hamlets; three other hamlets supported by Swiss Aid Abroad; an orphanage; dormitories for singles; a senior citizens' home; a community center; colleges; schools for the blind, for leprosy-afflicted children, the deaf and dumb and the physically handicapped; vocational training centers teaching 16 crafts; and the headquarters for satellite projects.
The land is poor so preparing it for cultivation was arduous. Stones and rocks had to be removed manually and stumps dug and carted away. Nothing was wasted. The timber was used for housing and fence posts, the potassium-rich ash of burned brush and debris as soil supplement. Cow dung and other farm wastes fertilize the earth.
The success of any rural venture depends on the quality of agriculture, which in turn depends on a reliable water supply. Wells are the primary source of water at Anandwan. In AMTE's poetic language, "more sweat has gone into the wells dug at Anandwan than water found in them." Not a drop is wasted. Even the drainage from kitchens and laundries flows into gardens. Four man-made lakes catch rain water. These dry up in the summer but the silt makes excellent bricks, a boon as suitable clay is otherwise unavailable on the property.
Rice, wheat, fruits and vegetables are grown in abundance. The cotton yield is twice the local average. Cattle breeding is advanced and the farm boasts a prize-winning bull. Additional government leases expanded Anandwan to 180 hectares, but only 100 are under general cultivation as the remainder was needed for housing and the educational complex.
AMTE was determined that Anandwan should contribute to the broader public welfare. In 1964 he established Anand Niketan, a college of arts, science and commerce for dependents of leprosy patients and students from the surrounding rural areas. The buildings, financed by the sale of agricultural products, were constructed by leprosy patients. Today it is affiliated with Nagpur University and has an enrollment of 1,600 students. A 300-student agricultural college was added later; it is affiliated with the Punjabrao Agriculture University. Since India's educational system is state-controlled, the government subsidizes about 80 percent of the costs, with the community responsible for the other 20 percent.
In 1966 AMTE established Prakashachi Shala' (Sunshine House for the Blind); with the exception of the headmaster, a cured leprosy patient, all the teachers are blind. In 1982 he built primary schools for other physically handicapped children, including the deaf and dumb. The Netherlands Committee for Children (N.C.K) funded construction of the first building with a grant of Rs.100,000. Violating its policy of one-time grants only, N.C.K. gave an additional Rs.200,000. The exception was made because of the unique nature of the school-an enterprise for the physically disadvantaged built and run by the socially disadvantaged, i.e., the leprosy patients. The school now educates over 100 children.
One of Maharogi Sewa Samiti's goals is to make leprosy sufferers and other disabled persons "jacks of all trades and masters of one," able to function independently with a money-earning skill. In 1967, with financial help from an English friend, Count Arthur Tarnowski, AMTE set up small shops which provide training in the manufacture of a variety of rupee-earning products. Tarnowski, a polio victim himself and confined to a wheelchair, had come to Anandwan years earlier and become infected with its spirit. He wrote The Unbeaten Track about his travels around the world and devoted two chapters to Anandwan. Tarnowski later donated part of the royalties from the book to build the vocational training shops. There patients can choose to learn a trade in metal or wood working, tin smithing, construction trades (masonry, carpentry, painting), spinning and weaving, tailoring, leather craft, printing and handicrafts. Products from these shops are either sold at a profit or used within the community.
Giridhar, a cured patient, runs the metal shop. Once a cowherd, he supervises the making of hospital furniture. Masonry is the responsibility of Deoman, whose hands and feet are so crippled that he can no longer balance properly. The tailor is Ramchandra who, with stumps for fingers and hands like claws, can no longer do delicate work but has trained 25 others to make clothes.
In 1961 Anandwan became the first leprosarium in India to allow marriage between patients. The couple must be cured and the groom must agree to a vasectomy. In order to establish a traditional family atmosphere, the partners are encouraged to adopt non-leprous children of disease-active patients, as well as to accept older cured patients as "parents."
Non-handicapped orphans and the elderly are a part of Anandwan. The orphanage was started after an infant girl, abandoned at the railroad station in Warora, was brought to Sadhana for care. AMTE thereupon decided to provide for other unwanted babies. To support the new venture the schoolchildren of Maharashtra were persuaded to fast for one day and donate their meal money for an orphanage. Rs.350,000 were collected and a facility which cares for 50 children was built.
The home for the aged is called "Wisdom Bank." Anandwan encourages healthy retirees to spend their remaining years here among the handicapped. These retired technocrats, government servants, school teachers, military personnel and others have a fund of knowledge which they share with the community.
The children's home and old people's home face each other across a court in the middle of which stands a stone resembling Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It carries AMTE's poetic description of her dual responsibilities: to "rock the cradle with utmost gentleness" and "pull the shroud with tenderness."
In 1957 when the state government offered AMTE 20 additional hectares on the outskirts of Nagpur, he welcomed the opportunity to expand Maharogi Sewa Samiti. The land, rocky and sloped, with no convenient water supply, was unwanted by the local farmers, yet AMTE believed it could support a farm for training and rehabilitating cured leprosy patients. Fifteen settled there and began to work the land using methods perfected at Anandwan. Today the settlement, called Ashokwan (Forest Devoid of Sorrow), flourishes. Its 75 residents are self supporting.
The next opportunity to expand came ten years later when AMTE obtained 810 additional hectares of land at Somnath, 70 miles southeast of Anandwan, for a university. Although the two colleges at Anandwan were fully operational, they were conventional institutions, "turning out clerks" as AMTE put it. He had observed that traditional university graduates lost their ability to use their hands when their minds were too well trained; they became alienated from the village, depriving agriculture of its best talent. At Somnath he hoped to establish a workers' university where students would "dig the soil as well as sharpen pencils" and upon graduation return to the villages to share their knowledge with their peers.
In his handwritten request (Anandwan had yet to acquire a typewriter) to the government for the land, he laid forth two conditions: it must have water and be near a highway. The tract offered had water and was near a railroad, but was distant from the main road and much of it was barren. Nevertheless AMTE saw a potential and gladly accepted it for the usual nominal rent. He and 10 leprosy patients moved onto the land, sleeping in the open and beginning the familiar task of digging a well. Soon 10 hectares were ready for plowing.
The greening of Somnath generated envy among the nearby villagers, especially the landless who felt their claim was stronger than the outsiders'. Local politicians seized upon the popular issue and led protests against the venture. The opposition grew increasingly ugly and one morning an armed mob advanced upon the small community. A friendly policeman warned AMTE who, with a few patients, advanced to meet it. At the confrontation the patients shielded AMTE's body, ready to accept the blows themselves. Their courage cooled somewhat the hot temper of their attackers, which was further checked when others counseled Gandhian non-violence. With the timely arrival of the constabulary, the crowd dispersed.
Vinoba Bhave was asked to settle the dispute. After studying the matter he said metaphorically, "adults should give toffees to children." AMTE, the older and stronger of the contending parties, understood he must yield for the sake of local peace. A compromise was struck. AMTE gave up 283 hectares and the water supply and retained 526 hectares, 202 of which were not arable.
AMTE's dream of a workers' university ended with the loss of the irrigated land: there was not enough land left for each potential worker student to cultivate as part of his training. AMTE therefore decided to provide a farm for cured patients. With Swiss Aid Abroad's financial backing houses were built, fields bunded and new land cultivated. An innovative irrigation system employing a series of tanks constructed at descending levels was installed. A 30.5 meter long masonry dam- constructed by the leprosy patients without engineering experts or contractors-was built. Now two-thirds of the area is cultivated, its yield is several times the local average and its agricultural profits defray some of the operating costs of Anandwan.
Today the five hundred cured patients raise goats, pigs, sheep, poultry and cattle; harvest rice, wheat and sorghum; operate a demonstration farm which experiments with sugar cane and bananas; and manage a seed farm which supplies the national seed corporation. They are allotted small kitchen gardens, the profits from which are personal income. Ironically, "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," AMTE comments.
One of AMTE's favorite projects and a feature at Somnath is the youth camp. Although some foreigners have attended, the main target is Indian students. By teaching young people during semester breaks the importance of agriculture and the dignity of field labor, AMTE hopes to unite students of all castes, communities and religions. The stated purpose of the camp is to motivate youth for "social justice, social change and social action." The method is shared agricultural and communal experience. Since 1968 tens of thousands of young Indians have participated in these one-to-four week sessions held in the grueling heat of May.
During all his years spent developing Anandwan, Ashokwan and Somnath, AMTE never lost interest in the Madia-Gonds. Thus with Maharogi Sewa Samiti projects running smoothly, he turned his attention to these primitive people and their struggles in a semi-hostile physical environment and an increasingly menacing social atmosphere. The forest, their home, was foe as well as friend. It provided food and shelter, but also harbored snakes, bears, tigers and other dangerous animals. Its denseness, a defense against unwanted advances of civilization, was a barrier impeding the introduction of medicine and scientific agriculture. Six months of the year the monsoon-swelled rivers marooned the tribal homeland. Even so, loggers and paper mills began penetrating slowly, encroaching on their wilderness, threatening their forest.
In December 1973, AMTE set out to establish a center called Lok Biradari (People's Brotherhood) on the outskirts of Madia-Gond territory. A year later he launched Hemalkasa Project deep in the interior. Here AMTE dispensed bandages, and basic medicines for diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, and filaria. Like other wilderness people the Madia-Gonds suffer from tuberculosis, anemia, and malnutrition, and also a fatal form of cerebral malaria peculiar to their region. They are at risk from animal predators-bees, scorpions, bears and panthers-and vulnerable to burns from frequent fires in their thatch huts. To help meet these pressing medical needs AMTE's son Prakash, now a fullfledged doctor, and Prakash's wife, Dr. Mandakini, joined him in 1975. Together they erected simple thatched huts and dug the familiar well. It took time to gain the confidence of the tribal people, but after a while they came forward for treatment. When AMTE subsequently returned to Anandwan, his son and daughter-in-law stayed behind at Hemalkasa.
A 50-bed hospital operated by Prakash and Mandakini has grown from this simple beginning. There is no electricity, so complicated surgical operations performed at night are illuminated by ordinary flashlights. "The hospital is so good that not only the Madias, but police officers, government engineers, forest officials and the staff of a private paper mill make regular use of it," AMTE says proudly of the achievement of his son and daughter-in-law.
In 1974 AMTE formally established the Lok Biradari Prakalps (People's Brotherhood Project) for the tribal area. The project, originally concentrating on health, now includes agriculture and non-formal education, since the former is dependent upon the latter.
The diet of the tribesmen was poor. Some lived on wild animals, insects and edible roots and tubers. Others more advanced practiced shifting (slash and burn) agriculture, scattering seeds on burned land and waiting for the harvest. When the soil became exhausted they moved on. AMTE introduced the Madias to the plow, taught them basic farming and gave them grain, vegetable and fruit seeds. Now with more wholesome food the health of the Madia-Gonds has improved, and when they produce an agricultural surplus they are given help in marketing it.
AMTE also started a school to teach them useful skills, but was careful not to ape traditional education which, he considers, lacks relevance for them. "My aim is to offer them an education that will make them proud of their culture," he says. At the school the some 250 children are taught farming, crafts and first aid in addition to reading, writing and basic arithmetic.
In recent years the central and state governments have been considering building a hydro-electric project on the Godavari and Indravati rivers whose two giant dams will submerge 80,000 hectares of forest. AMTE has thrown himself into the battle to frustrate this plan. He and the Madias are fighting alone because the project has the support of the urban populations who, unthreatened by the lakes which will be created, expect an economic surge for the area. On April 9, 1984 he organized a solidarity rally of tribesmen in the district town of Gadchiroli. Partly because of the publicity generated by the rally and partly because of budgetary constraints, the final decision on the dams has been postponed. About the eventual resolution AMTE pessimistically predicts, "greed will naturally win." Yet he will not retreat. He proposes to follow the precepts of the Chipko Andolan (Hug the Trees Movement) made popular by Chandi Prasad Bhatt (1982 Magsaysay Awardee "for his environmental movement to safeguard wise use of the forest"). "We propose to use the human chain method. Tribals, men, women and children, will embrace the trees when the areas are going to be submerged," he promises. So far the government has taken no further action.
At 72, when most men have already retired, AMTE is calling on Indian youth to "knit India"-with the same fervor with which he joined an earlier generation's movement to force the British to "quit India." He is inviting them to accompany him on a bicycle tour from the southern tip of the subcontinent to the northern border. The 107-day trip, beginning December 24, 1985, is to join Indians from all states, communities and castes in a common adventure affirming Indian unity. Because of a spine condition which allows him to stand or lie down, but not to sit, AMTE will accompany them in a van fitted with a special bed.
AMTE suffers from cervical and lumbar spondylosis, aggravated by years of jolting rides over back roads and rough terrain. In 1971 he underwent an operation in England to replace a degenerating bone in his upper spine and spent most of that year in bed. The people of Maharashtra raised over Rs.100,000 for him. Eight years later several lower vertebrae were partially removed in a radical operation. As a result he is in constant pain, but does not allow his suffering to slow him down.
AMTE has not limited himself to Anandwan, Ashokwan and Somnath. He has been Founding Member and Chairman of the National Leprosy Organization, India; Chairman of the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation, India; Advisor-Member of the Maharashtra State Leprosy Board; Advisor-Member of the Maharashtra People's Action for Development; Member of the Senate of Nagpur University; Member, National Integration Council, India; and Advisor to the Government of India Ministry of Education and Health. His latest plans are to establish a cancer village because there is no help for rural-only for urban- cancer sufferers, and Himmat-Gram' (Village of Courage) for multiple handicapped people.
His work has been recognized by the government and many organizations within the nation. In 1971 the Indian government gave him the Padma Shri Award for distinguished service. Seven years later the Fuel Instrument Engineers Foundation bestowed on him the Rashtra Bushan (Pride of the Nation) Award. In 1979 the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation cited him for constructive work, and a year later Nagpur University conferred on him the Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa. Also that year the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped gave him the Diwan Memorial Award. In 1981 the Indian Merchant's Chamber honored him with their Chamber Award, and in 1982 he received a second honorary doctorate. This was conferred by Agriculture University Akola for his work in agricultural technology. In 1983 he received the Ramshastri Award and in 1985 the Madhya Pradesh government gave him the first Indira Gandhi Memorial Award for social service.
In 1983 AMTE became the second Indian to receive the Damien-Dutton Award, the most prestigious international honor given for a contribution to leprosy cure and control; the first was Dr. Dharmendra, head of the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, where AMTE obtained his initial training in leprosy treatment the third in 1984 was Mother Teresa (1962 Magsaysay Awardee "for her merciful cognizance of the abject poor . . ."). Some of the awards were cash awards which AMTE donated to Maharogi Sewa Samiti.
Through the years AMTE's projects have profited from the generosity of foreign donors. The American film actress Norma Shearer was the first contributor. "It was an insignificant amount," notes Vikas, "but symbolic." In consequence hers is the only photograph to grace the AMTE home.
The first substantial contribution came from Public Welfare Foundation of Washington,
Other international agencies have also contributed. "Aid has been offered, we don't have to ask," Vikas comments. For example, Dr. Howard Rusk, President of World Rehabilitation Fund, supported projects for vocational training of the handicapped; the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace contributed Rs.700,000 jointly, and Catholic Relief Services (U.S.) supports individual small projects. In 1981 Lady Barbara Ward Jackson received the Nehru Award for her contribution to Third World development and donated the money to AMTE.
Hundreds of Indians contribute small amounts, but few of India's philanthropic organizations or corporate giants have helped. Vikas believes the absence of interest by large Indian donors is because Maharogi Sewa Samiti is a non-religious and non-political organization situated in a remote area; also its policy is not to give an individual or corporate name to any project.
A study of the philosophical impulses behind Maharogi Sewa Samiti might give the impression that its founder is a Christian and a socialist. In fact he is not a member of any religion or political organization. A practical and action-oriented man, AMTE has little time for ideology or dogma. Yet his inspirations include both socialist and Christian influences.
He acknowledges drawing inspiration from Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung, but counsels avoiding "tutelage to any dogma or any one leader, past or present." Basic economic and social problems cannot be solved, he believes, by elimination of a class and observes: The leaders of Russia and China come from the soil, yet the worst atrocities have been perpetrated not by capitalists, but by laborers come to power. They have not answered the basic question: that of how to build a man."
As to religion, AMTE believes that religion is not observing rites and rituals, but acting in righteousness, helping others. He feels that Hinduism, "which refuses to establish fellowship between man and man is bound to fail in establishing fellowship between man and God." And of Christ he has said, "I have learned from Him that to live is to suffer, to suffer is to love." AMTE believes that "A man of faith is not necessarily a Hindu or Muslim or Christian. Nor is spirituality other-worldly. Indeed, science and spirituality are two sides of the same coin. An introspective search for an order within an individual . . . is spirituality. When that search is turned outward, we call it science. Both spirituality and science are to be applied to transform the human condition."
Nevertheless AMTE finds that transformation of the physical condition is easier than transformation of the spiritual or mental. "The physical signs of leprosy are hypo-pigmented patches [of skin] and loss of sensation. Then later, there is thickening of the nerves. Now in so-called healthy society, you can see a lot of injustice and poverty, yet you are not moved. You have lost your sensation, your feeling. You suffer from psychological anesthesia. The mind is so dull; the heart so unfeeling, thick-skinned like a hippopotamus. That's mental leprosy." He then adds sadly, "I have found out that while physical leprosy is perfectly curable, mental leprosy is not."
Upon meeting AMTE one's attention is drawn to his arresting face, a sharp nose flanked by piercing eyes and topped with thick, grey cropped hair which runs down in becoming but out-of-date sideburns. A spine-supporting cummerbund firmly binds his "Babe suit." Tread from discarded truck tires sole his rough sandals. His stride is aided by a crude walking stick. AMTE dresses in white, but loves colors. Sadhana, who prefers simple clothes, to please him has a wardrobe of colorful, exquisitely handspun saris. He in turn seeks to please her by picking from his beloved garden flowers for her devotions, for she is still a devout Hindu.
AMTE admits to a temptation to vanity "My ego feels very nice when someone gives it a massage, but I know it's numbing, not curing." He can also be arrogant and shout loudly like his "mad" mother. In family arguments he is often unyielding and stubborn, yet it is Sadhana, deliberating quietly, who has the final say.
BABA AMTE has been described as an effective administrator, an innovative agriculturalist, a pioneering educationalist and an aggressive ecological combatant. To some he is a saint, but to others a nonconformist and an outrageous agnostic who defies religious sensibilities. To AMTE himself he is only a mechanic with an oilcan.
AMTE, Vikas. "Living with Social Outcasts: The Anandwan Experience" Presentation to Group Discussion. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila. September 2, 1985. (Transcript.)
______.Rainbow in Tears. Pamphlet. Anandwan. N.d.
D'Monte, Darryl "A Question of Survival" Illustrated Weekly of India. New Delhi. May 20, 1984.
Deshpande, Malati. "Baba Amte and the Jungle of Happiness,'' Ujjwal Udyasathi. Bombay: Sane Guruji Kathamala. Nd.
Hart, Robert A. de J.Ecosociety, A Historical Study of Ecological Man. Dehra Dun, India: Natraj Publishers. 1984.
"The Heating Touch," India Today. New Delhi. May 16-31, 1981. (Off Print.)
Matthai, Thomas P. "An Unbeaten Track," Community Action for Basic Services. New Delhi: UNICEP, Vol. 7, December 1983.
Phanshikar,Vijay. "Fellowship of Pain," The Hitavada. Nagpur, India. August 18, 1985.
Prasannan, R. "Prophet of a New India," The Week. Kerala, India. December 25-31, 1983.
Tamowski, Arthur. The Unbeaten Track. London: Harvill Press: 1971.
Turner, Graham.More Than Conquerors. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1976.
Interviews with Dr. Vikas Amte and other persons acquainted with the work of Murlidhar Devidas Amte. Visit to Anandwan.
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