The man who changed the definition of ‘social worker’- Dr. Murlidhar Devidas Amte surpassed ‘volunteering’ long time back when he recognized his mission in life while others of his age were busy counting their salaries. Born in a wealthy family on 26 December 1914 he earned his degree in law and was adoringly referred to as ‘Baba’ by his parents. Later ‘Baba’ Amte literally became the father of many downtrodden souls. While practicing law in Wardha district he came across the miserable and pitiable state of people from lower socio-economic class. He abandoned his tailored dress and started working with rag-pickers and sweepers in Chandrapur. India, in 1942 saw the uproar caused by Quit India Movement where thousands of patriots took to streets against the Raj. Baba Amte being a defense lawyer by profession and nationalist at heart was jailed for his participation. Taking inspiration from his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, he practiced his principles for the rest of his life and even got a ‘charkha’ and donned ‘khadi’ clothes. In 1946, he married Sadhana Guleshashtri, who like him was blessed with uncanny talent of helping people and reaching to their souls.
Baba Amte was distressed by the prevailing condition of leprosy patients in India. At the time leprosy inflicted people were looked down upon and the unbearable condition of their illness only encouraged wrath of others. Not surprisingly many of them welcomed death with open arms. Once returning home on a rainy evening he saw a hunched figure lying on the side of road that could have easily been mistaken for a bundle of rags. However, after a few moments later he noticed the figure moaning and went for a closer look. The sight immediately repulsed him. The man before him was a last stage leprosy patient dying in agony. The man had no fingers and maggots all over his body. The scene before left him terrorized and he ran home. However he could hardly run away from himself. He loathed himself for being such a coward. He felt immensely culpable for leaving a dying man in rain. Guilt-ridden he went back to the man, fed him, covered him with a blanket and even built a shed out of bamboo to keep the rain away. Tulsiram, the man who scared Baba Amte but then gave his entire life a goal to achieve was the first leprosy victim to die in care of Baba Amte. This was not the end but rather beginning of a very tiring, inspiring, arduous undertaking of a task. Baba Amte couldn’t quite shake of the feeling how a dying man could have scared him to his wits- for he was the man of strength and daring. Gandhiji called him ‘abhay sadhak’, the seeker of truth. And yet this one incident left him in a self-doubt, questioning his own identity and disposition. Next six months were spent in futility as he searched for answers. The only logical solution for him was to live with leprosy patients. He undertook a leprosy orientation course in Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine after which he set up 11 weekly clinics for the disease infected people. However, he felt this wasn’t enough. The people affected had no confidence in themselves or even desire to live, the life out of them had been sucked out and with expensively limited drugs there was no hope for the poor. In 1951, government awarded Baba Amte 250 acres of land for his social work. Infested with reptiles and covered with shrubs and bushes with a rocky texture, the only well 2 kilometers away, the land was of practically useless. Nevertheless, he saw it as his future. With fourteen rupees in his pocket, a cow and dog and his entire family in tow he set to work. They named this place as ‘Anandwan’- the Forest of joy. Never complaining about his chosen lifestyle he worked with leprosy patients, showed them a better way to live, gave them hope, lit their lives with light and made them efficient to earn one square meal a day. Earlier struggles were replaced by joy and happiness as people found their homes at Anandwan and a father in Baba Amte. Steadily economy sustained and facilities grew in scale. A rehabilitation center that began in a hut, today, is a self-sustained, model village managed by people who were shunned by the society.
Many national as well as international nations and organizations have unanimously praised and acknowledged his contribution towards the welfare of humanity, betterment of mankind and improvement of downtrodden. He has been accredited with United Nations Human Rights Prize, the Ramon Magsaysay award (1985), the Templeton Prize (1990), the Gandhi Peace Prize and many such countless humanitarian awards. His contribution to the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1990 at the age of 76 is definitely note-worthy. Yet his greatest contribution to the society will always be ‘Anandwan’.
In 2007, Baba Amte was diagnosed with leukemia that left him immensely weak and fragile- a condition that was alien to him. After fighting the disease for more than a year this messiah passed away on 9 February 2008 at Anandwan itself.
After reading his biographies and endless research for this article I am still unable to comprehend as to what drove this self-less man to work for the less fortunate and dedicate his life to their well-being. Was it the encounter with Tulsiram that changed him? Was it his belief in the eternal and gallant work as the only medium to help others? Was it the great, noble men like Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bahve, Sane Guruji, Rabindra Tagore that continued to inspire him? Or was it simply his golden heart that couldn’t sit idle as millions around him suffered? In the end all I can do is ask questions as to his motivations, try to seek their answers and then test its authenticity or I can take inspiration from this noble man and actually do some good to the society.