Image Credit : Dr. Prakash Baba Amte with his wife Dr. Mandakani Amte.
A philanthropist and social activist, Dr. Prakash Amte has devoted his entire life to the development of the primeval tribe of Madia-Gonds and their integration into mainstream society. He was inspired by his famous father and Magsaysay Awardee Baba Amte who worked tirelessly for the upliftment of leprosy patients and successfully established Anandwan (Forest of Bliss) in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. He helped create a self-sustained society for the ostracized and marginalized people giving them dignity and a sense of belonging.
Following his father’s footsteps, Dr. Prakash along with his wife Dr. Mandakani left the comfortable city life and moved to the dense forest of Gadichiroli district of Maharashtra. Here, they continued Baba Amte’s legacy in the form of ‘Lok Biradari Prakalp’, an organization which provides free healthcare assistance to the tribe and basic education to their children. Dr. Prakash and Dr. Mandakani were jointly awarded Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership; the official citation reads, for “enhancing the capacity of the Madia Gonds to adapt positively in today’s India, through healing and teaching and other compassionate interventions. Dr. Prakash has also been felicitated with Padma Shri by the government of India in 2002 and Lifetime Achievement Award from ICMR presented by Bill Gates among various other accolades.
Lokbiradari prakalp- A people’s brotherhood project: How it all started.
Dr. Prakash reminisces, that right after he and his brother had completed MBBS exams, their father took them for a short vacation at a remote place called Bhamragarh in 1970. It had a beautiful thick forest untouched by urbanization at the confluence of three rivers and took three days to reach. On visiting nearby hamlets, they met the local inhabitants, the primitive Madia tribe who were completely isolated from the modern world and were scared to contact them. They did not wear clothes, had no access to basic healthcare amenities, and were dependent on hunting for food. Baba Amte wished to do something for the betterment of the tribe and provide them with healthcare and education.
Dr. Prakash believes in the philosophy of ‘Work with people, not just for them’. After finishing their medical studies, Dr. Amte and his wife moved to Hemkalsa and put their philosophy into practice. There was no electricity or road connectivity to the place. They built the foundations of the organization Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) that was started by Baba Amte on 23rd December 1973. Gaining the trust of the local community gradually, they overcame various challenges. Dr. Prakash along with 5-6 volunteers including cured leprosy patients from Anandwan built a hut under a tree. But they were disheartened to know that none of the tribal people wanted to approach them.
They either feared or did not trust the foreign-looking, fully clothed beings. They believed in local village-quacks or witch-doctors for treating various ailments who prescribed sacrificing animals as a ritual to get cured. Another challenge that Dr. Prakash and his group had to overcome was the language barrier. To communicate with the tribe, they learned the local dialect which was nowhere close to the known languages, and learned their customs. The first patient they received was after the witch-doctor had refused to treat him. He was unconscious and was brought by a group of people who walked 25km and crossing 5 villages to reach the hut cum hospital. The team somehow managed to diagnose the condition as cerebral malaria and treated the patient with available paraphernalia. On day 5. the patient was healthy enough to walk back 25km to his village. Dr. Prakash says this acted as an advertisement for them, and news was soon spread among the tribe. This brought more patients to the hut.
Once he performed surgery on a patient mauled by a bear. He was astonished by the threshold of pain the patient could bear ho received stitches without getting anesthesia. Dr. Prakash also observed that many people in the village could not go hunting and gather food due to blindness and cataract. This led to starvation and eventually death. So, he decided to treat cataracts amongst the village folks. As the specialized doctors could neither be brought to the remote place nor the tribal people could be taken to the cities for treatment, Dr. Prakash brought his books and equipment to perform cataract surgery. He convinced an old lady that if she gets her cataract treated, she could go foraging in the forest and avoid death due to starvation. After the successful surgery, the lady became the first in the village to walk out wearing only spectacles and a loincloth. Soon after the word got out and more people started approaching Dr. Prakash for treatment.
People would walk 50 – 150 km to reach the hospital. The tribal people were undernourished and had brittle bones. Hence, a lot of patients came with fractures. Dr. Prakash would initially diagnose a fracture manually with hands due to a lack of equipment. Later he also started performing orthopedic and general surgeries, looking after ENT, obstetrics and gynaecology, and delivering babies. He also started teaching the children of the tribal people.
The Lok Biradari Prakalp has now expanded to a multi-speciality hospital with modern equipment and a hostel school which has generated engineers, teachers, and doctors who want to contribute to the cause. The school teaches over 400 tribal children. The patients are charged mere 10 rupees for healthcare and receive medicines, treatment, and food for free. The organization is funded by the donations made by people. People have also learned and farming and hunt less now.
Amte’s Animal Ark, Orphanage cum rescue center
Once Dr. Prakash and his wife Dr. Madakani happen to encounter a group of tribals returning from a hunt. They saw 2 dead monkeys tied to a bamboo stick which was going to feed the community of the tribe. On a closer look, they found the baby monkey was alive and suckling milk from its dead mother. The sight was heartbreaking for the doctor couple who were also dismayed by the plight of the tribe and discovered the significance of hunger. They offered the tribe rice for their children in exchange for the baby monkey. This was the first deal struck by Dr. Prakash. Since hunting was the main source of food for the community, the practice could not be stopped but Dr. Prakash persuaded them to bring him minors and injured animals in exchange for food. The baby monkey found a new home in the courtyard of Dr. Prakash and inadvertently became the first animal of the orphanage that was about to foster hundreds of injured and orphaned animals. The red-faced monkey was called Babli after the tribal god worshipped by the community.
Since then, the orphanage cum rescue center named Amte’s Ark is now home to about 100 animals which Dr. Prakash considers as an extended family. Babli was soon joined by a dog, baby leopard, bear cubs, baby deers, and other animals like jackals, jungle cats, peacocks, crocodiles, antelopes, giant squirrels, rhesus macaques, snakes, Indian pythons, porcupine sloth bears, eagles, neelgai, porcupines, rat tail langurs, hyenas and monitor lizards. None of the animals have intentionally attacked anyone says Dr. Prakash.
The center now also has professional veterinary doctors taking care of the animals. He also plans to breed endangered species in the near future which will be later released in their natural habitat in the wild. He feels the likelihood of more animals coming to Amte’s ark is low as hunting is reduced and people are now engaged more in farming. But the government showed concern about the living and breeding of wild animals near the village. Based on government regulations, cages have been built for the animals. The love for animals is carried on by the next 2 generations of the family who have grown up alongside the animals and do not fear them.
Due to Dr. Amte and his family’s persistent efforts, the Madia Gond tribe has earned a better livelihood and integrated well into modern society. Their life and struggles are an inspiration for today’s youth.
A true leader is one who teaches the followers to lead themselves. - Padam Shri Dr. Prakash Baba Amte