Seventy-five kilometres before we can reach Prakash and Mandakini Amte, all signs of urban India — clinics, schools, shops, roads, street lights — fade away. We have driven over eight hours and 275 km from Nagpur to the tehsil headquarters of Aheri.
From here, it is a journey back in time, as we rattle our way into the densely forested village of Hemal Kasa at the edge of Maharashtra’s border with Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
Suddenly, we are in a different landscape. The 30-acre campus of the Amte’s Lok Biradari Prakalp, with its school, hospital, clinic and residential quarters. Outside is Naxal-dominated Gadchiroli district, home to the Madia Gonds, one of the most primitive tribes in the country.
Dr Prakash Amte, in his trademark white khadi singlet and shorts, and wife Mandakini seem a little uncomfortable under the intense media attention that this year’s Magsaysay award has subjected them to. But they talk because Prakash says: “People still don’t know about our work at Hemal Kasa. Perhaps the Magsaysay honour will draw attention to this remote no-man’s land.’’
The couple, who came here 35 years ago, hope the telling of their story will ease the struggle for funds that are entirely dependent on donors’ goodwill.
It’s a story that needs to be told and re-told.
In 1973, two doctors — 25-year-old Prakash and Mandakini, two years his senior at Nagpur medical college — set up camp at Hemal Kasa, on land granted by the government. Their project was named Lok Biradari Prakalp (People’s Brotherhood Project), by Prakash’s father, the legendary Baba Amte. The couple was accompanied by a handful of volunteers and rehabilitated leprosy patients from Anandvan, the colony set up for them by Amte senior. The Amtes lived in makeshift thatched huts that served as home, clinic and store room.
Madia Gonds do not trust outsiders and the Amtes spent the next two years roaming villages, picking up the Madia language before they started getting patients — on the tribals’ terms.
“It had to be an open hospital because the tribals were not comfortable inside buildings. We had to do all our examinations and even surgeries out in the open,’’ recalls Prakash as he cleans up a gangrene-ridden leg.
But three years into the project, the patients started streaming in from as far off as 200 km — on foot or on rustic bamboo stretchers. Without adequate equipment or even electricity the couple learnt to innovate — they stitched up patients without anaesthesia, helped deliver babies by lantern light.
Electricity came in 1995, the telephone three years later, modern equipment gradually. But the open hospital remains. In the last 35 years, the clinic has maintained manual records of more than 2 lakh patients from around 1,000 villages in the area.
“It was not a romantic adventure,” laughs 62-year-old Mandakini. “The only time before marriage I had been in a forest area was on a picnic. The next time it became home. Today, I don’t think I can separate my personal and work life with Prakash.”
In the early years, there was little scope for even small pleasures like reading or a hot bath. For six months of the year, Hemal Kasa was cut off by heavy rains and the only meal was dal, rice and pickle — if that.
“We have tremendous respect for Manda Vahini because she was the only woman in the camp at the time. She and Dr Prakash handled 100 to 150 patients a day,’’ says Baban Panchal, a volunteer who has been with them since 1984.
Batch of 1976
In 1976, a makeshift school for tribal children came up with 25 students, most of whom were cajoled, even forced to join. “We started with the idea of providing medicines but soon realised it was not enough. They had no access to education and hence social change,’’ explains Prakash.
From that first batch, only one student passed his XII standard. He went on to do an MD in gynaecology and Dr Kana Madavi was perhaps the only doctor in government service to ask for a posting in Gadchiroli. He now runs a hospital in Aheri.
Close to 7,000 students have studied at the LBP school after Madavi. They include Prakash and Mandakini’s sons, Digant and Aniket, who studied here till the 7th standard. The school, which currently has 640 students, is managed by Aniket.
Prakash also set up an animal shelter. It started with a baby monkey clinging to the body of its mother, killed by the tribals. The couple asked to take care of the baby and soon had a menagerie of a bear cub, monkey, chousingha, dogs and later went on to include leopards, crocodiles, hyenas and giant squirrels.
The Naxal threat
A famous Mao saying goes thus: Social work blunts the axe of revolution. The Amtes came to Hemal Kasa nearly a decade before the Naxalites. This Maoist stronghold is off-bounds for most state ministers and hundreds have died in attacks. “The locals must have convinced the Naxals not to hurt us,” says Prakash simply.
Though he and his wife will not spell it out, both have been taken into the jungle at gun point to provide medical help to Naxals. The strife can, at any point, threaten the LBP and the work done over the last three decades, they admit.
But the Amtes still battle for survival. But then, it’s what they’re good at.