Taking Flight…

Anandwan: A Journey from Stone to Milestone to Milestone (Part 3)

SubscribeFiled Under: Export, 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

Swaranandwan (Orchestra) – “Anandwan Tumchya Dwari” (Anandwan at your Doorstep)

Have you ever seen a troupe of young boys and girls dancing with perfect synchronization to a Bollywood tune? I’m sure you have – we all have; But how about with the caveat that they are all blind or deaf and mute? That’s Anandwan’s Swaranandwan musical (and magical) orchestra, which Dr. Amte calls “Therapeutic Theatre” since both, dancing and music, are therapeutic for the soul. It was started by Dr. Amte as an outlet for what he called “untapped human potential”.

Swaranandwan's practice hall

Swaranandwan’s practice hall

Swaranandwan consists primarily of disabled, rather, “differently-abled” people, which include leprosy-afflicted, as well as blind, deaf, mute and physically-challenged. The third generation at Anandwan, who are educated and perfectly normal, are also part of the orchestra; they are the grandchildren of the first generation of leprosy-afflicted people who were married at Anandwan.

Over 100 talented individuals are part of the orchestra whose talents were recognized and harnessed at Anandwan by Dr. Amte. In spite of being a Buddhist spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, who does not normally watch musical programs, has seen the show in its entirety!

I was lucky enough to catch a show of the orchestra at Thane’s storied theatre – Gadkari Rangayatan – while they were touring in Mumbai and Pune. Make no mistake, Swaranandwan is no amateur orchestra; their music system alone is worth one crore rupees (Rs.10,000,000 = US$180,000). It was a well-organized and thoroughly professional show featuring classical and contemporary dances, singing performances in Hindi and Marathi, mimicry and soulful poetry composed by Baba Amte and presented by his daughter-in-law, Dr. Bharati Amte, who is Dr. Vikas Amte’s wife. The emcee for the event, Mr. Ravindra Nalgintwar, was charismatic and kept the audience engaged with his excellent commentary. Many of the performances drew loud applause from the audience who were left speechless and I think most of them truly understood the meaning of giving them a chance.

Dance performance of a blind girl and a deaf-mute boy at Swaranandwan's show in Thane's Gadkari Rangayatan in November 2012.

Dance performance of a blind girl and a deaf-mute boy at Swaranandwan’s show in Thane’s Gadkari Rangayatan in November 2012.

Money raised from ticket sales is used to meet Anandwan’s expenses. On one of their tours, they raised 1.67 crore rupees (Rs.16,700,000 = US$300,000), which was used to construct a huge building – “APULKI” – home for leprosy-afflicted senior citizens.

Through Swaranandwan, says Dr. Amte, they have the opportunity to connect with people at their doorstep – “Anandwan tumchya dwari”.

Swaranandwan is Anandwan’s Brand Ambassador – don’t miss it! Click here to see videos from the show.

Shakuntala – The Girl with the Perpetual Smile

At Anandwan, everyone knows Shakuntala. She is the girl with the perpetual smile on her face. Being a victim of cerebral palsy by birth, she cannot talk, walk or use her hands. Yet she will bring a tear in your eye when you see the beautifully threaded greeting card that she stitches using only her toes!

Shakuntala - the Inspiration at Anandwan

Shakuntala – the Inspiration at Anandwan

And it’s easy to find Shakuntala … just follow the music! She works in a room adjacent to where Swaranandwan orchestra members practice.

Click here to see a video of Shakuntala.

Morning Walk with “Bhau” (Brother)

I learned that Dr. Vikas Amte goes for a morning walk every day. I could not forgo the chance to talk … to listen … to Dr. Amte, who is not just a medical doctor, but also a social-enterprise entrepreneur, an engineer, an architect, a human-rights activist, an agriculturist and the Bio-Gas Plant Adviser for the Government of India! So I decided to tag along with him for his morning walk the next day.

Dr. Vikas Amte and Mr. Kavishwar out for a morning walk

Dr. Vikas Amte and Mr. Kavishwar out for a morning walk

It was still dark outside when I woke up at 4:45 AM to get ready for a morning walk with “Bhau”, as Dr. Vikas Amte is affectionately called by everyone at Anandwan. I reached the office area at around 5:00 AM and waited for Dr. Amte to arrive. We were joined by Mr. Bakshi and Mr. Kavishwar, and started our walk at 5:30 AM making a loop along Anandwan’s perimeter. On the way a tiny puppy kept following us closely and Mr. Bakshi had to pick him up and put him aside several times as we risked accidentally stepping on it. The puppy’s mother, after several failed attempts, finally succeeded in holding him until we were far enough!

Dr. Vikas Amte had with him his personal radio, which was playing some classical tunes. As we walked, we passed an elderly Muslim man offering namaz (praying) on the side of the road whom Dr. Amte greeted with “salaam” and he greeted him back. At that moment I felt like Anandwan has no religion. Everybody is treated equally, no matter who they are and where they come from. There are no temples, mosques or churches at Anandwan.

“Green Wall”

It was a beautiful monsoon morning; the weather was cool, the skies were cloudy but it had not been raining much. This was disconcerting for Dr. Amte as the highest rainfall is typically recorded in the months of July and August. He was concerned about the man-made lakes at Anandwan and Somnath that wouldn’t get replenished if there wasn’t enough rainfall. Somnath, which serves as Anandwan’s “breadbasket”, is MSS’s farming project adjacent to Tadoba Tiger Reserve about 100-km from Anandwan; it is spread across over a thousand acres.

All trees, shrubs and plants seen on the left side have been planted to form a "Green Wall"

All trees, shrubs and plants seen on the left side have been planted to form a “Green Wall”

The road along Anandwan’s perimeter is lined with planted vegetation, plants and trees – “Green Wall”, says Dr. Amte. He said Anandwan is an experiment – a model village – that other villages in India should try to imitate. If every village in India has a Green Wall, dry monsoons wouldn’t be so much of an issue as it is now due to massive deforestation in so many places.

“No growth without pruning”

Water security was of utmost importance for Dr. Amte. So when he set off on the Herculean task of digging lakes, many told him it was an impossible and futile task. Dr. Amte told me about the lakes that were dug out – by hand – by him along with his “army” of leprosy-afflicted people, which was the first generation of leprosy-cured people of Anandwan. While digging, they had come across huge boulders – “elephants”, he called them – for which they needed a bulldozer and/or an excavator. So, when J.R.D. Tata (former Chairman of Tata Group) had paid a visit to Anandwan and asked him what he wanted, Dr. Amte asked for a bulldozer. Baba had been furious and upset about what his son had asked. But Dr. Amte had been adamant and did get a bulldozer from Mr. Tata.

"There is no growth without pruning", says Dr. Vikas Amte.

“There is no growth without pruning”, says Dr. Vikas Amte.

“Baba had always insulted me,” said Dr. Amte. “But there is no growth without pruning,” he added. Baba was of the view that Vikas being a medical doctor should stick to practicing medicine and not get involved in other activities. Dr. Amte said that MSS, as a medical NGO, cannot use its funds to buy non-medical equipment such as a bulldozer or an excavator. So when Mr. Tata had asked him what he wanted, he used the opportunity to ask for a bulldozer.

Anandwan, located in a drought-prone and rain deficit region of Maharashtra, now has water in its 10 man-made lakes where there was not a single drop before. The lakes also help recharge groundwater.

To minimize the use of water for farming, land has been scientifically leveled by Dr. Amte to enable “gravity irrigation” so that “water flows from sufficient area to deficient area”, he says.

Scientifically leveled fields

Scientifically leveled fields

Today, Anandwan is a beautiful oasis in a vast desert.


As we continued our walk Dr. Amte pointed to a banana plantation that was partially destroyed by grazing cattle that had crossed the border into Anandwan and destroyed the fruits just as they were ready to be harvested. Not only did this bring about economic losses for Anandwan, which it can ill-afford, but it also put to waste all the effort that was made on the plantation.

Dr. Amte had tried a number of methods, such as erecting fences, for preventing cattle and other intruders from destroying and stealing their crops and fruits. However, as he found out, it doesn’t take more than a cheap set of pliers for someone to make a hole through the fences, thus making the entire fencing exercise an exercise in futility.

Trenching work is in progress along Anandwan's border

Trenching work is in progress along Anandwan’s border

Then he came up with the innovative idea of digging trenches along the perimeter of Anandwan. Trenches are the most effective way for preventing cattle from wandering into Anandwan and destroying their crops and fruits; they will also help prevent theft as stolen goods cannot be easily moved across the trenches.

Digging of trenches is currently a work-in-progress.

Mine Reclamation: “From Stone to Milestone”

We came across a heavily wooded area – Abhayaranya (Sanctuary) – which Dr. Amte pointed out, was a former coal mining area and a wasteland laden with mining pits, rocks and stones. Dr. Amte had taken on the task of mine reclamation that involved turning abandoned coal mines into a natural state. This was accomplished by first filling the mines with plastic and related waste and then saplings were planted close together. Today, it is a grand forest, which Baba Amte was proud to say is frequented by birds – love birds – looking for some privacy.

Abhayaranya (Sanctuary) created from reclaiming abandoned coal mines ... best example of what Dr. Amte says is going from "stone to milestone"

Abhayaranya (Sanctuary) created from reclaiming abandoned coal mines … best example of what Dr. Amte says is going from “stone to milestone”

Biodiversity is also thriving with the return of wildlife and birds. We saw a bird flying over one of the lakes that Dr. Amte excitedly pointed out was a chestnut bittern, which he had only seen at Somnath and never at Anandwan. A crocodile has also come to live in one of the water tanks. From where and how the crocodile came there is a mystery!

Thriving biodiversity - migratory birds can be seen on this man-made lake

Thriving biodiversity – migratory birds can be seen on this man-made lake

The Abhayaranya is a perfect example of what Dr. Amte calls going “from stone to milestone”.

“Aapla pani aaplya gaavat” (Our water in our village)

Deepening of Anandwan’s lakes is now a priority because of greater threat from coal mining. “Land that was not worth even Rs.10/acre is now going for Rs.10,000,000/acre”, said Dr. Amte, due to the discovery of coal in Anandwan’s vicinity.

Due to increased risk from (coal) mining, Anandwan is now facing the Herculean task of keeping "aapla pani aaplya gaavat" (our water in our village)

Due to increased risk from (coal) mining, Anandwan is now facing the Herculean task of keeping “aapla pani aaplya gaavat” (our water in our village)

Dr. Amte said if mining is started near Anandwan, all the ground water will be lost to the mines; water will flow to the mines due to gravity.

An excavator is required for this task of keeping “aapla pani aaplya gaavat”.

Replacing Low-Quality Weed with High-Quality Weed

Along the way, Dr. Amte pointed to me pastures, which he said are not like the typical pastures we are used to seeing in Bollywood movies. Cattle grazing in these pastures have increased their milk yields many-fold (from 8-9 liters to around 40)! Dr. Amte has achieved this by replacing low-quality weed with high-quality weed. Thus, cattle that graze on high-protein fodder are healthier and give more milk.

A cow is seen grazing on high-protein fodder

A cow is seen grazing on high-protein fodder

Even the grass on the side of the road, which appears to be “ordinary grass”, is actually high-protein fodder for the grazing cattle.

“Not a drop is wasted”

I was very surprised when we came across a crystal clear lake that Dr. Amte said was actually waste water! Water from wash basins, kitchens, showers and other taps (but not toilets) is channeled to this lake. “Not a single drop is wasted”, said Dr. Amte. To keep the water clean, Dr. Amte had selected 9 non-competing species of fish based on their ability to breakdown waste. Some of the fish in the lake have grown to weigh as much as 20 kilograms!

Waste water (sullage) from kitchen taps, bathrooms and wash basins is channeled into this crystal clear lake.

Waste water (sullage) from kitchen taps, bathrooms and wash basins is channeled into this crystal clear lake.

Another view of the beautiful lake, which the fish help keep clean and odour-free

Another view of the beautiful lake, which the fish help keep clean and odour-free

The best part is there is no stench whatsoever in the lake’s vicinity. The benches around the lake’s perimeter are excellent spots to spend a quiet evening.

Like Father Like Son … Like Father Like Son

Dr. Amte and his son, Kaustubh, do not always see eye-to-eye on how to manage and develop Anandwan. Dr. Amte says his son has different ideas about running Anandwan, which he does not necessarily agree with. Clearly, they have different management styles. “Kaustubh goes more by the book than I did”, said Dr. Amte. For example, to make a building, he will need architects, building plans, engineers etc. whereas Dr. Amte just did it all himself along with this “army” of leprosy-afflicted people. Having said that, Dr. Amte did not do things arbitrarily or without thought; in fact, Dr. Amte, an experimenter and a scientist, has introduced new and innovative engineering and building techniques such as his successful “low-on-cost and high-on-quality” housing projects (more information in part four).

Mr. Kaustubh, Chartered Accountant and Assistant Secretary of Anandwan

Mr. Kaustubh, Chartered Accountant and Assistant Secretary of Anandwan

Dr. Vikas Amte designed house that is "low-on-cost and high-on-quality" (more on this in Part Four)

Dr. Vikas Amte designed house that is “low-on-cost and high-on-quality” (more on this in Part Four)

It appears as if history is repeating itself; just like Baba Amte and his son did not see eye-to-eye several decades ago when Dr. Vikas Amte was Kaustubh’s age, similarly, Dr. Amte and his son do not see eye-to-eye on many things. However, Dr. Amte describes his son as an intelligent and educated man. The administrative reins of Anandwan have now been handed over to Kaustubh’s capable hands. He is the Assistant Secretary of Anandwan and is also a Chartered Accountant, which certainly helps in navigating the accounting intricacies of running such a large institution. Through his hard work and down-to-earth nature, he has gained the respect of the people he works for and the people who work for him and with him.

Corpus Fund

Kaustubh is currently trying to establish a Corpus Fund of 55 crore rupees (Rs.550,000,000 = US$10,000,000); for this, he travels extensively within Maharashtra to meet various government officials to seek their assistance. The idea behind the fund, titled “Samaj Pragati Sahyog Nidhi” (“Societal Progress Help Fund”), is that the interest earned from this fund will be used to meet MSS’s recurring expenses as well as for any outreach projects and other initiatives. Historically, Anandwan has been self-sustainable and has been able to meet its expenses through the income it earns from its agricultural and industrial output. However, due to an increase in the aging and therefore non-productive population, as well as high inflation and insufficient government grants, Anandwan’s ability to continue providing its services will be severely curtailed if such a fund is not established…

Dr. Vikas Amte has paved the way for the future of Anandwan...

Dr. Vikas Amte has paved the way for the future of Anandwan…

To be continued … Click for Part Four.

In Part Four, I will write about my most interesting one-on-one talk with Dr. Vikas Amte. I will also have practical information on planning your own visit to Anandwan.

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