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Anandwan: A Journey from Stone to Milestone to Milestone (Part 1)

SubscribeFiled Under: India,by Neeraj

A detailed essay from my second visit to Anandwan. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Social Enterprise Entrepreneur and Scientist, Dr. Vikas Amte, and learn about the Green and Industrial Revolutions that he has brought about in Anandwan … a journey that Dr. Amte says goes from “stone to milestone to milestone.”

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

A picture of Baba Amte with his wife, Sadhana Tai Amte

A picture of Baba Amte with his wife, Sadhana Tai Amte

Baba Amte's philosophy in words...

Baba Amte’s philosophy in words…

Adarsh Society: Anandwan

At a time when the Adarsh Society housing scam in Mumbai was making headline news, Dr. Vikas Amte, the elder son of Baba Amte, jokingly said that Anandwan is “Adarsh Society” (Adarsh means Ideal). Dr. Amte said there is “no beggar, no rape, no police station and no crime” in Anandwan, a co-operative village located in the dry Vidharbha region of Maharashtra state. However, it is the things that Anandwan does have that make it so endearing. Anandwan really is Adarsh Society that showcases the best of human potential and can inspire even the most casual of visitors.

Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS) – Leprosy Service Committee – founded in 1949 by Murlidhar Devidas Amte, commonly known as Baba Amte (1914-2008), is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO). Anandwan, meaning the “Forest of Joy”, is the headquarters of MSS and is a mostly self-sustaining village built on Baba Amte’s principles of giving the less fortunate people a chance, and not just charity. It started as a place for the rehabilitation of the downtrodden leprosy-afflicted people, but has since grown to include people with other disabilities such as hearing, speech, visual as well as physical impairments. Even today, it is a place where the society’s “rejects” come to get a new lease on life and form, in Dr. Amte’s words, “a friendship of pain”, with the others at Anandwan.

"Friendship of Pain" - A blind student being accompanied by his deaf-mute friend

“Friendship of Pain” – A blind student being accompanied by his deaf-mute friend

As Dr. Amte puts it, Anandwan’s journey has been one of going from “stone to milestone to milestone” and I think one visit is simply not enough to see and understand the broad spectrum of work carried out here.

MSS has a total of 28 projects under its umbrella.

Dr. Vikas Amte: Thekedar (ठेकेदार) and Corporator of Anandwan  

“I’m the Thekedar (ठेकेदार) and Corporator of Anandwan”, says Dr. Vikas Amte, who aptly describes himself as a “jack of all trades and master of some”. He has been the effective curator of Anandwan since the 1970s and has brought about an Industrial as well as a Green Revolution. Dr. Amte is like an unseen conductor of a symphony orchestra that is Anandwan. He sometimes jokes that many people think he only does the orchestra as they see him at Anandwan’s touring Swaranandwan musical orchestra; but he says those people rarely see the orchestration that he does behind-the-scenes at Anandwan. He is the man responsible for making Anandwan into what it is today – an experiment in integrating Science and Technology with Nature – a rather successful one – and one that other villages in India should try to emulate. Dr. Amte is a visionary and a genius unlike anyone I’ve ever met.

Dr. Vikas Amte (L) on his morning walk with Mr. Kavishwar

Dr. Vikas Amte (L) on his morning walk with Mr. Kavishwar

Most recently, he was the recipient of the prestigious Lokmanya Tilak Award (2012), which is awarded to a person who strives for the well-being of society.

“We no longer treat leprosy patients at Anandwan, but the normal people”

People who come to Anandwan are not just given free medical treatment, but also a place to stay, nutritious food to eat and are given an education and vocational training, which enables them to make positive contributions to society and regain their self-respect and confidence. This is what Anandwan is all about – rehabilitation and empowerment of people whom the mainstream society has rejected. Baba had always said, “Confidence must rest in your wrist”, and Anandwan gives them this confidence.

Today, Anandwan has 139 industries all run by leprosy-afflicted people and people with other disabilities. The only thing, Dr. Amte joked, not produced at Anandwan are Oil and Gold! It’s as if people who come to Anandwan are reborn … and not just those who come to seek treatment, but also the “normal” people who will be surprised by what giving-them-a-chance can do!

The definition of sickness has evolved over the years at Anandwan. “We no longer treat leprosy patients at Anandwan, but the normal people,” said Dr. Amte.

Make My Trip

This way to Anandwan

This way to Anandwan

Our trip started from Thane from where we caught a fast local train to Mumbai’s CST station. We reached CST at around 6PM and had plenty of time to kill before boarding our Nagpur-bound train at 8:30PM.

Initially, we had planned on taking the slow Sevagram Express train from Thane to Warora; “Express” being a misnomer in this case. From Warora, Anandwan is only a 5–minute ride in a rickshaw. However, the train was painfully slow for our liking, so we decided to take an actual overnight express train to Nagpur and then catch a bus to Anandwan. I will have more practical information on planning a trip to Anandwan at the end of this article.

On the train, we met a mother and daughter duo who had come to Mumbai for seeking admission at one of the educational institutions. As we made some small talk, the mother asked us where we were going and when we said “Anandwan”, she excitedly replied with “Oh, Shegaon?” We said, “No, Baba Amte’s Anandwan”. With a confused look on her face, she replied with “Baba Amte, okay, okay…” This was surprising given that she was born and raised in Nagpur and had spent her entire life there.

Still on the train, I woke up at 6:00 AM only to find out that our train was 1.5 hours behind schedule. In spite of being a non-stop express train from Mumbai to Nagpur, our train was still running late. Apparently, it had made a few longer than normal technical stops.

When we alighted at Nagpur at around 8:45 AM something seemed oddly different but I couldn’t put a finger on it. Then it hit me; there were no auto rickshaws, only cycle rickshaws at the railway station. This was due to a strike to protest implementation of electronic meters.

We decided to have breakfast at one of the many similar style food joints near the station before moving forward. We picked the one that appeared to be the cleanest and busiest. The poha and kachori that we ordered were very bad. It was so bad that we found a dead mosquito in our poha. We showed it to the waiter who seemed to think it was no big deal. The manager also down-played the issue and offered a 5-rupee “discount”!

We then hailed a cycle rickshaw to the bus depot that was around 2-km from the station. Upon reaching, we didn’t have to wait long as we found a Chandrapur-bound bus that departed soon. The two-lane highway from Nagpur to Anandwan Chowk (Square) was excellent! The highway obviously had a major improvement since my first visit back in January 2009.

From Anandwan Chowk, Anandwan’s main entrance is a mere 5-minute walk away and its main office building is about a kilometer away. We decided to walk this distance as no rickshawwala was willing to drop us to the office for a reasonable fare.

It was 12:30 PM when we met Mr. Sitakant Prabhu, the Chief Guest Coordinator at Anandwan, in front of Anandwan’s office. He quickly ushered us to the canteen for lunch before its closing time. He advised one of his helpers to show us to our room after finishing our lunch. We were to meet again at 2:30 PM for a tour of Anandwan after resting for a bit.

Anandwan Guesthouse – Home Away From Home

The "U" shaped guesthouse where all rooms open to a beautiful garden

The “U” shaped guesthouse where all rooms open to a beautiful garden

Anandwan’s U-shaped guesthouse building is a brain-child of Dr. Vikas Amte. Although it may now seem obvious to have a guesthouse given the number of daily visitors at Anandwan, it wasn’t so clear in the early days. Dr. Amte and his father, Baba Amte, had differing views regarding the use of MSS funds for building guesthouses. However, Dr. Amte, a visionary, saw the need for it and had them built. As I learned later, this was not the only disagreement Dr. Amte and his father had over the years regarding the development of Anandwan and other MSS projects.

The inside of one of the guestrooms complete with 4 single beds, attached bathroom and toilet and even central air-conditioning!

The inside of one of the guestrooms complete with 4 single beds, attached bathroom and toilet and even central air-conditioning!

The guesthouse, only a few steps away from the office and canteen, has several well-maintained dormitory-style rooms with all the basic amenities. There is also a beautiful garden courtyard and drinking water coolers for the guests.

After freshening up, we reached the office by 2:30 PM where we were introduced to Mr. Pramod Bakshi who would be our guide for a tour of Anandwan.

Shraddhawan for “Son and Daughter of Soil”

Mr. Bakshi first took us to Shraddhawan, the burial place of Baba Amte (“Baba”) and his wife, Sadhana Tai Amte (“Tai”). Cremation is the norm in India; however, Baba wanted his body to be buried after death. He believed: “Every bit of my body should be of some use. Burial makes the body useful for the micro-organisms in the soil as against ash immersion in rivers which pollutes the water. Moreover, the wood used to burn a body can be used to cook food for 1,000 people!” (MSS Quarterly Newsletter, July 2009). The “Son of Soil” is now part of the land for which he toiled day and night since 1949.

A visitor paying respect to Baba and Tai Amte's burial site

A visitor paying respect to Baba and Tai Amte’s burial site

We learned that in Anandwan a sapling is planted whenever someone is buried – this way people continue to have their friends and relatives, reborn as trees, and at the same time it helps save the environment. Over the years, the area in which the saplings are planted has grown into a forest.

It is interesting to note that both, Baba and Tai, passed away on a Saturday on the ninth day of the month. It was Tai’s wish to be buried right next to her husband; her wish was fulfilled when she passed away exactly three years and five months after Baba.

They were together before death and now even afterwards … for eternity.

Palanaghar (Daycare)

The Palanaghar is a daycare where volunteers take care of the children of the people living and working in Anandwan. The idea behind the daycare is that working parents don’t have to worry about where to keep their children since daycare timings are the same as Anandwan’s working hours. We learned that the children here are now the third generation of Anandwan! At the daycare, the children are split into two age groups and are taught, and fed nutritious meals.

Baba Amte's great-granddaughter (center) @ Palanaghar (Daycare)

Baba Amte’s great-granddaughter (center) @ Palanaghar (Daycare)

When we visited, Kaustubh Amte’s daughter – Dr. Vikas Amte’s granddaughter and Baba Amte’s great-granddaughter – was also in the daycare playing with all the other children.

Parents can work in peace knowing their children are safe in the Palanaghar (Daycare)

Parents can work in peace knowing their children are safe in the Palanaghar (Daycare)

Sandhi Niketan – “The House of Opportunities”

Baba Amte conceptualized and started Sandhi Niketan – “The House of Opportunities” – as a way to empower the leprosy-afflicted and disabled people. This was achieved by giving them vocational training so that they can be productive and regain their self-confidence. The program is the implementation of Baba’s guiding principle of “giving them a chance and not just charity”.

Sandhi Niketan ("House of Opportunities") is about giving leprosy-afflicted and differently-abled people a "chance"

Sandhi Niketan (“House of Opportunities”) is about giving leprosy-afflicted and differently-abled people a “chance”

Dr. Amte has further expanded the program to increase its industrial output and reduce Anandwan’s dependence on farming for income. Needless to say, Sandhi Niketan has been hugely successful in empowering the people at Anandwan. In fact, as mentioned in my Report on Anandwan (from my first visit to Anandwan), the beautiful handicrafts created by leprosy-afflicted people have to be kept locked as people have started stealing them! This was the single biggest achievement of Baba Amte’s life – the empowerment of those whom the society has rejected as “cursed”.

Tailoring at Sandhi Niketan

Tailoring at Sandhi Niketan

A significant portion of Anandwan’s revenue now comes from this program, which includes greeting card making, carpentry, printing, cloth and carpet weaving, tailoring, fabrication etc.

The leprosy-afflicted and disabled people who work at the various shops should not be looked upon as “corporate employees”. Rather, they are “shareholders” or part-owners of the venture called Sandhi Niketan. Collectively, they all benefit from Sandhi Niketan’s success.

Greeting Card and Poster Center – When we entered the center, we saw around a dozen women sitting around a couple of large tables making greeting cards. These were no ordinary cards; they are made using hand-made paper, bamboo and plastic waste, which is cleaned, washed and sanitized before using. Each card is unique and beautiful, just like the women making these cards. All the women were either leprosy-afflicted or deaf and mute, but given a chance, their disability doesn’t stop them from being productive.

Leprosy-afflicted and differently-abled women making greeting cards using hand-made paper and recycled materials

Leprosy-afflicted and differently-abled women making greeting cards using hand-made paper and recycled materials

Hand-made greeting cards on display

Hand-made greeting cards on display

We also met Mr. Gani (leprosy-afflicted) at the center, who makes beautiful posters using the same materials that the ladies use to make greeting cards. He has made posters of well-known personalities such as Shivaji Maharaj, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Mahatma Gandhi, as well as of animals and nature, and religious figures.

Mr. Gani (leprosy-afflicted) showing us his posters made using recycled materials

Mr. Gani (leprosy-afflicted) showing us his posters made using recycled materials

Greeting cards and posters made here can be purchased from Anandwan’s shop at very reasonable prices.

Carpentry and Wood-Working Shops – Beautifully carved wooden handicrafts were on display when we visited the shop. The crafts were made by a leprosy-afflicted man who had learned the art from his late Karnataki guru, Mr. Chandramani. The most beautiful of his works was an exquisite “chained lamp”, hanging from the ceiling, which was carved from a single piece of wood. Unfortunately, none of his creations were for sale. Instead, they serve as a showcase to visitors of Anandwan for what leprosy-afflicted people are capable of creating.

Beautiful handicrafts were on display (not for sale) and serve as a showcase of what leprosy-afflicted people can do ... given a chance

Beautiful handicrafts were on display (not for sale) and serve as a showcase of what leprosy-afflicted people can do … given a chance

The carpentry section, where all the workers are leprosy-afflicted, makes benches, fences, chairs and tables as per Anandwan’s requirements.

Sandhi Niketan's carpentry section makes tables, chairs, fences as per Anandwan's needs

Sandhi Niketan’s carpentry section makes tables, chairs, fences as per Anandwan’s needs

Small Scale Industries – We walked through several shops, one of which was weaving carpets and towels of various sizes as per order specifications using hand-loom and power-loom weaving units. All workers were either leprosy-afflicted or differently-abled (blind, deaf-mute etc.). Some of the items manufactured here can be purchased from Anandwan’s shop.

A blind girl working the hand-loom weaving machine

A blind girl working the hand-loom weaving machine

Power-loom machines

Power-loom machines

Next, we entered a metal fabrication shop that manufactures, among other things, stable tricycles designed by Dr. Vikas Amte for people with disabilities. The tricycles manufactured here are used at Anandwan and are also sold outside. The total value of Metal Fabrication production in fiscal year 2009-2010 was over 68-lakh rupees (Rs.6,800,000 = US$125,000, source: Anandwan’s Brochure)!

Two leprosy-cured people working at Sandhi Niketan's metal fabrication shop

Two leprosy-cured people working at Sandhi Niketan’s metal fabrication shop

I read on Anandwan’s website that Baba Amte was at one time accused by a visiting surgeon of being “cruel and heartless” for allowing leprosy-afflicted people, who have lost their limbs to the disease, to do manual labour. Baba, however, challenged him to send a research team to study whether their participation in Sandhi Niketan has had any negative effects on their health. After studying for one year, the research team concluded that working in the shops has had no negative effect on their health. In fact, working has boosted their self-esteem and made them more self-confident and independent! The surgeon bowed to Baba and recommended his name for the Damien-Dutton Award, which he received in 1983 for his work in leprosy.

“Going Green” with the Plastic Recycling Center

A brain-child of Dr. Amte, the Plastic Recycle Center is where discarded plastic waste is collected from within Anandwan and nearby villages. The plastic is used for various purposes such as in the making of eco-friendly bricks for construction (explained later) as well as for making pillows and mattresses!

Leprosy-afflicted people making eco-friendly pillows and mattresses that are made with shredded "plastic fill"

Leprosy-afflicted people making eco-friendly pillows and mattresses that are made with shredded “plastic fill”

For making pillows and mattresses, the plastic waste is first cleaned, washed and sanitized. After that, it is crushed and shredded to become like “cotton fill”, which leprosy-afflicted workers fill into pillows and mattresses. These are used in the hospitals at Anandwan. The pillows and mattresses filled with cotton-like plastic are washable, and therefore easier to maintain than traditional cotton-filled pillows and mattresses. They are more durable and also eco-friendly since they prevent plastic from ending up in a land-fill.

The pillows and mattresses, which are washable and durable, are used at Anandwan's hospitals

The pillows and mattresses, which are washable and durable, are used at Anandwan’s hospitals

To be continued … Click for Part Two.


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