Excerpt: Being the Change: In the Footsteps of the Mahatma
This new book, brought out in time for MK Gandhi’s 153rd birth anniversary, features a collection of stories about people who walked in his footsteps. This piece, about the Amte family, who have worked in Gadchiroli for three generations now, focuses on the work of Digant, Anagha, Aniket and Samiksha Amte
KEEPERS OF THE FLAME
Digant and Aniket Amte had no idea how extraordinary their lives were.
Their earliest childhood memory was of living in a mud hut in Hemalkasa, a small village in Bhamragarh taluka of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, surrounded by thick forests and four rivers— Indravati, Godavari, Wainganga and Pranhita.
When Digant and Aniket’s parents, Dr Prakash and Dr Mandakini Amte, arrived to serve the Madia Gond tribal community here in the early 1970s, there was no electricity, roads or any such sign of civilization for hundreds of kilometres in any direction… Famous for its bamboo and teak, the forests are the traditional home of the Gond and Madia tribes.
… The world would discover Hemalkasa much later. Until the early 1990s, very few people knew about the work the Amte family was doing… At that time, the significance of their work was lost on the young boys. That their parents had come voluntarily to one of the remotest regions of the country to serve an extremely impoverished and neglected population was something that would dawn on them much later, when they would head to cities to pursue their higher education.
Digant and Aniket are grandsons of Baba Amte, a well-known messiah for the most impoverished, who set up the Lok Biradari Prakalp in Hemalkasa in December 1973. Baba Amte, who hailed from an extremely wealthy family of landowners in Wardha district, had studied to become a lawyer but his heart lay in service to those most in need and those most spurned by society. Baba Amte had lived in Sevagram in Wardha, the ashram where Mahatma Gandhi stayed, and was his ardent follower. He set up a hospital for leprosy patients at Anandwan near Warora in 1949, and two other facilities for the disabled and the marginalized people of the society under the auspices of the Maharogi Sewa Samiti. His two sons, the elder Vikas and the younger Prakash, are both doctors and have carried forward the work started by their illustrious father. Prakash and his doctor wife, Mandakini, came to Hemalkasa in 1974, the same year they got married. They set up their clinic in a bamboo hut and began to treat patients. Their elder son, Digant, was born on 9 August 1975. Aniket was born two years later, on 6 August 1977.
Initially, the local population was indifferent to the family’s efforts to provide medical facilities to them. Prakash and Mandakini, however, followed Baba Amte’s philosophy—that work should never be for the people but with the people. They engaged with the tribal community not as a service, but worked with them to improve the conditions.
There was a government school in Bhamragarh, but it did not have too many students… In 1976, Dr Prakash Amte set up the Lok Biradari Prakalp Ashramshala, a residential school, near his hospital. A few of his friends volunteered to teach the students. The school started with a kindergarten section and Class I. Then on, a class was added each year. When it was Digant and Aniket’s turn to head to school, it had 330 children—almost all tribal—from neighbouring villages. The Amte boys also got admission in this ashramshala.
…Prakash and Mandakini had set up a community kitchen, where meals were cooked for the residential students, volunteers and the patients who would come for treatment from far-flung villages. The Amte family, too, ate their meals here. Mandakini, along with the wives of volunteers and some local help, prepared the food, and everybody would sit and eat together….
After clearing his Class XII board exams from Anandwan, Digant studied medicine at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in Wardha… it was at the medical school that Digant was hit by the full import of how different their lives actually were… Two years later, Aniket decided he did not wish to study medicine. He took a diploma in mechanical engineering at Dyaneshwar Vidyapeeth in Pune… Digant did two house jobs in general surgery and orthopaedics after completing his MBBS. He returned to Hemalkasa in 1999 and joined his parents at the hospital. Three years later, Aniket, too, returned...
He also took up administrative work at the office and school run by Lok Biradari Prakalp, the social project of Maharogi Sewa Samiti, which had been set up by his grandfather, the visionary Baba Amte.
Meanwhile, a search was on to find a bride for the tall and good-looking Dr Digant Amte, but it was largely drawing a blank because not too many parents were keen on their daughters starting a new life in the jungles. One evening, however, Dr Prakash Amte got a call from a man in Goa, who introduced himself as Kamlakar Sadhale. He said that he was an architect and that his daughter, Anagha, who was also a doctor, had gone through his son’s bio data (received from one of their friends). She was keen to take things forward….
The marriage of Prakash Amte’s elder son was solemnized on 28 September 2003 in Anandwan… Thousands were present to bless the newly-weds. This included more than 1,000 volunteers of the Lok Biradari Prakalp and Anandwan, and the 2,000 leprosy patients who had been treated and rehabilitated by the Amte family.
Digant and his wife almost immediately began work at the hospital. Anagha, being a gynaecologist, filled a longstanding need at the hospital. She introduced Caesarean sections for difficult deliveries… Dr Anagha Amte began to work closely with expectant mothers and earned their confidence. She could persuade many to opt for hospital deliveries. This resulted in a sharp decline in infant mortality, especially among babies with low birth weight.
She also worked to promote hygiene among tribal women by introducing them to clean practices during menstruation. For this she was awarded the Sakhi SHERO award by the Vatsalya Foundation in 2018.
While Dr Digant and Dr Anagha Amte were taking the hospital’s work forward, Aniket Amte began to organize the administrative side of the Lok Biradari Prakalp. The first thing on his agenda was to start Classes XI and XII at the school. It was also important to spread the word about the work being done here. But the most pressing concern was to get the required funds to continue with the numerous projects that he hoped to introduce.
The services at the hospital, including medicines, are free and no charges are collected from the patients even for food. At the school as well, the children do not pay any fees or hostel charges. Uniforms, books and stationery are also provided free of cost. A government grant provides for 450 students, but the current number enrolled was 650…
…The brothers decided that they not only had to reconstruct the existing buildings but also add to them to accommodate the increasing number of patients in the hospital and students in the school. All this was, of course, easier to decide than execute. Aniket had to juggle funds and cut costs to make ends meet as they expanded the facilities. The media boom in the 1990s and the Magsaysay Award presented to Dr Prakash and Dr Mandakini Amte in 2008 put Hemalkasa in the spotlight... To create awareness about Hemalkasa, (Aniket) designed photo and handicraft exhibitions. He took these events to cities… to disseminate information about the Lok Biradari Prakalp and also to attract volunteers... That is how he found his life partner too.
Samiksha Godse first arrived in Hemalkasa in 2007 as a volunteer who had recently completed her master’s degree in economics… After a couple of months, Aniket was in Pune with an exhibition. Samiksha heard of it and visited the venue. The two caught up again… Once they realized that they wanted to spend their life together, they told their parents… Aniket and Samiksha got married on 19 December 2008… When she arrived again in Hemalkasa… It took her (Samiksha) one year to decide that she would take up the functioning of the school…
By 2014, the birth centenary year of Baba Amte, six years after his passing, Digant and Aniket had made major additions to the hospital and the school in Hemalkasa… The hospital now provides treatment to 35,000 patients every year. The school in Hemalkasa has 25 teachers… The school has had a makeover too, with more dormitories and a computer lab with 40 computers… Now tribal students browse national and international news, learn about new trends, and study and gather more information about themselves online — just like their peers in faraway cities…
The school has groomed many bright students, who are now doctors, engineers, in government service, in the police and the forest departments. Many former students also work as teachers or volunteers. The fourth generation of the Amtes, Digant’s sons Arnav and Ahaan, and Aniket’s son Nirzar and daughter Rumani, are also studying here…
The brothers don’t let the burden of their legacy bog them down. ‘It would be okay if people say that we are not as good as our parents or grandparents, but it would be terrible if they were to say that we brought down the family name,’ says Aniket…