Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Few have embodied these words like the Amte family. Baba Amte, the visionary CEO of Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS) began a legacy that holds true today. His granddaughter, Dr Sheetal Amte, is no less impressive. A social entrepreneur, disability speciality doctor, and winner of the Young Global Leader title for 2016, and Innovation Ambassador to the UN Innovation Summit 2016 – Dr Sheetal Amte is a force to be reckoned with in her own right.
Welcome To Anandwan – The Forest Of Bliss
Why is the name Amte so familiar? The immediate association is with their passion project turned revolutionary concept – Anandwan village. Situated in Warora in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, Anandwan means ‘Forest of Bliss’. A beautiful name for a village that is home to those that society has neglected. Anandwan is home to persons of disability from marginalised communities and those afflicted with leprosy.
Dr Sheetal explains that Anandwan and its parent organisation MSS, were the result of Baba Amte’s encounter with a leprosy victim, the sight of whom was heart-wrenching and frightening. She says,
“Baba Amte fled in fear of this ‘human’ being! However, his conscience didn’t allow him to sleep after abandoning another human being just because he looked terrifying. So, the next day, he went back with food and nursed the man to overcome his fear.”
In a time when society ostracised leprosy sufferers because of misconceptions and superstitions, Amte found that there was little to no sympathy for the victims of this debilitating disease. This attitude led to him dedicating his life towards serving leprosy patients and making their lives more comfortable. This mission culminated in the birth of Maharogi Sewa Samiti, which was created to serve leprosy sufferers. The space chosen for this venture was initially characterised with anguish, drudgery and pity – leading him to call it ‘Anandwan’.
Anandwan operates under the aegis of Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), one of India’s leading non-profit organisations and has been providing a safe space for ‘outcasts’ to live independently for nearly seven decades. Dr Sheetal Amte elaborates,
“Baba Amte established Anandwan in 1949 on 50 acres of barren land with 14 rupees, a lame cow, six leprosy patients, two sons under the age of two, his wife, and pure optimism in a hut surrounded by wild animals.”
Anandwan is unrecognisable from that description today. The residents have helped create a self-sustaining economy, which produces a number of goods. They generate their own market and livelihoods. As Sheetal says, “They (the people) produce, they govern, they shape it. We have sufficiency for all rather than superfluity for some.”
When she speaks about Anandwan, it is clear that Sheetal has inherited not only her grandfather’s values but his passion for his work. She is quick to connect Anandwan with Gandhiji’s vision for India and its villages. She says, “Unity, peace and harmony reign supreme.” This contentment, she says, has brought the residents of Anandwan together. ”For decades together, these people are working with a motivation, born out of a sense of belonging to a shared dream.” The collective has triumphed, and today, Anandwan is the model for hundreds of villages and aspiring self-sustaining communities.
Choosing The Path Less Trodden
Dr Sheetal Amte has studied medicine and has completed her Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship and Financial Management. After experiencing urban life for a few years, she found herself gravitating back to Anandwan. After she got married, she moved back to the village to rediscover her purpose and passion. She says,
“I refused a lot of attractive jobs and chose to become a part of this community because I find the work here very satisfying, challenging, and extremely entrepreneurial. I think better, I innovate, I build. It’s a free system.”
Working at Anandwan also presented her with the opportunity to preserve the village’s unique culture and core values – something she feels very strongly about. She says, “At the age of 30 I decided that I would carry forward my grandfather’s legacy.”
Baba Amte’s influence is still keenly felt by his family. Sheetal speaks of him with deep respect,
“My grandfather is my biggest inspiration because I have seen him grow as a leader who was astoundingly compassionate. His leadership journey went from light to darkness, bringing others out from the darkness too.”
Striking The Right Balance
Dr Sheetal Amte is dedicated to empowering rural systems, focusing on the areas of health, education, and sustainable village development. Anandwan’s contributions are varied and involve major projects in the fields of health, disability, agriculture, skill development, education, alternative fuels, and environmental initiatives.
Besides leading Anandwan and its activities, Dr Sheetal has another important personal responsibility – being a parent to her young son, Sharvil. Sheetal has mastered the art of effective time management and has been able to balance her work and personal life. She is happy to share her wisdom, “The best way to balance your work and home life is to be aware of your stresses and being able to communicate your expectations fearlessly. Most women do not communicate properly and they land up having issues both at home and at work.”
Finding Strength By Battling Weaknesses
Dr Sheetal has received many accolades for herself and Anandwan including the Global Teacher Prize and an INK fellowship to name but a few.
She shares an interesting analogy which helped her succeed:
“I find myself talking about the two halves of human nature, aptly described by Joseph Soloveitchik as Adam I and II. Adam I is worldly and ambitious – the external side of our nature, which competes and innovates. Adam II is the moral part of human nature that works towards forgiveness, giving, and redemption. It is built by overcoming your weaknesses. I stressed upon building a solid Adam II for myself, which led to creating a stronger Adam I.”
She thinks that social service is emerging as a career and more youth are getting involved and serving others. She suggests that youngsters cultivate qualities that make a social worker – compassion, humility, observance, and co-operation.
“One needs to be able to confront challenges at a grassroot level such as power cuts, housing problems, food and water shortages, internet issues, hygiene issues, etc. One should be able to document the grassroots in a proper way. One needs to be able to delay gratification and focus more on the sustainability of work.”
The Smart Village – Anandwan 2.0?
Ever dynamic, Dr Sheetal has ambitious and inspiring plans for Anandwan. She wants to ensure that it’s the first smart village in the country. In fact, she shares, they are already on their way to accomplishing their goal.
Anandwan now uses solar energy and biogas for its fuel requirements. Millions of trees have been planted over the decades and sewage water treatment is being initiated. Plastic waste is being reused and rainwater harvesting is also being practised. In short, Anandwan is only a few steps short of becoming the first SMART village in India.
Dr Sheetal Amte says,
“We are concerned with maintaining the balance between the natural ecosystem and future technological advancement. MSS constantly works towards innovating appropriate tools and technology to create potential solutions and ensure sustainable usage of natural resources.”
With such wonderful initiatives for her village and the country at large on the horizon, it is clear that Dr Sheetal Amte stands on the precipice of something incredibly special. From her innovative ideas to her deep commitment and passion towards creating a better life for Indians regardless of their social status – it’s clear that hers is a legacy truly worth carrying forward.
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