The Calling of the Amtes

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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It is the legacy of Baba Amte. Everyone in this family—the third generation does it now—works for the weakest and most disabled in Indian society

HEMALKASA, GADCHIROLI ~ Dr Prakash Amte, in white shorts and a banian, is seated on a plastic chair in front of his home in Hemalkasa, deep inside Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. This is Maoist country. Just a few kilometres down from here, the road yields to an unbroken expanse of forest, thousands of square kilometres spread over three states.

The Madia Gond tribal boy before him is impassive. Dr Amte takes his hand, runs his fingers over it, locates the broken bone and then jerks to set it in place. The boy’s face is still expressionless. “The tribals have a high threshold of pain,” says Dr Amte, as he plasters the hand. An old woman arrives. She has a fracture on her wrist—the result of a fall, she tells him. Dr Amte looks at the hand. And looks at it again, slightly puzzled. “Your man hit you, didn’t he?” he says. She looks surprised and then sheepishly says ‘yes’. “With a fall, the wrist won’t normally twist in this direction,” he says.

In the evening, he sits before a group of students who have come from Pune, a thousand kilometres away. They are asking him questions and he is telling them the story of coming to Hemalkasa 40 years ago when this was a land cut off from the rest of the world, in the monsoons literally so when all roads disappeared. Initially there was just his wife and a bunch of cured leprosy patients, the soldiers of his father Baba Amte’s army, as they set up a ramshackle residence. The others left and he and his wife stayed back. In the heart of this darkness, motivated by the idea of providing medical aid to those for whom the modern world did not exist. His calling was never in doubt. All he had seen since he was born was his father and mother working for leprosy patients, the most reviled lot in India. So, when he finished medical school, it was Hemalkasa he headed to. It was a place his father had once taken them for a picnic and they saw its isolation when the hamlets there would empty on their coming because the tribals would scamper off into the forests. It took Dr Amte some time to gain their trust, but now Hemalkasa’s got a hospital and school, both his initiative. He is the second doctor here, the other son manages the school. They do almost everything themselves. No outside doctor will stay for long stretches.

As he talks, Dr Amte’s grandson is playing in his lap, demanding attention. Someone comes and takes the boy away but he keeps coming back to nestle in his grandfather’s lap. Dr Amte pays equal attention to both tasks at hand—cuddling his grandson and answering the questions the students put to him. Earlier, as he showed me around the hospital and school (and the animal orphanage, which is as famous as his social work and where he put his hand inside a leopard’s mouth and waved a poisonous snake saying this was the same one that had bit him once), he said, “I am so thankful to my daughter-in-law. She insisted that her son must study here. But the world is getting so competitive. I don’t know what will happen when he grows up.” The school is a vernacular school and we saw his grandson in a class sitting on the floor among other tribal kids. The Amtes have never differentiated between those they work with and themselves. All of them have studied in Marathi medium schools.

A few days ago, 250 kilometres from Hemalkasa, towards Nagpur and civilisation, another Dr Amte sat in a small hall in Anandwan talking to a group of people who had come from Mumbai. Prakash’s elder brother Vikas was dressed in a kurta and pyjama. His voice was hoarse because he had a sore throat. He talked about leprosy and then went on to his father, Baba Amte, the man who set up the leprosy colony of Anandwan and with whom it is still identified. There are a thousand stories of Baba Amte and they have all been told—a man born to wealth; a lawyer who got a brief from night soil carriers and to understand them started carrying night soil and cleaning toilets; a man whose first encounter with a leprosy patient left him repulsed; and as penance for that moment of fear spent the rest of his lifetime tending to leprosy patients; who created an army of leprosy patients who went about creating fertile fields from barren rock land and forests; a man who in the last decades of his life could not sit because of a spinal problem and was always in pain; and who with that pain walked from one end of the country to the other in a peace march when Punjab was aflame and the country was in turmoil (and once forced the courteous Rajiv Gandhi to talk to him standing because Baba Amte couldn’t sit); and who later one day, when he was in his mid-70s, despite the same pain, left the settled confines of somnolent Anandwan and went to live for years along the banks of the Narmada river to wage one more war, this time against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Four years after his death, Baba Amte is still present in Anandwan, like a perpetual memory. Vikas Amte speaks about all this but there is something he does not say—that all of Anandwan as it stands today, the fertile fields on its 500 acres, the manmade lakes and the large fish in them that feed off the leavings and trash, the hospitals, the schools for the blind and deaf and mute, the workshops, the orchestra of the handicapped; the lepers who became whole again; the lepers who became Anandwan’s entrepreneurs; the lepers who became artisans; the lepers who married other lepers and begat healthy children; the residences of the 2,500 residents… all of it is the result of the industry of another man, Vikas Amte himself.

Gajanan Vasu, now 57 years old, was in his mid 20s when he first came to Anandwan in 1975. Five years before that, he had been diagnosed with leprosy and in his words had two alternatives: “Either go mad or commit suicide.” Usually even families in rural India forsook leprosy patients at the time, but Vasu was lucky. His parents got him treated in a hospital for a year, but to remain in his village would have meant ostracisation for all his kin. That was how he reached Anandwan. Vikas Amte had just finished medical school then and returned. Anandwan now is more than a village or a colony. It is a small town with many crafts and workshops. Back then agriculture was the mainstay. “Vikasbhai used to treat the patients and also started all the projects,” says Vasu. And in doing so turned Gajanan Vasu into a serial entrepreneur. They began with carpets, but because there was no one willing to buy them, they were given to patients within Anandwan. Nevertheless more goods were made—household items like napkins, pillow covers, etcetera. Since no one would come and buy, they decided to take it out to the world. “Vikasbhai’s car would be ahead, my vehicle behind with all the goods. He would announce from the vehicle what we were selling and where it was made. He would speak about Anandwan,” he said. Vasu made annual trips to Mumbai for 12 years, exhibiting on the road and selling the goods. “We used to stay on the footpath. Some would sleep in the vehicle. When I first went, I sold goods worth Rs 35,000. In the 12th year, I sold goods worth Rs 9 lakh,” he says. His latest venture is the expansion of the dairy. Earlier no one would buy milk from Anandwan’s cows and buffaloes. Now there’s a queue every morning for the one hour that the milk is sold. And all the milk, so thick that it oozes from the hand, gets sold. Anandwan is full of people like Vasu who were discarded by Indian society and didn’t just find sanctuary here but built it. “Anandwan was made by people from whom the disease had taken away everything,” says Sheetal Amte, Vikas Amte’s daughter.

Once as we were walking, Sheetal called out to a person named Rajappa, who was a little ahead. His nose, eyes and hands were all deformed. She introduced him as “our chief engineer who has built all the houses in Anandwan.”

Sheetal and her brother Kaustubh are the third generation of the Amtes. She has studied medicine. He is a chartered accountant. Like their father, this was a calling that came to them inevitably. Sheetal got her trial by fire in 2006, in the oddest social service project, with leprosy survivors working on behalf of distressed farmers. Vikas Amte had decided that he wanted to do something about the spate of farmer suicides in Vidarbha and, almost immediately, with a group of Anandwan inmates headed to a village called Mulgavan in Yavatmal district. Sheetal too joined them. They stayed in a graveyard for a year. She slept in a bus. They told the farmers about what they had done successfully in Anandwan. Simple things like watershed management and multiple crops. “At the time, farmers we worked with used to get Rs 10,000-15,000 per acre. They are now getting three crops where they used to get one. They now make Rs 80,000 to a lakh per acre. They managed to do it through their own hard work,” says Kaustubh.

Everyone who can work works in Anandwan. Baba Amte insisted on it. You could treat the leprosy in the body, but the only way to remove the disease from the mind was to make people feel whole again. People live in Anandwan in communes with a common kitchen and common plots of land that they till. Many families consist of patients who married other patients. There is also another institution at work—inter-disability marriages. Like inter-caste and inter-religion, couples with different disabilities marry and complement each other. Sadashiv Tajne, 59 years old, with the reputation of having the loudest voice in the region, is a polio victim who cannot walk. He came here as a boy after finishing his tenth standard. He learnt a number of trades, finished his graduation and then his post-graduation by practically walking on his hands to class. “After I finished my studies, Baba Amte told me, ‘You can now get a job and earn a salary, but what sort of life is it that a person leads for himself? Your education does not solve the problems of the handicapped in the world’. I asked him what I should do. He immediately put me in charge of one of the projects,” he says. Tajne also fell in love with a deaf-mute girl in Anandwan and married here. “Every year 40 to 50 marriages take place here,” he says. Tajne is now the manager of an orchestra made up of the handicapped and the formerly ailing, of blind singers and paraplegic mimicry artists. For a man who cannot walk, he is on the road much of the time every year on tour. The orchestra once collected over Rs 1.5 crore when Anandwan was in need of funds.

On the way back from Hemalkasa to Anandwan, we took a detour to Somnath. It is spread over a verdant 1,300 acres and its story is the same. In 1967, after the government gave this barren piece of land to them, Baba Amte came here with his sons and 10 leprosy-cured patients. And did what they always did. They dug for water, they cut the rocks, ploughed and made the land fallow. I went on a drive through the land and saw an abundance of fertility—crops of many hues, endless vegetable patches, manmade reservoirs, an irrigation system using rainwater harvesting. Somnath is now the granary that feeds Anandwan and their other projects. But there has also been one key change. The leprosy patients who created all this are becoming old. Somnath now has to rely on paid labour.

This is the challenge facing the Amtes. Leprosy is still a huge problem in India (half of all new cases in the world are in India), but it has diminishing priority for the state. Anandwan survives entirely on donations. Government funding is nowhere near what is spent on a person living there. Recently they had a small victory, though. The Maharashtra government grant was Rs 15 per person per day for a rehabilitated leprosy patient, an amount unchanged since 1993. It was not even a fraction of what the actual expenses came to. Repeated representations to increase it had not worked. Sheetal and Kaustubh tried something different. They collected comparative figures and found, for example, that government hospitals spend Rs 51 for a single meal on their patients. For a leprosy patient, it was only Rs 7.5. Armed with such figures, they went to Delhi and asked politicians and even the President to write a letter to the Maharashtra government to revise the amount. The strategy worked and it was increased four to five times. It is still less than what Anandwan spends on each inmate. And no needy person is turned away from here. There is always a shortfall in the annual budget. Recently they started a drive to create a corpus of Rs 55 crore so that the interest could make up the deficit. But what they got came nowhere near that number.

Meanwhile, the population of Anand- wan ages. Nearly a third of them are in the late evening of their lives. The third generation of Amtes have questions before them their father and grandfather would have thought irrelevant. Like the use of marketing or hiring of professionals. Since Baba Amte first came to Anandwan in 1951 with his wife, two sons and six leprosy patients, an estimated 2.3 million needy have been assisted. They still keep coming. Some stay for months, some years, some decades, depending on their need, deformity, social condition and family’s acceptance. And Anandwan’s doors remain open.