“After my tour in the tribal belt of the Madias, I feel the intensity of injustice right down to my toe-nails.” – Baba Amte
I read somewhere: “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
I’ve an obsession for seeing beautiful and unusual places. Hence my trip to Hemalkasa.
Many thought I had lost my mind to go to the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra – an economically backward and under-developed region plagued by Naxalite (Maoist) violence. The same people don’t have a good opinion on the other activity that I frequently engage in either – mountain climbing. As far as they are concerned, it is a useless and risky activity. However, just like mountain climbing, they have no idea how rewarding this journey was for me and I hope that this article helps them to understand.
It was my dream to visit the world renowned doctors, Prakash and Mandakini Amte, at Hemalkasa, ever since they stayed with us in Toronto back in June 2007. I was quite ignorant about their work prior to that and after learning about it, I had promised myself to visit them on my next trip to India. The doctor duo have devoted their entire life for the well-being of the tribals – the Madias and the Gonds – of the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.
Dr. Prakash Amte and Dr. Mandakini Amte
The doctors are recipients of Magsaysay Award (2008).
Journey to Hemalkasa
Mr. Kaustubh Amte (of Anandwan) was kind enough to arrange an early morning breakfast for me and a ride to the point from where I could catch a bus to Hemalkasa. I will never forget the genuine hospitality shown by everyone I came in contact with at Anandwan.
See my for more information on Anandwan.
To get to Hemalkasa from Anandwan, it is best to make your way to the place where the Nagpur-Chandrapur road intersects with the Warora road (it is a “T-junction”, and only a few kilometers ahead of Anandwan chowk). From the T-junction, look for the Aheri bus; it is about a 4-hour journey.
Upon reaching the Aheri bus terminal, look for the Bhamragad bus. It is best to get to Aheri before noon as there are only two buses after noon and, according to the locals, it is not advisable to take the last bus, which is around 16:00. Ahire to Hemalkasa is 60 km and takes approximately 3 hours. Ask the bus conductor to stop at Lok Biradari Prakalp, Hemalkasa, which is about 1.5 km before Bhamragad.
The bus route from Nagpur is as follows:
Nagpur – 150 km – Chandrapur – 18 km – Ballarshah – 120 km – Aheri – 4 km – Aallapalli – 60 km – Lok Biradari Prakalp, Hemalkasa – 1.5 km – Bhamragad
The 12:30 bus to Bhamragad from Aheri must have been cancelled because I ended up waiting for around two hours for the next bus. That gave me the opportunity to have lunch at a near by restaurant. The flies in the restaurant kept me busy while having lunch. The owner of the restaurant cautioned me not to miss the next bus (around 14:30) as the last bus to Bhamragad (around 16:30) would not reach Hemalkasa until after dark.
Apparently, the jungle road to Hemalkasa is not safe due to threat of Naxalite (like Maoists) attacks. Generally, there is no danger to the State Transport buses, but private vehicles, especially those used by the police (Scorpios?), have to be wary.
When asked if it is safe to go to Hemalkasa, he said it is safer here than in your cities. In light of the attacks in Mumbai by AK-47 wielding Pakistanis on November 26th (2008), he was right.
I enjoyed the journey from Aheri to Hemalkasa. However, it was a journey of pleasure and pain. It was exciting to go through a dense forest in one of the remotest areas of Maharashtra (Gadchiroli district). I was hoping to see, or at least catch a glimpse of, some wild animals, but luck was not on my side. As I learned from Dr. Prakash Amte later, there aren’t many animals left in the forest for anyone to see. What is a forest without animals, but like a home without children, or a rose without scent?
On the way I saw many trucks loaded with bamboos to feed the largest paper mill of the region. It was also sad to see many trees being cut down; these will eventually make their way into our homes as furniture and other things. Dr. Vikas Amte had described the process as “clear felling” in which a large forested area is fully cleared of trees, after which not a trace of the original forest is left. The timber from this forest is known to be of the highest quality.
Apparently, the forest of Gadchiroli and neighbouring districts was the Dandakaranya forest from the great Indian epic, Ramayana, composed by sage Valmiki. I’ve read the English version of this epic and remember how Valmiki vividly describes the birds, animals and rivers of this forest. It is indeed sad that this place of immense natural beauty and wealth is being destroyed to feed our insatiable hunger for material things – all in the name of “development”.
I do think that our definition of development is somewhat twisted. Why does development necessarily run the course that is opposite to nature? Are our cities in which we live in a very unsustainable way, more “developed” than our self-sustaining villages that thrive alongside nature? Anyway, I’m digressing, so I will say no more.
Story of Hemalkasa
Entrance to Lok Biradari Prakalp, Hemalkasa
The idea of setting up a centre for the tribals of Gadchiroli had taken root in Baba Amte’s mind when he saw that a huge social injustice was being done on them by the government. The tribal people lived in the forest as if they were still in the stone-age. There were no roads, electricity, schools, or health care services – all of this in a post-colonial India that was supposedly “progressing”. The area being sparsely populated was completely ignored by the government as there were no political motivations to develop the region.
Baba had selected and acquired a parcel of land where a river ran nearby. Gadchiroli (Vidharbh) being in the extreme hot zone (summer temperatures in the mid to high 40 degrees Celsius), the proximity to water was important. I remember Dr. Prakash Amte saying that Baba had chosen a site that was close to a water source, yet far enough from the river so it would not be affected by the swelling of the river in the rainy season.
Baba required someone who was dedicated and willing to stay in the area, preferably a doctor. In Dr. Prakash Amte’s words, in the early seventies, Baba took him to the forest for a “picnic”. Dr. Amte knew his father well and realized that Baba was testing him. He promised Baba he would work for the tribals.
Thus, Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) – People’s Brotherhood Project – was established in 1973. The project was named after a small tribal village – Hemalkasa – that was near the first hut that was built.
Making Contact with the Madia Gond Tribal People
The Madias and the Gonds were virtually cutoff from the outside world and lived in isolation. Their only contact with the outside world was with unscrupulous forest contractors and forest guards who exploited them. For example, salt was traded with them in exchange for the more valuable gum from trees. Poachers also used the tribals for their own agendas.
Needless to say, such exploitation by the so-called civilized people of our society led the tribals to distrust the “modern man”.
When Dr. Prakash Amte first came to live in the forest in 1973, he had trouble even approaching the tribal people. The tribals would run away in fear as soon as they saw him in his modern clothes. Any person wearing modern clothes was only there to exploit them as far as they were concerned. To gain their trust, Dr. Amte decided to shed his modern clothes and dress like them.
Without being able to communicate with them, there was no way to further gain their trust. With the help of the most educated tribal man he had befriended (one who had passed the 3rd grade), he learned to speak in Madia, the tribals’ language, which has no script.
From that point on, there was no stopping him and his wife, Dr. Mandakini Amte, who joined him one year later, after finishing her work obligations in Nagpur. She has been with him every step of the way. As they say, behind every successful man, there is a woman. I wonder if Dr. Amte would’ve accomplished everything he did if he didn’t have his wife by his side? Sometimes I wonder what I can accomplish if I had someone like that by my side. Am I that lucky? Only time will tell…
The tribals, who once practiced shifting cultivation, were taught modern farming techniques by Dr. Amte. Dr. Amte also got the government to dig several bore-wells in the tribal region plagued with water shortages. The hand-pumps of the bore-wells were of an inferior quality and soon after they were installed, one of the pumps broke down, rendering the well useless.
Dr. Amte decided to fix the hand-pump himself as getting a government technician to the region would have taken weeks if not months. Initially, it took him some time to figure out how it worked but he did manage to fix the pump. As more and more pumps broke down, he traveled to areas where the pumps were located and fixed those – thus establishing a good rapport with the tribal community.
Thus, what started with a single hut in 1973, is now a sprawling complex comprising of a hospital, a residential school and an animal orphanage/rescue center. It should be noted that most buildings at Hemalkasa have been built by the leprosy-affected people from Anandwan. Dr. Vikas Amte’s still carries out construction work at Hemalkasa.
Lok Biradari Prakalp Dawakhana (Hospital)
The board reads: Lok Biradari Prakalp Hospital
Tribal patients prefer sitting under a tree on LBP grounds, than inside the hospital
As I entered the LBP premises, I saw a few tribal people on the ground; some were sitting under a tree, while others were sleeping or being tended to by their loved ones. These were the patients of LBP hospital. In spite of having enough beds in the hospital, they preferred the ‘under-the-tree’ accommodation, which was more in line with their nomadic lifestyle.
Even patients who have just given birth or have had an operation prefer to recover out in the open
Like most things in life, even comfort is relative. What is comfortable for city slickers like us is not necessarily so for forest dwellers. I later learned from Dr. Amte that the tribal people prefer to recuperate outside even post-operations and postpartum. Put simply, they feel suffocated inside the four walls of a hospital room.
With their highly resistant immune systems, they are much less likely to catch infections while recovering outside than we are.
For the visiting family members of hospitalized patients, there was a large semi-open area near the hospital where they could cook their own food and spend the night.
A shelter at LBP for the family of hospitalized patients where they can stay and cook
The hospital at Hemalkasa treats 40,000 tribals every year – free of cost. Medicines are provided for free, operations and surgeries are done for free, and food too is provided for free to the hospitalized patients. The hospital serves tribals from 1000 villages in a radius of 150 km. Tribals have been known to walk for 2 days to get treatment at LBP hospital; they come from as far as 200 km away.
However, Dr. Amte wasn’t an instant hit with the tribal people. The tribals had more faith in witch doctors than they did in modern medicine.
An epileptic tribal patient once had a seizure and fell into the fire and got severely burnt. Dr. Amte had dressed his burns and he had recovered. The man became a sort of “walking advertisement” for the Amtes. This led to good word-of-mouth publicity and more and more tribal people started coming to him for treatment instead of witch doctors.
There was incredible pressure on the Amtes to get positive results, as any negative outcome of a treatment on a patient would have resulted in bad word-of-mouth publicity, which would have been detrimental to their cause. It would have also reinforced the tribal people’s faith in witch doctors, who for obvious reasons viewed Dr. Amte as competition.
Cerebral malaria, tuberculosis (TB) were some of the common illnesses among the tribals. Because the tribals lived in the forest, snake bites and black bear attacks were also very common.
One such story of a bear-attack victim was told to us by Dr. Amte. A bear typically attacks the face by biting it with its powerful jaw. A middle-age man had come to Dr. Amte after one such attack. The bear had literally pulled the skin of his face and his eyes were pulled out of its sockets.
Victim of black bear attack (picture courtesy of LBP)
An assistant of Dr. Amte fell unconscious after seeing the severely disfigured and bloodied man. Dr. Amte cleaned and treated his wounds while the injured man sat calmly and patiently without uttering a single word (anesthesia was not available).
Dr. Amte has immense respect for the tribal people’s ability to tolerate physical pain. Even their young children are no exception in that regard.
The blinded bear-attack victim survived for a year, but later succumbed to an infection.
Today, malaria and TB are still common, however, the number of bear attacks have gone down as the bear population has decreased significantly. With the increase of migrant workers (probably employed by mining and logging companies), cases of water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid are now rising.
The tribals, who call the forest their home, take care not to contaminate the water supply by defecating near the rivers. However, the migrant workers are doing just that due to a lack of awareness on environmental impact. The rise in water-borne diseases can be attributed to this.
Snake bites are still common. If the victim (or his/her family) does not know the snake species, they bring the snake with them to get treatment. Dr. Amte said this is because the anti-venom to be given depends on the type of snake, and the tribals now know this.
When Dr. Amte gave us a tour of the hospital, I was amused to see an air-conditioning unit in the operating room. Dr. Amte explained that in the old days when him or his wife were operating on a patient, they had to have an assistant to wipe the sweat off their forehead, to keep it from dripping on the patient. With summer temperatures at Hemalkasa crossing the 45-degrees Celsius mark, it became necessary from a sanitary/safety point of view to install a/c in the operating rooms.
Operation theatre, LBP Hospital
Dr. Amte’s viewpoint on medicines were interesting and very practical. What do we do with medicines that have expired? We throw them away. But, what really happens to medicine after it has “expired”? It slowly starts to lose its effectiveness. Dr. Amte doesn’t feel it is wrong to give someone expired medication if the alternative is to give them no medication at all and let them suffer.
The way in which Dr. Amte handled some of the problems was also interesting. For example, a ball bearing that a child had inserted in his ear was removed by Dr. Amte using a magnet. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” Sherlock Holmes would have said.
A practical and downright common sense approach is followed by Dr. Amte and his wife.
Some of the things the doctors have had to do would make even the best doctors in the world cringe. At one time it was not possible to do a Cesarean-section in the hospital due to a lack of proper equipment. So, when a pregnant woman came to them for delivery, they realized that the baby was not in the proper position for a normal delivery; it was actually sideways. A C-section was necessary, but it was not an option. So, they had to make a decision whether to save the mother or her baby. It was decided to save the mother. To do that, Dr. Amte had to cut the unborn child in pieces and remove it from her body without damaging any of her internal organs.
This was a risky operation because the last thing Dr. Amte wanted was to lose both, the mother and the child. Nor did he want the lady to not be able to conceive in the future.
When the mother woke up the next day and learned about her unborn child’s fate, she did not feel remorse and simply walked home. Dr. Amte says this is because of a high infant mortality rate in the region. Women there have gotten used to their children dying soon after birth. This is one of the reasons why they have many children.
The operation the Amtes had performed was successful and the same lady was back a year later and delivered a healthy baby.
Injection room, LBP Hospital
Extensive and detailed patient paper records are kept in the hospital. The records are first sorted by village names, and then the patient names. Before seeing a doctor, each patient is asked for his/her name and their village name. If the patient has been there before, then the record is quickly retrieved. The patient then hands over the record to the doctor when its his/her turn. The record contains details of the patient’s illnesses, diagnosis and treatment.
LBP OPD clinic – the cupboards in the background have well-organized and detailed patient records
There is a desire to computerize all the records. However, the Amtes need help with that. Anyone with the time and expertise can learn a lot – and do some valuable community service – if the project is undertaken. The records also contain a wealth of information for medical researchers as well.
Donated medicines are accepted at LBP hospital. However, they no longer accept pills in small quantities (less than 100) due to a lack of human resources to sort the pills according to the expiry date.
The LBP hospital is entirely funded by donations.
A 2-day surgical camp is held at Hemalkasa every year where doctors from all over India and from overseas, come to Hemalkasa to volunteer their services. The camps are an over-whelming success and several dozens of surgeries are done for free by expert doctors in their fields.
When I visited Hemalkasa, the Amtes were busy preparing for the annual camp. Dr. Amte said that when the 60-70 city doctors arrive, they expect everything to be ready and provided for; surgical gloves, masks, sterilized equipment, their food, comfortable accommodation etc. The preparation has to begin weeks in advance. A tray has to be prepared for each doctor containing all the items necessary for an operation.
In spite of the massive work load the camp puts on Dr. Amte, he does not want to discontinue it because many important surgeries are done in a matter of 2 days, which otherwise would have created a huge backlog for LBP hospital. Dr. Amte says the camp is also a way for city doctors to clear their conscience by “doing some good for a couple of days of the year.”
Due to a growing awareness in the cities on medical malpractice and subsequent lawsuits, the city doctors now insist on having a waiver signed by the tribal patients before doing any surgeries. Dr. Amte feels this is silly because the tribal people are mostly illiterate who cannot read or write. So, getting their thumb-impression (signature) on a piece of paper is meaningless. Nor do the tribal people have enough resources to file a lawsuit in case something does go wrong.
Amte’s Animal Ark (AAA)
Amte’s Animal Ark
Amte’s Animal Ark is an animal orphanage and rescue centre, and not a zoo.
Dr. Prakash Amte’s love affair with the animals started over three decades ago when he saw some tribals carrying two macaques (monkeys), which they had killed (for food). One of the macaques, was a mother and a live baby was still clinging to her dead body. He convinced the tribals to give him the baby macaque, which they did with some hesitation.
Since the tribals killed animals for food, he requested them to not kill any baby animals and asked them to bring the babies to him in the event they kill its mother. The tribals did as requested and soon he was taking care of lot of baby animals. As the babies were not raised by its mother, they were not fit to be released in the wild.
Some of the animals have been given names; a fox is aptly named George Bush, and a wild donkey is known as Kareena (Bollywood actress). Kareena sometimes made too much noise. Two crocodiles, a male and a female, are named Raja and Rani.
AAA started off as an animal orphanage, but has also served as a rescue centre from time to time. It has been home to several rescued animals, most notably, an Asiatic lion “presented” by Nagpur zoo. The lion eventually died of old age. AAA has also been home to several rescued leopards, tigers and other animals since then.
In the beginning, Dr. Amte used to serve vegetarian food to AAA’s carnivorous inhabitants without any untoward consequences. AAA housed a leopard, called Negal. When a hen died at LBP, it was given to Negal, who relished the non-vegetarian food. Negal’s health and spirit also improved.
From then on, whenever an animal in the neighbourhood died, Dr. Amte would bring the carcass back with him, chop it into smaller pieces, and feed it to AAA’s carnivores. LBP hospital had a kerosene-powered refrigerator (there was no electricity) used to store essential medicine. A part of it was now used to preserve meat. It must be noted that both, Dr. Prakash and Dr. Mandakini Amte, are pure vegetarians.
The way Dr. Amte handles snakes will remind anyone of Steve Irwin – the “Crocodile Hunter”. The ease with which he handles some of the most venomous snakes found in India, like the cobra, Russell’s viper and the banded krait, is a sight to behold.
Dr. Prakash Amte handling a deadly Banded Krate
Dr. Amte had a near-death experience when he was bit by a Russell’s viper while showing its fangs to some visitors. In Dr. Amte words, he was “over-confident of his snake-handling abilities and underestimated the snake’s natural disposition to defend itself.” The snake had twisted its head and bit Dr. Amte on the hand.
Instead of quickly letting go the snake, Dr. Amte held on to the snake, which allowed it to release more venom; he didn’t want to hurt the snake and gently put it back in its secure place. Dr. Amte was then given a dose of anti-venom to which, as it turned out, he was allergic.
Dr. Amte’s condition got progressively worse and he had to be moved to a bigger hospital in Nagpur, some 350 km away. It was the rainy season and the journey to Nagpur was long and difficult. He was hospitalized for several months during which time his body mass doubled due to severe swelling. He eventually made a full recovery and escaped the clutches of death. I won’t say this was due to God’s grace because Dr. Amte, like his father, Baba Amte, is an atheist.
LBP hospital keeps a healthy stock of anti-venom to treat snake bites, which are common here. Anti-venom is typically specific to a snake species. However, there is no specific anti-venom available for the banded krait, which is reputed to be sixteen times more venomous than a cobra, thus making it very dangerous to handle. A bite will almost certainly kill a grown man.
Every fortnight, Dr. Amte or his volunteers, go out in the forest at night (as it is the best time) to catch snakes to feed to the two banded kraites kept in AAA. Banded kraites are cannibalistic and eat other snakes. Frogs and rodents caught in the vicinity of Hemalkasa are fed to the other snakes.
Dr. Amte’s grandson, Arnav, who is the son of Dr. Digant and Anagha Amte, is one lucky child to be growing up in the lap of nature. He accompanied his grandfather while the latter gave us a tour of AAA. Arnav has vast knowledge of the animal kingdom and absolutely no fear of any of the animals. We were all in awe when we saw him “playing horsey” with a fully grown leopard. There were several other leopards around (including a baby leopard and his mother). Like grandfather, like grandson.
As Dr. Amte gave us a walking tour of AAA, he said animals too are capable of showing love and affection. Dr. Amte said he has more trust in animals than he does in humans. Clearly, the animals trust him too. Proof of the animals’ love and trust for him can be seen when he walks in to a large secure area, without a hint of fear, where some of the most dangerous predators of the jungle are kept. He plays with leopards, hyenas, foxes and other animals as most dog owners would play with their pet dogs.
Arnav, Dr. Amte’s grandson, is perfectly comfortable handling snakes
Other than serving as a orphanage and rescue centre for animals, AAA also acts as a showcase of nature’s beauty for the tribals. The tribals, who had previously hunted the animals without taking even a moment to appreciate their beauty, are today more curious about the animals and awareness is slowly starting to creep. I’m sure the new generation of tribals, who are getting an education at Hemalkasa’s residential school, and who often visit AAA, will be among the best conservationists of the future.
To Dr. Amte, animals are more trustworthy than people
At one time AAA was in serious threat of being shut down by the government. The government showed its utter ignorance on Dr. Amte’s work by declaring it an illegal “zoo”. The issue was resolved several months later after a government official paid a visit to Hemalkasa. Shame on the Government of India!
At AAA, Dr. Amte is the midwife, baby-sitter, nursemaid, surgeon and a vet as the need arises, depending heavily on downright common sense.
Like the LBP hospital, AAA is entirely funded by donations.
Morning assembly at LBP school
Dr. Amte didn’t have a school in mind when he first came to Hemalkasa. However, he realized that if exploitation of the tribal people is to stop, then they must be empowered by education.
Hence, a school at Hemalkasa was started. The school was started by Mr. Gopal Phadnis in 1976. Mr. Phadnis is also a social worker and has been with the Amtes for over 30 years.
In the beginning, the school was nothing more than a class held under a tree for a handful of students. Mr. Phadnis would go to extraordinary lengths to convince parents to send their children to school. He would go door-to-door in each of the neighbouring villages to tell parents the value of education.
Even those children who were sent to school would frequently run away to their villages as they disliked it. He would then go to their village and convince them to return. One of those students who used to run away has gone on to become a doctor.
Today, the school is a sprawling complex, complete with a big sports ground. There are separate residences/dormitories for boys and girls. 650 tribal students are currently studying and living at Hemalkasa’s school. I attended an assembly one morning and was pleasantly surprised to see a significant number of girls among the students (40%). It’s great to see girls in rural India getting an education.
There is much incentive for parents to send their children to school. The parents, who are very poor, don’t have to worry about providing for their children while they are at school. Books, uniforms, school supplies, healthy vegetarian food and housing are all provided free of charge to all children. Rs.25,000 (US0) are required daily to feed the children. The money partly comes from government subsidies (for school only) and the rest from donations.
When children first enter the 1st grade, they are taught to wash their own clothes and rinse their own utensils after lunch and dinner. They are also taught proper hygiene habits.
A peek inside LBP school’s dormitory
A new building is being built at Hemalkasa. Senior students of the school take part in its construction once a week. This instills a sense of ownership and pride in students, and appreciation for hard work.
Students from Hemalkasa’s school have gone on to become doctors, teachers and forest officers. Most have returned to give back to their community. Dr. Pandu, the first member of the Madia Gond tribe to become a medical doctor, works at LBP hospital. The school has also produced some of the finest athletes who have gone to play at the national level.
Vocational training is also provided at Hemalkasa. I’ve seen some of the finest wood-crafts at Hemalkasa made by some exceptional artists. Clothes and purses with unique designs are also made at Hemalkasa. The artifacts are sold at various exhibitions that are held all over Maharashtra.
Dance and music classes have been recently started at Hemalkasa. I was fortunate enough to see tribal dances performed by students of Hemalkasa school. The performances were quite impressive and deceptively difficult.
You can see videos of the performances .
Most of the information provided above was learned by listening to Dr. Amte as we sat by the camp fire in front of his home.
Somebody asked him if he has experimented with “Green” or solar-powered technologies. Since Hemalkasa is in a very hot region, it makes sense to use the power of sun. Dr. Amte replied by saying that his experience with solar-powered devices has not been good; first of all, the devices are expensive, batteries are expensive to replace, devices break down often and repair-work is expensive etc. The only success with solar-power at Hemalkasa has been the use of a giant solar-cooker. But even that has to constantly watched; the position of the solar panels have to be adjusted as the sun moves.
Dr. Amte’s home
Dr. Amte also spoke about how people from all over the world have come here to help. He told us about Dr. Wani of Canada who has donated millions of rupees to the LBP project. People do not just donate money, but also their time. He told us about an American dentist from the mid-west who visits Hemalkasa every year to provide free dental check-ups and treatment to each of Hemalkasa’s 650 students. He has also donated state-of-the-art dental equipment to LBP hospital.
There are two cafeterias at Hemalkasa serving healthy vegetarian food; one for the students, and another one for all social workers (including the Amte family), volunteers, school teachers and visitors of Hemalkasa. The cafeterias are operated by volunteers. A bell rings at 07:30 announcing tea and breakfast, another at 12:00 for lunch, then at 16:00 for tea and snacks and a final one at 19:30 for dinner. The cafeteria for students operates on a different schedule.
LBP cafeteria’s volunteer cook
As we sat by the camp fire talking to Dr. Amte, a bell announcing that dinner is ready rung. Some people ignored the bell, however, Dr. Amte interrupted the conversation and suggested that everyone should go for dinner as “the cafeteria is not a hotel, and is run by volunteers, who need to eat too.” Everyone immediately left to have dinner.
Some of Dr. Amte’s most interesting stories were his encounters with the Naxalites. The Naxalites are rebels who have taken up arms against the government (and anyone related to it) for ignoring the development of the region. There is a strong Naxalite presence in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district.
From the very beginning, Dr. Amte has had to walk the tight rope, balancing between the police who often harass those who they believe have information on the Naxalites, and the Naxalites whose punishment for anyone suspected of being a police informant is to sever the suspect’s head in front of his/her family.
Dr. Amte’s philosophy is to not turn anyone away for treatment, be they Naxalites or police. He has often treated Naxalites with gun shot wounds and injured policemen as well. He has made his position clear to both, the police and the Naxalites, and they respect him for that.
He told us several fascinating stories, which he made clear were not meant to be publicized for the safety of his family. If you’re interested in hearing the stories, you may want to pay a visit to him at Hemalkasa and hear it from him.
Sachin sir, as we called him, was relatively new at Hemalkasa. He had applied for the posting of a teacher at Hemalkasa school and had got the job a few years ago. Because the salary was low, he said his intention at first was to get some experience and move on.
However, what started off as “just a job”, turned into his life. While food and shelter were provided to him at Hemalkasa, he also found loving friends, and more importantly than that, a purpose in life.
While working as a teacher, Sachin sir earned himself a reputation for his friendly nature and his efficiency in getting things done. He was relieved from his teaching duties and instead became the “go-to man” at Hemalkasa – for almost anything. Sachin sir is quite the busy man, always running errands or taking care of behind-the-scene details. He runs the shop at Hemalkasa that sells handicrafts to visitors, and is also involved in LBP exhibitions that are held in various cities across Maharashtra.
He said to me that he came to Hemalkasa for a job, but now “I have everything here. Why would I leave?” Absolutely.
I met this intelligent and charismatic young lady from Aurangabad in the evening of my first day at Hemalkasa while we (i.e. Dr. Prakash and Mandakini Amte, and some medical students from Miraj whom I had met earlier) were chatting by the camp fire outside the Amte family home. She was accompanied by her younger brother, Sudeep. In some respects, they were the opposite; Shweta was very outgoing and Sudeep was shy. However, both were very friendly and down-to-earth.
They had hitched a ride to Hemalkasa on a truck from Anandwan. I noticed their closeness with the Amte family. From their conversation it was clear that they were meeting for the first time, then how come the closeness?
I later learned that after reading Sadhana (Tai) Amte’s Samidha, Shweta was deeply moved by Tai and Baba Amte’s work for the leprosy-stricken people and wrote a very moving letter to the Amte family in which she professed to do something for their cause.
At an age (early twenties) when most boys and girls are more concerned about the latest movies and fashion trends than social causes, Shweta had single-handedly arranged an exhibition in Aurangabad in 2008. The exhibition, which received media coverage, attracted hundreds of people, and it helped raise two lakh rupees (Rs.200,000 or US,000) for the Lok Biradari Prakalp project. A laptop was also donated to LBP as a result of her efforts. The laptop is being used for administrative purposes.
Shweta is currently pursuing a Master of Computer Applications (MCA) in Mumbai.
Medical Students from Miraj
Group photo with students of Miraj Medical College
I came to Hemalkasa not expecting to meet anyone even remotely close to my age. However, as it turned out, over half a dozen bright medical students from Miraj came to Hemalkasa on the same day. In fact, we were on the same bus. Luckily, I also met Shweta and Sudeep the same evening. Indeed, it was unusual for so many young people to turn up on the same day.
Dr. Prakash Amte’s only complaint was that not enough young people visit Hemalkasa. I’m sure he must have been pleased to see all of us.
Beautiful sunset at Triveni Sangam
I had a wonderful time with the medical students and we all became friends in no time. My most memorable time at Hemalkasa was when all of us walked to Triveni Sangam – a place where the three rivers Indravati, Parlakota and Pamulagautam meet. The next day we visited the place again and had the most carefree swim in the river. How I miss those days…
Dr. Amte and his wife walk to Treveni Sangam everyday
Swapnil is a regular visitor to Anandwan and Hemalkasa and I ran into him during one of his visits. He had visited both projects hundreds of times during his college days. He said, at first, he only came over to chit-chat with the Amte family and he also liked to spend time in the peaceful environment of Anandwan and Hemalkasa.
He eventually started his own travel agency and came up with an unique idea of arranging tours to Anandwan and Hemalkasa. His tours make it easy for people (especially those living in Mumbai and Pune) to visit these projects and also help spread awareness on Baba Amte’s work. Unfortunately, most visitors are senior citizens. The Amtes would like to see more young people visit Hemalkasa.
A Teacher from Mumbai
I ran into a teacher from Mumbai who had been volunteering at Hemalkasa for several years. Like Swapnil, she was a regular visitor to Hemalkasa before she started volunteering. She now spends the entire month of January helping students with Mathematics and English. She also teaches them various shlokas.
This teacher from Mumbai volunteers at Hemalkasa for a month every year
I saw her in action. She was very patient with children and is an excellent teacher.
Future of LBP
The reins of LBP have been handed over to the next generation of Amtes. The hospital is now run by the son and daughter-in-law of Prakash and Mandakini Amte, Dr. Digant and his wife, Dr. Anagha.
There’s no doubt that, Arnav, son of Dr. Digant and Dr. Anagha, will play an important role at Hemalkasa in the future.
The day-to-day administration is looked after by their younger son, Mr. Aniket Amte.
Dr. Prakash and Mandakini Amte are kept busy by the many people who now regularly visit Hemalkasa. The number of visitors have increased substantially after they received the Magsaysay Award in 2008. The doctors still make rounds to the hospital to see the patients.
When to Visit
Weather wise, the winter months (November-February) are the best time to visit Hemalkasa. Even in January, the afternoon temperature is around 30’C. This is also the high-season for visitors. Inform them of your plans to visit well in advance.
If your schedule is flexible and don’t mind the rain, then the monsoon season (July-September) might be a good time to visit. Bridges may be flooded, so plan accordingly. It is a good season to see the rivers near Hemalkasa in their full monsoon glory.
If you want the Amtes all to yourself, then the hot summer months are the best time to visit. Hardly any visitors venture out here when the daytime highs are over 45’C.
In any case, it is best to before making plans for a visit.
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