Luminaries: Amte, Prakash

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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.

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