Knit India Baba
Public adulation, national and international awards are nothing new to Baba Amte. However, the government's decision to award him the Gandhi Peace Prize for 1999 is just indicative of the recognition of the depth and reach of his dedicated social service, especially in the more neglected areas. Despite being born into affluence, the young Devidas Murlidhar Amte came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and, deeply moved by the horrific working conditions of municipality sweepers, even went so far as to carry night soil on his head to draw attention to their plight. Then came his involvement with improving the lot of marginalised leprosy patients, a mission that continues to be the focus of his social work. Determined to restore to them their lost dignity, Baba set the tone by first enrolling himself in a course on the treatment and cure of leprosy at the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta. The next step was to found a centre for the treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy patients in Anandvan in Maharashtra way back in 1950. His missionary zeal has not dimmed with age, though he has delegated much of his work. Many of the caretakers of his leprosy home today are former patients. Other disadvantaged persons have also found refuge in Anandvan, among them the physically and mentally challenged. Baba Amte's experiments with dryland farming have changed lives dramatically in some parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Bharat Jodo cycling marathon organised by the Baba from Kanyakumari to Kashmir more than a decade ago, despite a painful spinal problem, was aimed at strengthening the bonds of national unity. In recent times, he has identified himself completely with the opposition to the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river. A strong believer in small rather than large dams as the human route to improving agricultural output without displacing lakhs, the Baba has soldiered on, relentlessly espousing the cause of the underprivileged including tribals, in the face of sustained and aggressive opposition from the dam lobbyists and even the police and local administration. All of 85 years and devoutly missionary, Baba Amte continues to live in an area that will fall in the submergence zone once the Narmada dam is complete. Baba Amte is a living example of a person for whom no obstacle is too great to surmount. In an age when Gandhism seems to have gone out of favour, he is a gentle reminder of the eternal relevance of the Mahatma's message.