- Prakash and Mandakini performed surgery and treated malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery, burns and animal bites. To conform to tribal sensibilities, they placed most of the hospital’s facilities out of doors, beneath the trees. They charged nothing.
- In 1976, they opened a school. The Madia Gonds were reluctant to send their children but, in time, the school prospered and became a center for both academic and vocational education. Prakash and Mandakini’s own children were educated there.
- Today, the Amtes’ hospital has fifty beds, a staff of four doctors, and treats forty thousand patients a year free of charge.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “their enhancing the capacity of the Madia Gonds to adapt positively in today’s India, through healing and teaching and other compassionate interventions.”
Hidden amid the dazzling human mosaic of India are millions of tribal people. For centuries, they have lived apart in remote highlands and forests. The Madia Gonds, for example, occupy 150 square kilometers of dense forest in eastern Maharashtra, bordering Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh states. In a thousand isolated villages, they survive by hunting and gathering and shifting cultivation. When Prakash Amte and Mandakini Amte arrived in their midst thirty-four years ago, the region had no modern services. Government officials considered it wild and served there only reluctantly. By contrast, the Amtes, both of them medical doctors, came by choice.
Prakash Amte grew up in Anandwan, an ashram and rehabilitation center for leprosy patients in Maharashtra founded by his father, the renowned Gandhian humanitarian Murlidhar Devidas Amte, or Baba Amte. Prakash was busy with postgraduate surgical studies in Nagpur when, in 1974, he volunteered to take over a new project begun by Baba Amte among the Madia Gonds. He and his wife Mandakini abandoned their urban practices and, in a leap of faith, moved to remote Hemalkasa.
The young couple settled in a doorless hut without a telephone or electricity or privacy. They practiced medicine beside the road and warmed themselves by a wood fire at night. The Madia Gonds, shy people and suspicious of outsiders, spurned their help at first. Prakash and Mandakini learned their language and patiently gained their trust. The miraculous cures of an epileptic boy with terrible burns and a man near death from cerebral malaria turned the tide. “Once a patient is cured,” says Prakash, “he comes back and brings four new patients.”
Beginning in 1975, Swissaid provided funds to build and equip a small hospital in Hemalkasa. There Prakash and Mandakini performed surgery and treated malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery, burns and animal bites. To conform to tribal sensibilities, they placed most of the hospital’s facilities out of doors, beneath the trees. They charged nothing.
Illiteracy had made the Madia Gonds easy prey for corrupt forest officers and other greedy outsiders. The Amtes helped them assert their rights and intervened to mediate disputes and rid the area of abusive officials. In 1976, they opened a school. The Madia Gonds were reluctant to send their children but, in time, the school prospered and became a center for both academic and vocational education. Prakash and Mandakini’s own children were educated there.
The Amtes have used the school at Hemalkasa to introduce the Madia Gonds to settled agriculture-growing vegetables, fruits, and irrigated grains organically-and to encourage them to conserve forest resources. This includes wild animals, a tribal dietary staple. The Amtes’ popular animal orphanage at Hemalkasa promotes the survival of animals as part of nature’s balance.
Simplicity and respect guide the Amtes’ work with the Madia Gonds. Prakash wears only a singlet and white shorts as he goes about his work, so as not to identify himself with “well-dressed” outsiders. Where applicable, the couple incorporates tribal cures in their medical practice. In school, children perform tribal songs and dances.
Today, the Amtes’ hospital has fifty beds, a staff of four doctors, and treats forty thousand patients a year free of charge. It is a regional center for mother-child welfare and health education. Its “barefoot doctors” bring first aid to outlying villages. The Amtes’ school, meanwhile, has grown to six hundred students and is comprehensive. Among its graduates are the Madia Gonds’ first doctors and lawyers and teachers as well as officials, office workers, and police.
“More than 90 percent of the students have come back to serve in the community, including my sons,” says Prakash, reflecting on his and Mandakini’s legacy. “Maybe it’s the way we have led our lives.”
In electing Prakash Amte and Mandakini Amte to receive the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes their enhancing the capacity of the Madia Gonds to adapt positively in today’s India, through healing and teaching and other compassionate interventions.
I am indeed overwhelmed to stand here to receive this prestigious award in the name of Ramon Magsaysay, a visionary and an outstanding leader, yet a man of the people, who believed that every living being has the right to live in liberty and happiness. It is a great privilege to receive this award at a moment when identity, whether of an individual or of a community, seems to have been threatened by globalisation, unequal distribution of wealth and natural resources no less than by growing consumerism of the haves and destitution and deprivation of the have-nots.
Lok Biradari Prakalp is a sincere effort to bridge the gap between these two worlds, that of the beneficiaries of modern science and technology and of those who live on the fringes without basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. For the Madia Gond, the tribal community living in the wilderness of Bhamragad’s dense forests, there was no world beyond the forest.
It was in the early seventies when my father, the late Baba Amte, took us to this virgin forest for a picnic. We were unaware that in his frolic was hidden a dream of extending a hand of help to those who were plagued by starvation, disease, superstition and death. Cultivation of land was forbidden here, and there was very little to eat, fit for a civilized man. Death sought them in many forms. They were helpless before the wild animals. They famished and died much before their time. Education was an otherworldly thing for them, since there was no contact with the civilized world beyond the forest. They lived in conditions no better than that of the savage man. The beauty of the surroundings was at once bewitching and bewildering, and the realities ugly enough to fracture the conscience. Here lay the challenge and I decided to accept it. Baba’s vision became my venture. My tryst with the tribal was signed during this trip. That was a turning point in my life.
Giving up my post-graduation in surgery halfway I set out to give my best to the Madia Gonds. Accompanied by my wife Dr. Mandakini, I committed myself to work not for them but to fulfil my inner urge. Like a perfect consort, she stood by my side through thick and thin.
Thirty-four years have elapsed since the inception of this project. It has grown in many directions.
It can be described as a journey from darkness to light (we lived without electricity for twenty years). We have been able to provide not only medical aid but education, and agriculture while inculcating a scientific attitude in them. This called for many hands which voluntarily joined us. Leaving behind their lucrative careers and urban comforts our colleagues rooted themselves here and chose to live in the most adverse conditions and toiled hard to make Lok Biradari what it is today. I think passion and compassion are the two important things required in any social venture. If you allow yourself to be led by them, you will reap a rich harvest. I honestly feel that a true leader is one who teaches the followers to lead themselves.
I accept this award with humility on behalf of all our fellow workers. We also declare that the Award money will be utilized for projects of the institution.