Deep in the heartland of India, in an isolated tribal village called Hemalkasa, Dr. Prakash (Baba's younger son) and his wife, Dr. Mandakini Amte, have quietly been performing miracles on a daily basis, for the past thirty years. The Samiti's work with the primitive Madia Gond tribal people has gained international recognition.
In 1971 Baba Amte trekked into the jungle with forty young people. In 1973, barely a year after he had undergone surgery for his back problem, Baba pitched a tent at Hemalkasa, a place deep in the forests about 350 kilometers south of Nagpur. Lok Biradari Prakalp (Brotherhood of the People) was born.
Located in Bhamragad, in the Gadchiroli district in the state of Maharashtra, it is part of the Dandakarayna forest reserve; a lush green forest with a very low population density. The area is inhabited by the Madia Gond tribals. It is also physically separated from "civilization", and consequently has not been not of much focus of government spending as it is not an important "vote bank".
Baba Amte's concern for the Madia Gonds of this region goes back to the time he hunted with them as a boy. They are among the most backward tribals, depending on forest produce and wild creatures for food. For treatment they often resort to medicine men and witch doctors. When the Amtes started their clinic they found that a witch doctor, probably fearing he would lose his practice to these interlopers, had strung up a row of headless sacrificial cocks on the site.
At the time Lok Biradari was formed, illiteracy in the area was almost total, and medical care was unheard of. Shifting cultivation was the only kind of agriculture the tribals knew. Getting enough food was a constant struggle. Malaria (and lethal "cerebral malaria") was a constant scourge, as was wild animal attacks. Their sole contact with the outside world was through forest contractors and forest guards who spared no opportunity to exploit them. Tribals collect bamboo for them as well as tendu leaves used in the bidi (cheroot) industry. Poachers and traders roam the jungle for priceless skins. The region has now become the focus of militancy by Naxalites, a rural guerilla movement waging a running battle with the government on behalf of the rural poor.
When Lok Biradari was established in 1973, Baba Amte's experiment at harmonious community living at Anandwan was already a success story, against all odds. In 1967, Baba has set up another project at Somnath, which also became a success in spite of some opposition from the locals and adverse rocky and forest landscape. Hemalkasa (Lok Biradari) was the third experiment in a much more remote and inhospitable territory.
What started with a single hut, and a school held under a spreading tree has become a resounding success. Dr Prakash, and his wife, Dr. Mandakini, fresh from medical college, went to Hemalkasa. They told Baba they would spend the rest of their lives serving the Gonds. Prakash gave up his studies to specialize in surgery and Mandakini gave up her government job. There were two grass thatched huts, one for them, and the other for their co-workers. Neither had doors, and curtains served the purpose of providing some privacy. There was no electricity, wells had to be dug, and land cleared. During the monsoon they were cut off from civilization due to flooding. This couple faced many years of struggle with severe hardships, shortages of food, medicine and susceptibility to many diseases. Gradually, the hardships decreased and a community of workers came together based on a shared bond with the local people, the wild animals and the abundant fauna and flora. This community includes Renuka, whom Baba and Tai had adopted as an infant, and her husband Vilas Manohar. Vilas later recorded the enriching explorations of the Hemalkasa family in a popular Marathi book entitled Negal, Tiger Cub.
The last 25 years has seen significant changes in the region, in most part driven by the efforts of Lok Biradari and its volunteers. Lok Biradari runs a 50 bed hospital that caters to 40,000 patients each year from 1,000 villages in a radius of 150 kilometers. There is a also residential school for tribal children. Settled agriculture has now been adopted by the tribals, growing vegetable has become common (traditionally they grew only millets and rice), and watershed management projects are in place. The project is now spread over 50 acres including the boarding schools for tribal boys and girls, and living accommodation for 119 workers, and 593 staff and students.
[ Tribal Ashram School ]
A residential school was started in 1976 for the tribal children, offering free education to over 500 students. The children receive education in their own tribal arts and crafts and also get an opportunity to earn while they learn. It was really difficult to get the free spirited children to sit still. They live in the forest, and did not initially like studying. But due to external pressures, the Amtes felt it was necessary to provide them with at least basic skills so they did not get cheated or duped by urban traders and forest guards who took advantage of the Madia Gonds. Only if the tribal people were educated, they would know their rights as modern society closed in on them. The average percentage of students who pass is 70%. Two tribal students from this school have become doctors (M.D.) and are working for the tribals.
When the Lok Biradari Prakalp was set up in 1974, a school formed no part of its plans. When Dr. Prakash and others realized how important it was for the Madia people to withstand the abusive system, they also knew that it wasn't enough merely to teach them to read and to write. They had to be taught better methods of agriculture, better health care and hygiene so they would be less dependent on outsider traders. In theory, many villages in the area had a school. But a posting to Bhamragad was often a punishment for government teachers. Over the years, most of the teachers posted to the area schools would maintain shops near the school and spend their time running the shops rather than teaching. The tribals, on their part, did not have any tradition nor knowledge of the importance of literacy and did not mind at all the absence of functioning schools in the area.
When the residential school project was started by Hemalkasa in 1976 by Gopal Phadnis, the hospital had been in existence for three years and had earned a reputation for itself and for Lok Biradari Prakalp. Mr. Phadnis and his co-workers went from village to village canvassing to the parents to send their children to school. The parents were initially suspicious but there was one attraction: staying at boarding school would mean food for their children.
There was no money to buy supplies. There were other problems too - the only school textbooks they could use were in Marathi (the state language) but the children knew only Madia (the tribal spoken language). Another problem was that the children had no experience of being in school the whole day. They came from villages quite a distance from Hemalkasa, the farthest from 25 km away. Sometimes the children used to run away from school without informing the teachers, who then had to go to their homes to fetch them.
The Amtes knew how 'development' was making the life of tribal communities more difficult. Two major hydel power projects were coming up in the area around Hemalkasa the Inchampalli dam on the Godavari River and the Bhopalpatnam dam on the Indravati River. These projects would submerge about two lakh acres of land, half of which was prime forest. In 1984, with Baba Amte's leadership, thousands of tribals marched to the District Collector's office demanding that the projects be withdrawn. Eventually a combination of this local action and lobbying in the corridors of power led to the cancellation of these projects. Despite all the challenges, this made it exceedingly clear that the next generation of tribal children must know their rights as citizens of a democratic country and education would be key.
In addition to formal education, agricultural extension activity formed an important part. Traditionally, the Madia Gonds grew no vegetables and grew only millets and rice. Their diet is poor consisting of rice, jungle leaves, bamboo shoots, roots and tubers, and flowers of the mohua tree (Bassia latifolia) from which they also brew liquor. They will kill and eat anything that moves‹rats, frogs, deer, bears, monkeys, snakes, pythons, monitor lizards, and every kind of bird Lok Biradari began its agricultural reform activity by distributing hybrid paddy varieties, vegetable and fruit seeds. Students in the Lok Biradari school were taught improved agricultural techniques, and in turn these students served as ambassadors in their own villages. In due course of time, this has been of immense value and has started a silent revolution in agricultural practices in villages in the region, and the government has moved in support of the activities.
Another example of developmental work initiated at the school teaching the students how to repair hand pumps. Earlier, the tribals had no supply of clean water because the few hand pumps installed by the government would fail for want of maintenance. Initially, Lok Biradari volunteers would undertake the repair and maintenance but in due course the students were educated in this work and helped their home villages becoming self-dependent. Two of the Madia Gond children, Pandu Pundati and Kanna Dobi, studied in the Lok Biradari school and have gone on to become doctors and serve their own people.
Number of students: 513
Number of Teachers: 12
Number of Tribal Girl students: 133
Number of Tribal Boys: 380
Boy/Girl Ratio: 2.85
Student/Teacher Ratio: 42.75
In additional to formal education, the following kinds of non-formal education/training is provided to the tribal students:
1) Training some tribal boys as "Bare Foot Doctors" (provide first-aid and simple treatments in neighboring villages)
2) Vocational training in Bamboo Craft, Greeting Cards etc. (some sort of simple livelihood methods)
3) Training in Farming and Horticulture (for dissemination in neighboring villages)
[ Tribal Hospital ]
"Compassion has no utopia, party or ideology"
- Baba Amte
Every year Drs. Prakash and Mandakini treat over 40,000 tribals. They have been doing this work in extremely difficult circumstances for almost three decades.
The most common ailments are malnutrition, cerebral malaria, sever anemia, sickle cell anemia, diaharrea and dysentery. Malaria, filaria, tuberculosis, dysentery and skin infections are common. Cases of snakebite, and savage attacks by bears and other wild animals make the work extremely challenging
Today many carry their sick to the Hemalkasa hospital, some walking fifty kilometers through thick jungle and difficult terrain. Heavy rain and swollen streams often make it impossible to travel. All services are offered at no cost to the patients and most of the medicines are also provided free of cost. The project needs medicines worth over Rs. 20 lakhs annually (around $42,500).
Prakash comments in an interview, "Even if someone is willing to donate equipment or a building, we find the ongoing operational costs impossible to sustain. The cost of x-rays, lab work, or upkeep is too expensive for us. We cannot expect our patients to even pay for a simple test."
In 1995 Prakash and Mandakini Amte were significantly honoured when the Principality of Monaco released a stamp featuring the couple. This was to commemorate 40 years of the release of a stamp honoring Albert Schweitzer. The Amtes were described as "the Schweitzer couple of India." No other Indians have been thus honored abroad.
Besides the treatments in the hospitals, surgical and diagnostic medical camps are organized over the year. During these camps doctors not only from India but also from all over the world come to Anandwan and Hemalkasa for the necessary treatment and diagnosis. The doctors perform their skills under difficult circumstances. The facilities in the rural areas are not to be compared with those in a normal hospital. Electricity failure is daily recurring event rather than an incident. Still the results of the operations and the camps are outstanding with little to no complications.
The impact of the Amte's work is clear to see:
"Today, instead of going to a 'Vaidu' (witch doctor) for treatment, the tribals come to the project hospital. Life expectancy has increased. There has also been a fall in the superstition level and the sacrifice of animals has gone down. The awareness level of the entire region has gone up tremendously. This is a very satisfying fact."
[ Amte Animal Ark ]
In the early days, Dr. Prakash was accompanying some visitors to the shrine of a tribal deity named Bablai when they met two Madia Gonds carrying macaques they had shot with their bows. One, a mother, still had her little one clinging to her dead body. Prakash asked for it and after some hesitation the men agreed. Prakash named her Babli after the deity. Saved from the tribal cook-pot, she remained part of the Hemalkasa family for nine years. She usually perched on Prakash’s shoulder as he worked, hung on his arm, or clung to his vest. This, and other stories have been immortalized in Vilas Manohar’s book, Negal.
In the introduction to Negal, Vilas says:
"I think wild animals have a right to live as much as we have, and are capable of love and affection. To hunt is their nature and they live by it. Even so, no wild animal kills or bothers anyone when it is not hungry. It does not hoard like humans do. To satisfy our greed we are encroaching on their territory every day, and if the wild animals resist we brand them aggressors. Dr Prakash brought up these young animals like children and I helped him. We can never forget the moments of love and joy we were fortunate to have in their company."
The Hemalkasa sanctuary has helped change the attitude of Madia Gonds to wild creatures, but only to a limited degree. The government has made little effort to help alter their patterns of sustenance through dairy farming and agriculture. They are therefore still heavily dependent on hunting for their food.
Several species of deer have been raised at the sanctuary among them the curious little Mouse Deer—turre-- as the tribals call it. It is the smallest Indian deer, just 25 to 30 cms high at the shoulder. Olive brown in color, it has three white stripes round the throat. It runs at startling speed. Rarely sighted in the wild, it is close to becoming extinct because of the destruction of its habitat.
Both men had to learn largely by trial and error in handling their numerous orphans. Later, well wishers sent them books. They are midwives, baby-sitters, nursemaids, surgeons and vets as the need arises, depending heavily on downright common sense.
They were to see many unusual friendships between species. Pilloo a bonnet marqaque was befriended by their dog Kalu, who carried him about everywhere on his back. A lion cub, presented to them by the Nagpur zoo, was befriended by a crossbred female pup with whom he spent much time. If the puppy yelped, the lion immediately came out to rescue his friend. Negal, carried Prakash’s little adopted daughter, Arati, on his back and allowed her to poke her fingers into his mouth and ears. He remained close when the baby slept and was very protective of her.
Most of the creatures brought in by tribals were orphans whose parents they had killed for food. Within five years of starting the Project, they had a number of barking deer, four neelgia, five spotted deer (cheetal) two bears, a jackal, a peacock, a monitor lizard, cobras and other venomous snakes, civet cats, porcupines, monkeys, a wild buffalo, and leopards.
They also had green pigeons, a hornbill, peafowl, and three grackles--talking mynahs. These famous birds of the Abuj Madh Hills bordering Maharashtra are soon likely to become extinct. Tribals sell fledglings to traders for Rs 300 each and smugglers in turn sell them for Rs 5000 in the Gulf. Malaysia holds annual competitions of talking mynahs and they are in great demand. Today the Project also has blossom-headed parakeets, the Alexandrine or Larger Indian Parakeet, popular as a cage-bird, the fox-winged Parakeet and other smaller parakeets.
Food, medicines, and proper accommodation for all these creatures is problematic. No funding is provided for their up-keep. Prakash and Vilas depend on donations from animal lovers. At first creatures roamed at will on the premises, but as more patients visited the Project, they had to be caged. The Hemalkasa collection isn’t like a city zoo where there is an entrance fee and animals are show-cased for public entertainment. It grew out of a perceived need. The World Wildlife Fund understood the spirit behind Prakash Amte’s work, describing the center as a "Wildlife Asylum."
Where it seemed feasible, some creatures have been returned to the wild—birds, civet cats, bears, monkeys, non-poisonous snakes. The rest are housed in cages and enclosures built on small budgets and expanded whenever possible. The only government agency which could help here is the Forest Department and so far, collaboration has not gone very far. Several notices have been served on Prakash over the years threatening to take away all the creatures housed here. Animal lovers worldwide can feel his agony to see his precious animal family in cages, rather than free in the wild. But if he releases them into the forest, they are quickly killed by hunters or sold for a profit to traders. So he continues to love them and care for them, the best he can and his lion and two panthers have lived longer than they would have in any Indian zoo or even the nearby forest.
Dr. Prakash Amte welcomes assistance to improve the conditions for his animals, but he sees terrible hardship among his human patients too, and cannot ethically divert funds raised for them, to the animals. Only if the donation is made specifically for the Amte Animal Ark, can Dr. Amte build better facilities for the Amte Animal Ark.