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.


nandini bedi said...

Indeed the work of the Amtes is very inspring.Your article is well written. Would you know how I could find information on the Madia Gonds before the Amtes came to Hemalkasa?
Could I have your email id? Thanks,

Unknown said...

Nandini, please check the site of Lok Biradari Project and you will find it a very informative one.

Anonymous said...

Nice, informative, and positive, rare in today's media.

Aditya Malgaonkar said...

But I strongly feel animals belong to Wild and not to cages ... no amount of human 'love' can compensate the agony of living away from the Forest .. alls well if they are really orphaned and not caught by the madia-Gondhs after killing their parents.

Aditya Malgaonkar said...

And I would never encourage people to handle Sankes even though i have handled several. That poor creature must be Shit scared when someone is lifting and palying aroud with it .. and Mr. Amte can handel sankes dson't mean everyone can ... one mistake with a banded krait and you are dead for sure.

Kaviva said...

Lovely article.

I have been to Hemalkasa many years ago. The sight that had greeted us was - Dr. Amte's pom dogs, a monkey, the leopard and the lion, all eating rice out of a common huge plate. I have seen Dr Amte with the yellow Banded Krait with its friend the rabbit which was supp to be the snake's food but it befriended because it was not hungry at the time! Love and harmony is on the air at Dr. Amte's. Then, I have seen a python lovingly strangulating him (its nature) and Dr Amte blood draining out of his face. Met his fav crocodile. Seen the bhalu go on rampage in the backyard trying to coax the leopard to join him in the fun :-)
Truly, Dr. Amte's place is like Eden as in Phantom comics, where man and animal lives in complete peace and harmony.
Everytime I tell people abt my experiences there, I get these incredulous, un-believing looks.

This article revived my memories of the place. Wonder if things are still the same there, with so much naxal activities, and the dam...