Saturday, November 29, 2008

Need a World Parliament

Do we need a world parliament? I think it’s time for one, given that the issues and problems and crises ripping apart nations across the globe are rooted in factors that are inter-continental and inter-national. The United Nations have no teeth, perhaps a world parliament could build political consensus among the countries democratically, on the larger issues that plague us – it may also bring about the voices of citizens to be heard.

Terror Live 24X7

Mumbai terror attack was unprecedented. It had multiple messages from the radicals, and the Indian intelligence agencies would now need to unravel and study the most barbaric and chilling terror attack on the country. For ages, the pictures from the scenes - the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi-Trident and the Nariman House - would remain embedded in the collective conscience of the Indians. There would be a lot of discussion within and by the media on the systemic flaws, intelligence failure, mishandling of the situation etc, etc.

The last three days, however, also provide a lot of scope to discuss Indian media. 24X7 news channels in particular, who were not only badly exposed for their incompetence, but also for a complete lack of coherence and understanding of the situation. Tracking the western media made more sense for those who were seeking insightful detail of the incidents than following those petulant noises on the news channels, for whom the story was not the dramatic scenes unfolding before their camera-eyes, but about themselves. One of the most fundamental lessons that one gets to learn in the newsrooms is when you report, you are just a medium. The story exists and unfolds; you are just a narrator, not a stakeholder or a character in the act. The more I saw of those channels, including the more famed ones, the more I felt sad: Indian media is abjectly ill-prepared to cover and report on such exigencies. Not only do we have dearth of talent, we don't actually have it. Most news channels were reporting their own acts of bravery, their own shock and awe, and scenes they felt could keep their ratings up. It was another sort of Media Deluge!

Thankfully, the Print stayed an exception. The newspapers indeed covered the event far more insightfully, and kudos to them.

What was however most unpardonable of the TV channels was the total lack of sense while reporting those pictures live, this - when the terrorists were no rookies and had access to some of the most sophisticated weaponry. Also, the ATS and NSG were saying that the terrorists were tracking their moves on television channels.

I was reminded of one of the biggest blunders by the reporter of a leading news channel during Kargil war. The hysterical reporter reportedly gave minute details of the positions and locations of Indian army troops, putting to grave danger the lives of troops. That was understandable. It was perhaps the first war that an infant television media was covering then. Ten years on, we are no more infants. We are just toddlers though. We committed the same mistake this time too, and much the same way, by reporting live every move that the NSG commandos, army troops and ATS was preparing for. Shivraj Patil, who would go down in the history books as one of the most incompetent and incapable Home Ministers, did not lag begind. He joined the media bandwagon by spelling the exact number of commandoes being sent to Mumbai to combat the terrorists, who had unleashed a dance of death, and other such detail.

There should be no space in reportage for ifs and buts, and theories of "we believe", "we hope", "we understand", "could be" or "would be" while telling stories live.

If you don't know, you don't know. Simple. There's no harm in saying that some time. But as one saw the coverage, one got confused, if the reporter was sharing information, or his/her own thought or belief!

Would there be any debate on such media: their role, their positions? Perhaps no. Would there be some introspection within the electronic media. May be, yes. But specific beats that gave journalists to study and research the complex issues of out times have ceased to exist long ago. Saste mein mast! And who has got time for research or study?

I am terrified at the thought of how insecure our future is. Not because of terrorism or terrorists, but because an ill-equipped, un-trained and incompetent TV media are shaping a collective public conscience and opinion through a totally superficial content.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Voice From The Woods

By Jaideep Hardikar
August 15, Hemalkasa, Gadchiroli:

Little has changed over 35 years in this part of the country, except that there’s a better road and mobile connectivity in literal sense. Yet one or two showers are enough to snap both for days during monsoons, as it did earlier this month.

On the mental plane the distance between Hemalkasa and the rest of the world remains what it were in the 1970s – that was when legendary Murlidhar Devidas alias Baba Amte expressed his wish to start working among the Madia Gonds, and his son Dr Prakash Amte volunteered to join him with his bride Mandakini.

While there’s been a notable change in the way the Madias now see the outside world, there’s ironically hardly any change in the way outsiders view Madias.

Explains Dr Amte: “There’s more awareness among the tribals about education, health and economy, but the opportunities are far less and far between.” The Amtes remain a pillar of hope and service for a tribe living centuries behind the urbane India here in the dense forests of south Gadchiroli, 350 km from Nagpur.

Amtes never broke the simple rule that the tribals follow in the forest-ecosystem: Man can co-exist with animals, but he has to be a part of the ecosystem. This wisdom remains the basic tenet of life in Hemalkasa: Don’t confront; connect.

That’s why when you follow the 60-year-old doctor on his daily routine, all that you ask yourself is how often in a day does one break the simple rule of nature – to live and let live. “This one’s banded Krait,” he tells you while deftly lifting a yellow-colored sluggish snake from a tank and holding it with care. “It’s 19 times poisonous than cobra,” he informs you. “It won’t harm you unless you harm it.”

A couple of year’s ago, Dr Amte survived a major scare: Russel’s viper, a poisonous snake, bit him as he was educating the daily visitors at his animal orphanage, rescue and rehabilitation centre.

“Perhaps, he did not realize his grip on the snake had eased a bit while talking to the visitors,” says his son Aniket, who looks after the school administration now.
By the evening, Dr Amte’s blood pressure dropped alarmingly and he was gasping for breath as the snake venom circulated in his blood.

Next morning he was fighting racking pain, for his life, in the ICU of a private hospital in Nagpur. It took him ten days to come out of danger, and his family to overcome the scare on his life. Through out those ten days, Dr Mandakini did not panic. Neither did Dr Prakash express the pain he experienced.

“It was my mistake; I broke the rule and troubled the snake, it was not at fault to bite me,” an unassumingly simple Dr Amte said smilingly when he got back to his work. Animals don’t hurt you, if you don’t hurt them; they understand the language of love – that’s the first lesson that he is teaching his grandson, five years old Arnav. That’s the lesson he learnt over the years and has tried imbibing in thousands of visitors. Karuna (love), he says, was the teaching of Baba (Amte).

It’s a spectacle to watch him caress Jaspar, the Hyena, or George Bush, the fox, or bear. It used to be a grand feast for the tribals from surrounding village to see the doctor couple and their volunteers take ‘Negal’, the first tiger of the centre, to a nearby river on morning and evening walks in the eighties, without a chain. The animals – from tiger to leopard to hyena to dogs to wild cats to owls – co-exist with man clinging on to a common thread of love in Amte’s animal orphanage.

In the early seventies, when the Amte couple started working among the Madia-Gonds of Bhamragarh, animal hunting was very much in vogue. After a decade of their work, their appeal to the tribal not to kill the animals worked wonders.

“They stopped killing the animals, but brought the injured and orphan animals to us, and we had to tend to them here,” Dr Amte informs. “I wonder how these wild animals understand our language,” he says, “it’s a mystery.”

Dr Amte’s morning round of the animal orphanage and hospital after breakfast at 7.30 am, is an education: One by one, he enters the cages to cuddle the animals and feed them. Each animal here has a history. “This had got separated from his mother and trapped, villagers brought him here,” he says of Jaspar, the Hyena.

Two Leopard cubs have arrived recently from Nashik. And surprisingly, the two are playfully gelling well with their senior counterpart Raghu in the orphanage.

The giant squirrels hop on to his shoulders to eat nuts – these are extinct now. The monitor lays sluggish in its cage. All the animals in the centre, christened Amte’s Arc by a visitor, are in pink of their health, personally cared by Dr Amte.

Don’t break the nature’s rule, which is don’t confront. Just love, and you will get the results. At five, Arnav has no inhibitions. He is learning from his grandpa that the rule of the nature is supreme. One has to honour and obey it.

Then he treads slowly to the out patient department, where tens of tribal patients wait for him patiently, and he starts conversing with them one by one in Madia – the language they learnt, to be part of the eco-system and culture.

“This man,” he points to a man squatting on floor of what’s a shade for the patients, “he has come from Sironcha, 170 km.” The man’s nothing but a bundle of bones with slender skin cover. “He’s severely malnourished with tuberculosis."

Patients come from remote parts of Gadchiroli and neighbouring Chhattisgarh, some time all the way walking, to the Lok Biradari Prakalp hospital, which is an indication that the government hasn’t put in place the public health care system in those parts, now infested with the Maoists. The government’s norms to grant a primary health centre are peculiar: A PHC is granted based on population. This is an area, where the tribal population is scarce but scattered over several miles.

“Approval for new roads is easy to come by from the bureaucrats sitting in the Mantralaya, but if you ask for a new PHC or a new school, it’s difficult,” admits a senior officer at the divisional health department office at Nagpur. “In that sense, the mental distance between the Mantralaya and Gadchiroli remains the same.”

What’s remarkable is the distance the Amtes have traveled to win the faith of the tribe. “It took us years to win their trust,” recounts an ever-smiling Dr Amte.

Now, as Dr Digant informs, the patients plead with them to treat them at the LBP hospital despite its limitations. “Last week a woman came walking for three days from a remote village of Chhattisgarh to us. Her right was precariously hanging from a shred of vein; it was almost dislocated from the elbow. A crocodile had attacked her in a river, and we wanted to refer her to Chandrapur immediately. But she insisted on staying here and told us ‘do whatever you want to, but don’t send me anywhere else’. We had to amputate her hand with local anesthesia, though it may have been saved. And she happily went back after recovery.”

The LBP hospital continues to get some of the most bizarre cases, and the Amtes continue to tackle the medical exigencies with resilience and sincerity, despite the limitations. “Some times we refer the cases to our doctor friends in the cities like Chandrapur and Nagpur, and they treat the patients free of charge. We can’t expect anything more. We feel very indebted at such times,” says Dr Amte.

For the tens of daily visitors to the LBP, an animal rescue centre and orphanage that was christened by a visitor as Amte’s Arc, remains a major attraction, which in a way also underlines the way urban visitors perceive the work.

“There are exceptions too”, smile the Amtes, “tens of serious visitors also come here to study the tribal life, understand the developmental paradigms and our model of health care, which really gives us encouragement to work on.”

“When we began our work here, we had no expectations; we still don’t have any expectation. It’s the love and faith of the community that is overwhelming for us and people from all over the country and world have supported us,” says Amte, 60, as he discusses their journey into Hemalkasa until now and the ways ahead.

One of the most inspiring changes that their work has brought about among the tribals is education: there have been six doctors from the tribe in the vicinity, and all of them were groomed in a modest school that the couple started in 1976. Also the population rate, which was on decline then, has begun to significantly rise.
The LBP residential school has grown from 15 students in first batch of 1976 to 650 today, giving free education to all the children up to HSC. That opens up a little chance to join the mainstream economy and come out of perpetual poverty.

In terms of approach, Anandvan and LBP are poles apart. “Anandvan is very outwardly and mammoth in its expanse and work, whereas ours is a localized and very inwardly approach,” explains a much-relieved Dr Amte, whose sons Dr Digant and Aniket now shoulder most of the responsibilities of the project.

While Digant and his wife Dr Anagha tend to the OPD and healthcare, Aniket is looking after the administration and school project, with a professional outlook.
“We have started in a small way vocational training for tribal children taking the education in our school, to hone their traditional skills,” informs Aniket. The LBP is also going places through its exhibition, again a brainchild of the two brothers.

Breaking the jungle rule!

Increasing Maoist violence is now a growing concern for the Lok Biradari Project. The Amtes came as outsiders in this region and became one with the ecosystem. But two outsiders came in the eighties – the Naxalites, who pretended to be the liberators of the poor tribal population, and the police, who claimed to be their protectors from the armed-naxalites. While the two detractors fight with the guns Hemalkasa gets sandwiched. Amtes never speak or grudge about it, but one can sense their work is suffering in the face of fear and death all around their centre. Three sub-centres of the LBP hospital located in remote hamlets of Bhamragarh closed down, because the tribal staff feared being apprehended by both, the Maoists and the police, for no fault of theirs. The mobile unit run by the hospital can’t travel into the jungle for the same reason. While the two sides fight for supremacy, the tribal life goes for a toss without much improvement in life.

Comrades in arm!

Hemalkasa grew on the simplicity of the Amtes and their comrades in arm – five couples, who gave up a thriving career in the cities to embrace the mission. Vilas Manohar and his wife Renuka were among the first to join them in 1974. Gopal Phadnis and wife Prabha looked after the school since 1975. Jagannath Machkale walked 60 km to Hemalkasa in 1974 and never went back; he heads with his wife Mukta the Lok Biradari Nagepalli project, a base camp for Hemalkasa LBP. Then, Manohar and Sandhya Yempalwar are working as volunteers since 1982 with the LBP hospital. Tens of other individuals come from different parts every year to this place and contribute their bit to the Amtes’ mission. Some of them are part time teachers, or part time doctors, donors or simply the self-help volunteers.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

'My father was opposed to our marriage'

It's not easy to forgo the comforts of a cushy urban life to shift to a jungle to serve the tribals – that too when you are a doctor, with a promising career ahead. But 35 years ago she chose to tread a road less traveled and go with her heart. Giving up a comfortable Nagpur life, she chose to join her fiancĂ© on a mission. At 62, Dr Mandakini Amte nee Deshpande has come a long way as a completely transformed person. As she puts it: "I would have been a lecturer in college or private doctor, but my marriage with Prakash completely changed my life for the better."
The couple's three decades of tireless and selfless service for the betterment of Madia-Gond community in the remote and disconnected areas of Gadchiroli has won them this year's Ramon Magsaysay award. DNA caught up Dr Mandakini in their Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) at Hemalkasa, Gadchiroli, 325 km from Nagpur. A peep into her astonishing journey:
Q: How does it feel to win the Magsaysay Award?
A: It's a big award, and I am very happy; it is sort of an acknowledgement of our work. But we never expected it.
Q: Does it change your life or work in any way?
A: Yes, it does. Our work will reach more people outside our own world. And it will eventually help us to serve the community here in a better way.
Q: You came from an urban family. And you had to leave that life immediately after you finished your medical education, so how did it all begin?
A: After my MBBS, since I had no interest in gynecology, I had decided to do my post-graduation in anesthesia while Prakash was on his job in surgery after his MBBS. That's when we met. We worked together in the same operation theatre. That's when we found our values matched and we gelled well, which finally led us to a decision of marriage. Prakash had informed me that he would be working in some forest area. That was when I had no idea about forests or the work of his father (Baba Amte). I had heard of Anandvan and Baba, but had never visited Warora. My ideas about forests were lofty and rosy. I thought it would be a place like Chikhaldara (a hill station in Amravati), and I came from a staunch RSS and VHP background; my father was a hard-cord RSS man. When we decided to marry, Baba (Amte) called me over in Anandvan and asked if I was ready to live with Prakash in a jungle for the rest of my life. I said yes, I am. He stamped it.
Q: Did your parents agree to your marriage? Particularly your father…
A: (Smiles) No, they were dead opposed. My father feared that I would have to live among the lepers and in those days, there was great taboo around leprosy. It still remains very much a taboo. He was very opposed to our marriage initially, but when he saw I was firm, he gave his consent, and we finally got married.
Q: When did you come to this place, Hemalkasa?
A: We were yet to get this place at that time. But we came for our honeymoon here to see the area (smiles); we had stayed in the house of a forester, which was very comfortable. I had completed my post-graduate diploma in anesthesia but Prakash was yet to finish his post-graduation, so we went back to Nagpur where I took up a job of lecturer in the medical college, while Prakash went back to his studies. In the meantime, Baba came to Hemalkasa after the government gave him land and began a small centre with the help of volunteers from Anandvan. Prakash did not complete his post-graduation since he was not interested in the general medicine, and decided to shift here. I was angry with his decision not to complete the course. But he was not convinced. So I gave up my job and we came to Hemalkasa. That was in early 1974. There was a small shade and a hut, where we lived. It had one small room and a store, where we would stack foodgrain.
Q: Social work is not everyone's cup of tea. And with your background, how did you take it? Was the decision to come here difficult?
A: No. Once I had decided and made my commitment, there was no hesitation or resentment at any point of time. My marriage with Prakash changed my life, and for the good. I am very happy about it. The journey has been tough but of thrill. We have learnt lots of things together on the way. And I am happy my children – Dr Digant and Aniket – too have joined us in this journey. India still lacks in the passion for social work. But there are young people who want to serve people.
Q: It must have been a very difficult phase for you both. What were the initial challenges that you had to face in such a remote area? How did you cope?
A: It was difficult and challenging, but we faced it together slowly. There were no roads, no electricity and no water. We would fetch water from a nullah, boil it and keep it for a day before it could be potable. Snakes and reptiles would be all over our living space. The Madia-Gonds would fear the civilized people, so we had difficulties in connecting with them. They would run away from us. This phase of great difficulty remained for about two-and-a-half years. In monsoons, the area would be cut off from the rest of the world for four five months. But we had been joined by volunteers, who came from Anandvan, to work with us. First we tried to learn the language of the tribal community here; we took the help of local foresters and built our workable dictionary. Then, we went to the villages walking to try and establish some connection, offering them medical help. We had to farm to grow vegetables and paddy for ourselves; for me it was totally new. We'd work in the clinic to treat patients and in farms to grow vegetables.
Q: When did the breakthrough with tribal villagers come?
A: A Madia boy, who was suffering from epilepsy, was burnt 40 per cent when he fell in fire in an attack of fits in Hemalkasa village. The parents had tried with village remedy, but when his condition worsened they gave up hope. We asked them if we could take him to our clinic for treatment, they allowed, and we treated him with modern medicine. In five months, he got cured. We also began treating him for epilepsy and he showed drastic improvements. When the village saw our medicine worked, the first impact had been done. Others started coming to us thereafter. There were also times when we could not cure serious cases like cancer patients, patients with snake bites in last stage… they'd stop coming then. But as we kept treating patients, villagers found our medicines worked; their trust in us grew with time. People come from far flung and remote areas now.
Q: Did you not face limitations? You got all sorts of patients – from fractures to deliveries to snake bites…
A: We did have limitations, in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicines and we had to gauge what are the things that we could do with our knowledge. But this was a very, very remote and backward area, with no facility of any kind. When patients came, they came with full faith in us and felt we could treat every disease – from an infection in the eye to cancer. We had no choice – either we treated them or they died. We could not consult other doctors, because there was no facility, or refer the patients to city hospitals, because they had no money or means to go to a city. So we studied and read from medical books, learnt things, and charted out our ways through the challenging problems to cure patients.
Q: Did your work and service change your parents' perception?
A: Yes, they were very proud of what we were doing, though many of my close and distant relatives did not come here for the first ten years.
Q: Science believes in logical explanation. But as a doctor did you every feel compelled to believe in miracles?
A: No. I never felt there's anything called miracles. It is science, and one has to apply his or her knowledge with full dedication, and you get the results.
Q: The name 'Amte' has a larger-than-life image. Is it difficult to live up to the family name?
A: No, it's never been the case. Baba (Amte) was very motivating.
Q: How do you think you have influenced the people you work with?
A: I think there's a sea change in their awareness levels today than what it was when we came to work here. There's more awareness about education now. But I have learnt more from them – about life, about nature, about living.
Q: What, in your view, should be done to improve public health system?
A: The doctors and staff must work sincerely, it will bring a change. Also, there has to be some rethinking on the way we run our medical education. If only the affluent families send their children to the medical colleges, no one would come to the villages and remote areas to work, because it's now become money game.
Q: Your daughter-in-law, Anagha, a doctor by profession, joined you in the Lok Biradari Prakalp, following on your footsteps. How does it feel?
A: I am very proud of her. She responded to the matrimonial advertisement that we had placed in a newspaper for our elder son, Dr Digant. The only condition was that the girl should be willing to live in Hemalkasa; she approached. Now she's handling the cases as we did in our initial days; both of them, in fact.
Q: Does Magsaysay change your life or your work in any way?
A: It'd be with renewed vigor that we'll work. There's still a long way to go…