A social entrepreneur for all time

Today I’d like to introduce you to one of my heroes, Baba Amte. He died a few weeks ago on February 8th at the opus of his life, Anandavan. I was fortunate to visit him several times during my work in India, and have this short piece to share with you all.

Anandavan, meaning forest of bliss, was created by an amazing man named Baba Amte more than 60 years ago. He was a well-to-do lawyer who left his trade to work with organizing landless laborers and scavengers against the rampant oppression of his time. One day he was walking on the road and saw a man lying on the side of the road with worms eating out the sockets where his eyes once were. The man was a leper, completely outcast from Indian society, left to rot away in his miserable existence. When Baba saw him he ran away in fear. Later, he was so ashamed by how he reacted that he decided to do something for leprosy victims. He got a land grant from the government, on an old mining quarry- of barren and rocky land. Today due to the hard work of thousands of leprosy patients they have transformed that place into a utopia for sufferers of all types- leprosy patients, disabled people, unemployed people, dalits and tribals. At present about 5,000 people live there and it has achieved recognition as a town of its own right with its own gram panchayat.

Baba Amte has been awarded basically everything that the Indian government and the State of Maharashtra can give, as well as many international awards. This man rose above governmental glamour and mainstream recognition and stuck to his principles. He had no qualms about returning any of his awards in protest of government policies. Most famous of which, he returned the Padmabhushan to the Indian government in protest of the Narmada Dam project. In fact he was one of the first along with Medha Patkar to lead the opposition to the Narmada Dam.

On one of my trips to Anandavan, I was able to take a group of youth from the Adivasi village in which I was working. During our visit to Anandavan we were very fortunate to meet Baba on the road as he was being pushed on his rolling bed around the campus for his evening walk. For the past 50 years he and his wife have gone on a morning and evening walk together religiously.

I am not exaggerating when I say this place is amazing. It is based on the philosophy that the poor and dispossesed do not need charity, but everyone needs a chance to succeed. So everyone at Anandavan, regardless of physical disability, does work. Anandavan has an amazing way of finding each individual’s talent or strength and using it for the advantage of the whole group. Thus many leprosy patients who are missing limbs, fingers, or whatever are able to work making various things or farming or maintaining the town. In Anandavan self-reliance is the central organizing principle- they make their own clothing, their own transportation, their own furniture, houses, artwork. They grow most of their own food on 450 acres of farmland. They sell a lot of their food and handicrafts in cities and towns all over the area. They recycle plastic garbage and make it into new things such as pillow stuffing, cotton, and use it in making cement. They do practical research in alternative technologies that would be good for India, particularly in rural areas, and they use bio-gas plants to cook their food. Bio-gas basically means they trap the methane and other gases that escape from the toilets and convert it into cooking gas for the community kitchens. They use all of their cow dung and cow urine as fertilizer for their fields. Their cows are enormous because they feed them fortified feed. They have ingenious water management systems that are combined water sources, irrigation, and fishing ponds. They have designed their own underwater bamboo dams that are revolutionary. They practice organic farming and the list goes on and on. In short, it’s a mind blowing experiment that is fully managed by the disposed, the outcast and the rejected people from all over the country.

The reason I brought the boys from Yerendi, one of the villages I had been working in, to Anandavan was to give them exposure to new ideas that they can start in their village. Before going we had discussed some type of trip that their youth group could take to get an idea of what they could do for their village. We decided to go and see Anandavan because of the many opportunities and rural development projects they are doing there.

Baba Amte spoke about how “confidence must rest in your wrist”. I believed that by taking these youth to a place where the disabled were able to achieve so much, they would be inspired to return to their villages to make a change, to unite around a common purpose, and use innovative, low-cost solutions to advance their village.

Baba’s brand of social entrepreneurship was not vulnerable to the faddish culture and gimickry which is so prevalent in the field today. By focusing on basic issues of justice and human rights, rooted in the dignity of the human person, he was able to catalyze a movement that was highly innovative and appropriate for its environment. In the social entrepreneurship movement today, we would do well not to jump at every passing fad but focus intensely on what has worked in the past, and adapt it to the present-day context. Baba has given us a scalable model, if we have the courage and will to try.

For more information on Baba’s organization, the MKSS click here.

Baba Amte and Me

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2 Responses

  1. […] India had a profile on Baba Amte, who also worked on helping lepers become self-reliant Economic emancipation has beckoned 16 […]

  2. […] role as a surrogate for sexual education; Baba Amte graced the obituary (ThinkChange’s own Sushil Jacob wrote his first post on this great […]

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