By: Victoria Yates
Murlidhar Devidas Amte, best known as Baba Amte, was born on the 26th of December 1914 into a wealthy family in Hinganghat. His father worked for the British government in revenue collection and administration within the district and the children grew up in a privileged world. Despite his fortunate position, Amte never conformed to the caste expectations, playing with the children of the servants and not allowing the rules of who he could interact with to impact his behaviour.
After school Amte trained in law and grew a successful practice in Wardha that included representing underprivileged groups. Around this time his political feelings also started to emerge, joining the struggle for freedom from the British Raj and using his profession to defend leaders of the freedom movement from British authorities. Amte also spent time with Gandhi, getting to know the leader and becoming an avid follower of Gandhism for the remainder of this life.
With his wife Sadhana Tai, who also came from a wealthy background, he renounced his money and set up a small community in Warora where the couple lived with untouchables and low caste people. One of the cases that Amte took on was to represent the sweepers’ union in a fight over salaries with the local municipality. Sweepers are a caste in India whose job is to clear the human waste that builds up overnight and to dispose of it. In order to understand his clients, Amte worked with them for several weeks, a role that meant carrying baskets of excrement on his head.
It was during this period of the 1940s that perhaps his greatest legacy began. One night when he was walking home from work Amte came across an emanciated man on the side of the road. The man, Tulshiram, had a very serious case of leprosy and was dying from the untreated wounds. Amte reacted by running away. At this time in history there was still no cure but the fear that he felt haunted Amte. However rational a reaction, he couldn’t sleep that night thinking about how he had responded. The next morning he went back and built a shelter for Tulshiram, nursing him for several days until he died. Amte recalled this moment as when he found his true calling.
Tai and Amte decided to dedicate their life to working with people with leprosy. Amte travelled to Kolkata and talked his way into the basic training given to doctors about treatment (though at this point it was only treatment of wounds not the disease itself). While there, he offered himself up as a guinea pig. Leprosy only impacts humans, and as such animal research to learn about the disease wasn’t possible. Amte was injected with the bacteria but it didn’t take, science would later learn that not everyone is susceptible but at the time Amte was exposing himself to huge risk.
Returning to Warora the pair initially began a mobile clinic but soon realised the needs of the population went far beyond wound treatment. In Indian society these people were outcasts at the brunt of society’s attitude towards them. The government granted them a plot of land and there they, along with their children and the first six leprosy patients, started Anandwan, a community for those with leprosy, the marginalised, and the disabled. Starting as a hospital the grounds now include a huge infrastructure including a college, school for the blind and deaf, an orphanage, farmland, an old people’s home and factories. It is a self sufficient community where individuals can come to live and work in return getting housing and food. Amte and Tai’s vision was of not simply helping but empowering people.
Amte was deeply involved in other social causes during his lifetime, starting a satellite project in an underprivileged area that had a large tribal population and working closely to shine a light on environmental and ecological injustices throughout the country. In his lifetime he organised two Unit India movements to try and create greater unity nationally, travelling for years to different towns and promoting the peaceful coexistence of people and with nature.
In 1988, Amte invited leading environmental activists from all over the country to put his weight behind the Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement, who were fighting the uprooting of villagers and farmers by the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
Baba Amte was honored with numerous national and international awards. The Government of India presented him with the Padma Shree Award in 1971 and then the Padma Vibhushan in 1986. These were followed by the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1999.
Today his sons continue to run the various operations Amte started. He died at 93 on the 9th of February 2008 in Anandwan.
Baba Amte was a passionate activist whose leadership has left a staggering legacy that continues to help and inspire people across India and beyond.