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Amte family: Epitome of compassion and service

Aug 22, 2008

Baba Amte was honoured with the Magsaysay Award in 1985. The honour now returns to his son Prakash and daughter-in-law Mandakini, who have worked among the Madia Gond tribe for the last 37 years in remote areas of western India. Prakash Amte talks to OneWorld South Asia about his journey.

More than 20 years ago, Murlidhar Devidas Amte, known simply as Baba Amte, was honoured with the Magsaysay Award. The honour now returns to his son Prakash and daughter-in-law Mandakini, both doctors, who have worked among the Madia Gond tribe for the last 37 years in remote Hemalkasa, 360 km from a major city of Nagpur in Maharashtra. Dr Prakash Amte talks to Paromita Mukhopadhyay in a telephonic interview about his journey. Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: Your list of awards is really long. The Republic of Monaco has even issued a stamp in your honour. What does the Magsaysay Award mean to you?

Dr Prakash Amte: It was unexpected. We’ve been working silently for a long time and suddenly now phone calls are coming in from everywhere. It’s a bit awkward. But of course, this is an opportunity to spread awareness on issues of the tribals in this region and an acknowledgement for all the volunteers here.

OWSA: As a child, was it tough being the son of Baba Amte?
PA: Yes, it was difficult. Baba began his work in 1951. By the time we were 3-4 years old he was already a celebrity. So people were always curious about his children and we were under close scrutiny. Once in a while, if we were seen at a cinema hall, it was talked about. Also, we had no friends. There was prejudice about leprosy and very few children wanted to associate with us. Of course, all that changed gradually.

OWSA: You and your wife gave up your careers and moved to Hemalkasa. Was it a difficult choice?
PA: It was a natural choice for me. We had grown up seeing Baba. It was in 1970, I had appeared in my MBBS examination when Baba brought my elder brother Vikas and me here to the Bhamragad region for a picnic. He was 60 then and said he was going to begin work for the Madia Gond tribe, native to the region. Baba had probably planned it. He knew the prejudices involved in the field of leprosy so he exposed us to this area.

It was difficult for my wife who had to give up her government job but she gladly agreed and moved with me to the forest.

We applied to the Maharashtra government for land in the area. And I’m really obliged to the government, which took three long years to give us 50 acres in the forest. I used the time to finish my MBBS.

OWSA: What was Hemalkasa like in 1974?
PA: Nobody had heard about this region. It was dense forest. Baba must have come here on hunting trips at a young age. There were no roads or bridges on the rivers. During the months between June-December, the region was totally cut off. The tribals were exploited, they wore no clothes, ate anything that moved. Hunger was their main issue. Sometimes, the forest officials made them work and never paid them wages.

Baba had moved here in 1973 with a small group of volunteers. When we reached there, a year later, there were just two huts and wild forest all around.

OWSA: Amid unpleasant situations and illnesses, what is it that kept you going for the last thirty-seven years?
PA: The companionship of my wife and the faith of the people. I have never seen such tolerance for pain. They come to us from a distance of 200 km for help. Sometimes when I cut their wounds, pus sprays on my face. We never had gloves, but it never mattered. When I see their foul smelling wounds turn red and healthy, that is my reward.

OWSA: A hospital, school, orphanage, assistance in farming. Is that your model of development?
PA: We wanted to provide the people here basic amenities like modern medicine and education so that they would know about their rights.

OWSA: Your 50-bed hospital treats 45,000 patients a year. How did you convince your patients to abandon their traditional doctor?
PA: For the first six months not a single tribal person came near us. Gradually, some critical cases were brought to us. It was a matter of great anxiety because if the patient survived it would open their minds and more patients would come forward. But in case the worst happened, we would fail to gain their trust.

We never asked them to abandon their doctors. We only said, this is another alternative; you can try this as well.

OWSA: The residential school has 605 students. What is the medium of instruction? How many students from the school have returned to serve in Hemalkasa or other areas?
PA: Marathi, but initially for two years we had to learn their dialect and make that our medium of instruction.

Almost 90% of the students have come back to serve in the village including my sons Dighant and Aniket. Six of them are doctors, some are working as teachers, one is a lawyer, and some have also joined the police department. Women have taken to tailoring, teaching or have become nurses.

OWSA: How do you inspire children to return to the villages?
PA: It’s all about the way we live. We’ve tried to maintain community life and that seems to work on the children.

OWSA: What do you think of the government’s move to make rural internships mandatory for doctors?
PA: It is a good move. There are limited seats, which force many to pay lakhs of rupees for private medical degrees. So they want to recover the money as soon as they start their practice, which is not possible working in villages. Perhaps, the rural internship will expose them to the needs in rural areas and many will get inspired to serve in underdeveloped areas.

OWSA: Has the government helped your organisation, the Lok Biradari Prakalp in any way?
PA: The government gave us land and forgot about us. But as word about our project spread, they began taking interest. Around 1982-83, roads were built. We got electricity after 20 years and telephone after 25 years. Now, the government has given us a grant for our school. It has helped in meeting 75% of the expenditure incurred on 640 children studying in the school.

OWSA: Tell us about the political parties and vote-bank politics in Hemalkasa?
PA: Gond kings ruled this region and so there were not many political parties here. But of late they’ve come up. We know each of the elected representatives of the panchayats in the area because they belong to the same community, but we’re not involved with any political group.

OWSA: Is there any way you are spreading this model of development in other parts of the country?
PA: We encourage students and volunteers who come here to work to undertake similar projects in their areas. Some are already working in Melghati in Amravati district.

OWSA: The list of funding agencies is mentioned on the Lok Biradari Prakalp website. But it’s not a constant source, so how does the organisation meet its expenditure?
PA: Somehow, we seem to be very lucky. We also have an animal orphanage where lions, tigers, deer, snakes, all live like family members. This has been highlighted in the press. As a result, many come to see this experiment and donate generously.

OWSA: What about the second rung of leadership?
PA: The third generation of Amtes is here. Our elder son Dighant and his wife Anagha are doctors and have been serving at the hospital for the last five years. Aniket, our younger son is involved with the school. More importantly, children from our school have also returned and are serving here. So the work will continue.

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