- As a freedom fighter he became acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi and became his follower and started wearing khadi. It was around this period that he became aware of the miseries leprosy patients and were treated as outcasts and ostracized.
- Wanting to do something to not just help leprosy patients, but to enable them to live a life of self-respect and dignity, he founded the Anandwan Ashram in 1948, a community rehabilitation centre for leprosy patients where they learn how to be self-sufficient through hard work. The ashram is equipped with schools, hospitals and community centers for recreation.
- Baba Amte’s motto was “Work Builds; Charity Destroys” and thus he encouraged all the inmates of Anandwan to live with self respect and dignity and contribute towards the community life by doing whatever work they can do. He opened schools, a University, and training centers in Anandwan, he provided ample opportunities for the children and youngsters to get an education, learn new skills and become self dependent and stand on their own feet.
- He was an environmentalist who believed that humans have to live in harmony with nature, and not by exploiting nature. He motivated people to adopt a model of sustainable development that would be beneficial for both mankind and nature.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his work-oriented rehabilitation of Indian leprosy patients and other handicapped outcasts.”
Charity is society’s traditional response to the disabled, the burdensome and the backward. In contrast, in the scrub forests of Central India are four communities, built by MURLIDHAR DEVIDAS AMTE over nearly four decades, and based on the philosophy that “charity destroys, work builds.” There thousands of social outcasts have been given a chance to prosper, become productive members of the local economy and, most importantly, recapture self-respect.
Born 71 years ago into a wealthy high-caste family in Maharashtra State and educated to be a lawyer, AMTE from childhood rebelled against the social discrimination accepted by his privileged peers. He ate with untouchables and joined the Gandhian protests against alien rule and India’s caste system. A few weeks after his marriage, and with the full support of his bride Sadhana, he gave up his practice of law and management of his family estate and resolved to devote his life to helping society’s castoffs. Conscience stricken by the fear and loathing he felt when he chanced upon a dying leper, he studied the disease at the School of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta. In 1951, with his family, six leprosy patients and a lame cow, he moved to 20 hectares of rock-strewn, tiger and scorpion infested wasteland in Chandrapur district and established Anandwan, “Forest of Bliss. ”
The small band’s first task, a 10-meter well, took seven weeks. “We had more tears in our eyes than water in the well,” AMTE observed. Building hope and self-respect while reclaiming and planting the land, the pioneers within two years achieved food self-sufficiency.
Today, AMTE and his elder son, a physician, manage at Anandwan a flourishing 200-hectare complex. In stone, brick and cement buildings-constructed by volunteers and residents—are a 1,600-students college affiliated with Nagpur University; a 300-student agricultural college; schools for the blind, for the deaf, dumb and physically handicapped and for leprosy-afflicted children; an orphanage; a home for senior citizens; and housing for some 2,000 people. Also included are a general hospital, two community bio-gas plants, a bank, post office, community center, Gram Panchayat (local self-government), vocational centers offering training in 16 crafts, and a 125 hectare farm. Quality marks Anandwan products, from handloomed textiles and carved furniture to prize-winning cattle and high-yield seeds. Of India’s some four million leprosy patients, well over 100,000 have been treated there, and thousands of them and other physically and socially handicapped have become productive.
In 1957 AMTE established Ashokwan, now occupying 40 hectares south of Nagpur, and a decade later Somnath, on 526 hectares also in Chandrapur district. Like Anandwan, these settlements are both rehabilitation centers for the handicapped and integrated rural developments, utilizing intensive and scientific agricultural methods.
In 1974 he founded the Lok Biradri Prakalps (People’s Brotherhood Project) to protect the tribal Madia-Gonds with whom he had come in contact as a boy when visiting the remote forests of Central India. He had been inspired by the honesty and simplicity of a people who had never seen a wheel or heard of India, and was now appalled at the destruction of their environment by the encroachment of civilization. He, his younger son and daughter-in-law, both medical doctors, oversaw the building of a hospital and developed a community health program with seven centers in the tribal area. He also provides training in practical farming methods and elementary education promoting tribal language and values. Last year he led, at a mass rally and by personal appeal to the prime minister, in gaining postponement and ret consideration of government plans for two major dams in the tribal heartland which would have flooded over 75,000 homes and thousands of hectares of prime forest.
BABA (father) AMTE, as he is affectionately called by the throng he has helped, is himself painfully crippled with a degenerative disease of the spine. Today he can walk but not sit erect, and must travel in a prone position. Still he continues to build and plan. Above all his goal is to eradicate “mental leprosy” or “psychological anesthesia. which he believes is the greatest of human limitations.
In electing MURLIDHAR DEVIDAS AMTE to receive the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his work-oriented rehabilitation of Indian leprosy patients and other handicapped outcasts.
My colleagues in conscience:
I want to fly like a Madia tribesman’s arrow, quivering with sun-intoxicated raptures, to thank you for the honor of conferring on me this highest Asian award for public service. But as I am tied to my torture-stake of pain, I am deputizing my son, Dr. Vikas Amte, to receive it on my behalf and on behalf of my big family at Anandwan: all those afflicted with leprosy, the lame and the blind, the deaf and the mute, the orphans and the homeless.
It is a privilege to accept this prestigious Award presented in the name of Ramon Magsaysay, an outstanding leader, yet a man of the people who believed firmly in their dignity, liberty and supreme sovereignty. Motivated by this mighty belief he could ensure a government that listened to the voices of the people. (Government should always be skillful in binding up the gaping wounds and drying its people’s tears.) Magsaysay had this lofty ideal in his heart—an ideal which he proclaimed and practiced in his lifetime.
I am really distressed by my disability; it is better to be healthy than to be famous. But God has given me supreme power to smile through the tears. Confidence and courage are my strongest and sharpest weapons.
Public service is not merely something that occupies the hours you are doing it, but invades all your life and experience and affects them in one way or the other. In public service people test you before they entrust themselves to you.
I never have wanted to commit the sin of turning a deaf ear to the plaintive cries of thousands of leprosy patients; of people who are physically handicapped; of people who though present in the world are absent—the deaf, the mute; of youths united only in the fraternity of frustration; of people whose intestines are gnawed by hunger, whose minds are darkened by ignorance and hatred, whose eyes open into perpetual night; of tribesmen who have remained unprotesting for an agonizingly long time. People who remain silent for a long time become a silenced minority; that is detrimental to any democracy.
I sought fellowship with the primitive Madia tribes of central India. My love for these people cleansed my polluted heart, sanctified my ambitions, sweetened my relationships, glorified my undertakings and transformed the valley of shadows in my life into the bursting dawn of eternal day. Those walking in the twilight of life, those seeking honestly the last harvest of their lives, those desiring and striving with shaky confidence to add new life to their years, those leading life in stark loneliness—I wanted to be their companion on their long, lonely voyages.
I wanted to be a contemporary of those “Lords of Conspicuous Scars”—Christ, Damien, Gandhi. I saw the imprint of those nails with which Christ was crucified on the palms of Damien and on the breast of Gandhiji. Everytime I stand in the company of a leprosy patient I see the imprint of Christ’s kiss on his forehead.
“I have infirm wings, a heart—weary and insolent, a restless will, a broken backbone but I am still not weary of long voyages and uncertain things.” Thus like MacIntyre, I will attempt to shape a community united in a shared vision of the good for man.
All service to be truly effective and of permanent value must be wrought in love. Your work is your life made visible. In public service you have to bait death in pursuit of your aims. You cannot afford to indulge in desires and pleasures. War kneads the earth with blood. In public service the distressed world begs your attention and you have to drench it with love and compassion. Goodwill and dedication alone do not suffice. Public service challenges us to discover and accept new values, new attitudes and most important, new commitments.
This Award will lead me to deeper commitments.
Now I summon my heart to my lips to thank you once again and to request you to accept the tribute of a spontaneous tear offered by the afflicted humanity of the disabled world.
“I don’t want to be a great leader,” MURLIDHAR DEVIDAS AMTE, affectionately called ‘BABA,’ declared to British journalist Graham Turner, whose More Than Conquerors records AMTE’s unselfish achievements. “I want to be a man who goes around with a little oil can and when he sees a breakdown offers his help. To me, the man who does that is greater than any holy man in saffron-colored robes. The mechanic with the oilcan, that is my ideal in life.”
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.
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