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.

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