Dr Sheetal Amte – Public Health Expert, Disability Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Young Global Leader

Dr Sheetal Amte is not only a super mum but a super incredible woman. It is quite astounding how much she does for so many people. I had the pleasure of meeting her fourteen years ago in Anandwan on my first trip to India. She is such a hard working, inspirational, caring and utterly humble human being. I am honoured to know her and be able to call her my friend.

Here is a snippet of this super mums life and work:

What is Anandwan? Can you tell me a bit about it and how it all started?

Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), Warora is the organisation I work with. It has been operating out of Anandwan, a village located in one of the most backward districts of Central India. It has been building livelihood capabilities of the most marginalized people, especially those with disabilities like leprosy, orthopedically handicapped, vision and hearing impaired and primitive tribals for the last 67 years.
The genesis of the Anandwan lies in a fear factor. My grandfather Baba Amte, long back in 1949, while returning home on a rainy day, stumbled across a leprosy patient in a gutter. He found it hard to describe it as a human being for all that remained of it was a disintegrated piece of human flesh, pierced and punctured at various places by maggots and smelling repulsively. Two regular slits on the face, covered by eyelids, and functioning as eyes were appealing for help. The nose, fingers and toes had melted away and deep ulcers had eaten half of the soles. Baba Amte, in fear of the sight of this ‘human’ being, literally fled the place. However his conscious did not allow him to rest peacefully for having abandoned a fellow human being in need, just due to the fearful sight the latter presented. The next day he returned with food and nursed the man to overcome his fear.
From the above incident Baba realized that the condition of the leprosy afflicted was so pitiable not only because of the lack of a medical cure but also because of a series of other factors. Leprosy was considered to be the sin of past birth and the leprosy afflicted were legally liable to undergo a sacrifice for societal good. The priests would sermon them as ‘dead to the world, but alive in the kingdom of God’. Until the late 20th Century, leprosy patients were considered to be unfit to be among the rest of the society and were thus ostracized or even burnt alive in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. Leprosy not only was a medical ailment, but a social disease that appeared because of the ill-deeds of the person in his/her last birth. Leprosy patients were denied of every chance to participate in societal activities including economic, social, political and religious spheres of life. For no fault of theirs, leprosy patients had no option but to earn money through begging, stealing or through illegal trading in the grey market to remain alive.
Baba Amte decided to take up the cause of serving leprosy patients for the very fact that he felt disgusted to be a part of a society that was so dispassionate toward the plight of such downtrodden human beings. He regarded the apathy as ‘Mental Leprosy’ by aptly quoting that “the most frightening disease is not of losing one’s limbs, but losing one’s strength to feel kindness & compassion for other human beings”.
Thus was born the Maharogi Sewa Samiti, Warora (Leprosy Service Society) for treating leprosy patients and for the whole society afflicted by mental leprosy. And although initially it was a place which was the epitome of human anguish, drudgery and pity, he chose to call it ‘Anandwan’, meaning ‘Forest of Bliss’ (the very first project of MSS).

How do you fit into the Anandwan cog?

I am a resident of Anandwan and the culture of Anandwan runs in my blood. I was born and brought up in the Anandwan community. I was raised by leprosy survivors. I went to an average school, then studied in medical college and went on to acquire a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. However, later I refused all the alluring jobs and chose to be a part of the community because the work here is very challenging, satisfying and hugely entrepreneurial. I think better, I innovate, I build. It’s a free system.
Anandwan is not a regular village. It is now a world renowned, presidential award winner cooperative village carved from barren land by these crippled social outcasts. Established by Baba Amte in 1949 on a 50 acre barren land with six leprosy patients, a lame cow, 14 rupees, two sons aged 1 and 2, his wife and an unrelenting optimism in a hut surrounded by wild animals, today the village is home to some 2500 people with disabilities such as leprosy survivors, youth and children with different disabilities, orphans, destitute and people who just lost hope to live one day. These people, once rejected by the healthy society, are now socially independent, live off the land, set the world’s standards for rehabilitation and have coordinated some of the most daring social and ecological programs in India.
Anandwan is a classic representation of the village of Gandhi’s dreams. It is a miniature India where unity, peace and harmony reign supreme. For decades together, these people are working with a motivation, born out of a sense of belonging to a shared dream, which is very much their own, for which they are collectively responsible. Through a self-sustaining economy, Anandwan produces goods such as cloth, food grains, milk and household items worth 40 million rupees annually. Till now the parent institution Maharogi Sewa Samiti has qualitatively enriched the lives of about 2.6 million rejected, dejected people through various healthcare, rehabilitation, education, agriculture and economic empowerment. Anandwan is all set to become the first smart village in India.

At what age did you know that you would carry on the legacy of your Grandfather and do social work? Has it always been indented in your heart and a path you always knew you would follow?

I was born and brought up at Anandwan. When I opened my eyes I was picked up by a leprosy survivor. I was raised by them and I have been nurtured and fed by them. I had friends who were poor, blind and hearing impaired. So living among people with disabilities was not a matter of difficulty for me.
What was difficult was to make a choice of coming back to Anandwan after marriage. This included convincing my ‘Sasural’ side and the entire traditional paternalistic society of my maternal side. However, I had realised that I could never really enjoy life when it was full of comforts but without a purpose.
When I used to study in Mumbai at TISS, I realised that people are so dissociated from each other that they hardly acknowledge the presence of other people around them. This was more profound when in high rise apartments, traveling in lifts or public transports. I have realised that the lesser the interpersonal distance, the more dissociated people are. This was really very disturbing to me as I have always lived in a community where people respect each other, pay respects, smile and are comfortable to accommodate each other.
I have experienced the company of obscenely rich people who had no goal in life except expensive clothes, shoes and parties. It was too much for me as I am a person who has to have a purpose to exist. I need constant intellectual stimulation, creativity and innovation in my life to survive. I have realised that when resources are less, you tend to think about improvement in the system which gives me a kick.
When I was in a city for a few months, I used to see property related advertisements that would propel you to think about buying a new property constantly, else make you feel that you are losing in the competition due to growing market rates. However, when we used to come to Anandwan, we would always talk about giving out, not accumulating. One day I really had this hard talk with my husband that what kind of life do we want for ourselves? Life based on getting more by giving or getting more by getting? We decided the quality of life parameters for us and tried to align them. We realised that what we want is a life full of purpose not affluence, contentment not grid, compassion not just passion, safety from ill minds and from our greedy thoughts, comfort- not only physical but mental, peace not pace. That time we discussed various options around the world and we realised that Anandwan is the best place for us to spend our rest of life as Anandwan is a society free of caste, creed, religion and any barriers. Humanity is the supreme religion here. We have sufficiency for all rather than superfluity for some. Such societies are hard to find and need to be preserved. And it was our responsibility to preserve the culture and the people. Thus, at the age of 30 I decided that I would carry forward his legacy.

Who is your biggest inspiration and why?

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. He once said to His Holiness, his friend, that he believed in leading a series of lives in one life – and he did precisely that! Born with a silver spoon in 1914, he spent a quarter of his life as the son of a wealthy landlord, owning 4000 acres of land, a pet cheetah, a Singer racing car and a deep pen-friendship with Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. In his late 20s, after earning a degree in civil law, he became the municipality commissioner, simultaneously becoming the leader of the scavengers’ union. His typical day was to clear human waste from public toilets at 4 am, carrying the obnoxious material in a bucket on his head, to solving the most complex problems of the town as commissioner, handling millions of rupees of tax. This stark contrast in his life led him to experiment more with life, which lead him from being a privileged child to a freedom fighter to a Sadhoo to again an amazingly romantic lover. From a man of tender compassion to a wrestler, his life was a saga. Gandhi was fascinated by him and after his brave act of saving a lady from being raped in a train by soldiers, he called him ‘fearless seeker’.
When my Grandfather, the ‘fearless seeker’ saw the leper on the side of the road that day, for the first time in his life he was frightened and fled. After three days of restlessness, to conquer his own fear, Baba went back and soothed the man. The man died in his lap. This was a life changing moment for him and for the 2.6 million others who were ultimately benefitted by him.
He decided to work for the cause of leprosy. There was a time when leprosy patients were isolated on islands and in some regions buried or burnt alive to combat the infection. After finishing a formal degree in leprosy and standing first as the first non-medical man to top the university, my grandfather walked away to ask for a piece of land from the government. After a lot of efforts, he established Anandwan. Baba went on to rehabilitate leprosy patients, not only medically, but also through psychosocial and occupational rehabilitation. His motto was ‘work build, charity destroys’.

What is it like to raise a child at Anandwan?

These days few of the most problematic issues for parents are safety, security, tackling with academic pressures and non-cohesive peer groups for children. Compared to other places in India, it is pretty exciting to raise a child in a community like Anandwan where people love each other, elders are respected and children are grown in a community with tender care. Anandwan is one of the safest havens on earth where there are lots of open spaces like playgrounds, swings, fields, lakes and many children around.
My 2.5 year son worships excavators and tractors and fortunately we have plenty of them around. He takes long walks daily upto 2-3 kilometers and does not get tired due to his interest in the environment.
Anandwan has its own culture where unity, peace and harmony reign supreme. There are no barriers of caste, creed and religion, so my child will get the most important lesson of respecting other religions and cultures.
I have made a resolution that I shall get him plant one tree every month to pay his tribute to the environment. He started at the age of 5 months and till now he has planted 24 fruit trees and a small forest in the backyard. My motive is that he should be environmentally conscious all the time. If he continues this habit, he would have planted more than 60 trees by the end of 5 years and more than 600 at the age of 50. He would sequestrate thousands of tonnes of carbon is the trees planted by him, becoming the first carbon neutral, in fact carbon negative citizen of India.
I have also introduced books to him at the age of 3 months. We started by reading picture books, the we gave board books and then gradually introduced story books. This inculcated a habit of sitting for hours together. Considering the impatient nature of this age, I am happy that my son can sit for more than three hours at one place, calmly, listening and reading books. I have also introduced puzzles at the age of 2. Starting from 8 pieces, now he can complete a 60-piece complicated puzzle unassisted. Now we are moving to 200 piece puzzles. The goal is not to showcase his abilities, but to develop patience and concentration in him.
I also spend at least 15 minutes with him in nature, introducing various flowers and plants to him. I allow him to play in soil and mud for hours because it is very important for children to learn to develop an independent relation with the soil and plants. I do not care about cleanliness that time. I believe that we should give more exposure of nature to children so that they get ample exposure of various allergens and consequently develop a stronger immune system. Protecting from sunlight, caging them inside apartments and schools will leave the children devoid of Vitamin D which will hamper bone growth, make them fall prey to allergens and become weak for their entire life.

What has Anandwan and your life taught you about being a Mother?

Compassion is the highest value I have learnt here. I used to be an energetic, dynamic, strong headed lady who always focused on goals and results. However, I realised that these make you impatient, hurried and constantly stressed. Here I am learning what value is by consciously cultivating virtues like tolerance, patience, delaying gratification and respect.
These values are supremely important as a mother because one needs to be very tolerant to the child’s demands, understand his world with respect and compassion and have patience in everything right from waking him up to putting him to sleep.
I like to believe that every child has a great power in developing himself. We are just facilitators and resource providers. I believe that every child is strong, capable and resilient, rich with wonder and knowledge. Every child is full of curiosity which leads him to understand the world and find his place in it. Children also learn a lot through peer to peer communication. Children are capable of creating their own learning methods and our role should be to just simply facilitate the process. They should be given maximum exposure of nature where they can play and construct their own learnings. Nature is their biggest teacher. Hence they should also be given ample exposure of similar aged children and animals. Animals also teach children patience, care and the fullest expression of love. I deliberately keep my dog and my child alone sometimes to see their interaction. That is perhaps the best time of my life to see my son freak out with the joyful dog who safely plays with him.
One day while playing, the dog’s tooth got impacted in my son’s head and he started bleeding. We had vaccinated both so there was no worry. However, I saw that after that my dog was extremely shameful about his act. My son did not even realise that he was bleeding due to the dog’s mistake. He went and hugged the dog as if nothing had happened. Their friendship has fostered since then. Accidents do happen all the time. What we learn and how we proceed ahead is more important.

How do you balance work and parenting?

I am a night creature. I sleep late after my 2.5-year-old child sleeps and get up a little late. After finishing morning chores at home and the entire newspaper in morning, I give bath to my child because that is a time I really enjoy with him. Whenever we get time, we take bath together. This practise is highly recommended by child experts to remove gender stigma from children’s minds.
Thereafter I go to office. My typical day involves taking the review of financial management, handling administrative issues, signing vouchers and meeting important people ranging from the smallest person who has some grievance regarding spicy food to the high profile people such as ministers and commissioners. I also handle proposal writing, donor communications and public relations. Some hours are dedicated to planning my new projects, reviews and documentation, meetings and field visits.
I go home to have lunch and put my child to sleep at 2.30. After coming back to office, I resume my work till 6.30 PM. After that I take my child to my father’s house and we spend some family time with my parents, brother and nieces. I like to cook different cuisines so whenever I get time I cook and feed my child. 7.30 to 10.30 is family time, TV and discussing things. I put my child to sleep at 11 PM and then do some Facebooking and reading. I also paint and embroider with my child.
The best way to balance your work and home is to be aware about your stresses and communicating your expectations fearlessly. Most women do not communicate on time and they land up having issues at home and work.

What have your parents taught you that is invaluable to you as a Mother?

My parents put me in what many people would consider the ‘worst possible school’. I was with poor and middle class girls who taught me many things however, such as parity, dignity and respect for others. I would not have got these anywhere in a hi-fi school with expensive fees. I always stood among the first two, though I used to always sit with the poorest girl on the last bench. She would walk 10 kilometres to get to school and still share her tiffin with me. In turn I used to share my notes with her. Somehow I always preferred to play with poor girls. I never got along well with rich, condescending girls.
My parents also taught me how to fight for injustice. They always raised me as the one having equal rights in everything. I never faced gender discrimination in my family. I was always allowed to voice out my problems and seek justice. I was always encouraged to study. That is why I am still studying at the age of 35 because I love studying. I was allowed to leave medicine and do my masters in social entrepreneurship and financial management. They never ‘showed’ me the path but always facilitated me to take my own decision. That is why I feel I have achieved so much and I own all my failures with pride. Had they ‘shown’ me the way, I would have always blamed my failures on them.

What are the most important lessons you want to pass onto your child?

• One should always take efforts to articulate a family mission statement with all the members and revisit it every year.
• One should always explore the truth, speak the truth, be honest and help others speak the truth.
• Never tolerate injustice. Make conscious efforts to raise your voice against it.
• It’s great to be beautiful, but it’s more beautiful to be great in thoughts, actions and spirit.
• It pays to be compassionate, respectful and diligent in everything –  Work, Family and Society.

You are a great inspiration to me and many others. How do you intend to keep inspiring our generation and the next?

I always speak about the two halves of human nature, aptly described by Joseph Soloveitchik as Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature that competes, innovates and tries to win. Adam I works by economic logic. He transforms the world “into a domain for his power and sovereignty.”   Adam I is built by building on your strengths. He works to build his resume.
Adam II is the subtle, moral part of human nature that works on the philosophy of accumulating blessings through giving, forgiveness and redemption. Adam II is built by fighting your weaknesses. Adam II is the “redemptive Adam,” bringing a “redemptive interpretation to the meaning of existence”. Adam II builds our Eulogy virtues.
These two are in perpetual confrontation with each other. We live in a culture with an Adam I mentality where we’re inarticulate about Adam II. At the end of our life, People do not speak about how strong our financial condition was, how long our resume was or how many expensive things we accumulated. People speak about how good we were as human beings, how compassionate and loving we were and how much value we created for humanity.
Though our education system and the marketplace teaches us only to focus on building our Adam I, no one teaches us to build our eulogy virtues. We need to consciously build our Adam II so as to bid adieu with serenity, pride and fulfilment. My experience has been that if we shift our focus on building our Adam II, Adam I automatically gets built.
I stressed upon building a sound Adam II for myself which led to a strong Adam I.
In January 2016 I was selected by the World Economic Forum as the ‘Young Global Leader 2016’. This honour is bestowed by the World Economic Forum each year to recognize the distinguished leaders under the age of 40, nominated from around the world. This is in recognition of a person’s record of professional accomplishments and potential to contribute to solving the world’s pressing issues.
I was also chosen as an ‘Innovation Ambassador’ by the United Nations. At the World Summit on Innovation I spoke about various innovations at Anandwan and what an ordinary man can do in a low resource area with his innovating mind.

What are your goals for Anandwan in the future?

The beauty of Anandwan is that we do not have an ISO system here. Here the system is very people centric. It is a sum of people’s choices. It is very organic, flexible and adapts to the needs of people. It sounds like ‘Google Headquarters’ right? Well yes, but here we have no job profiles. People create jobs for themselves. They produce, they govern, they shape it. We have sufficiency for all rather than superfluity for some.
The common factor that units all of them is the pain. Every body has some kind of pain. Physical pain, neurological pain, pain of betrayal, pain of rejection, pain of losing the purpose in life. The secret is the P-A-I-N friendship that they share with each other. The fellowship of pain has no caste, creed, religion and international frontiers. It units human beings because people empathize with others. You can forget with whom you laughed but you can never forget with whom you cried. It gives rise to love, an aspiration for peace and unity. It binds people.
After coming to MSS as residents, the strengths of freedoms harnessed and the unfreedoms disowned by them has led to substantial improvement in the quality of their life. At MSS they have found all their estranged rights such as political and civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom to civilise as citizens, freedom to earn and most importantly freedom to live a dignified life. MSS residents deprived of physical assets, owing to a non- exploitative arrangement, are potentially at an advantageous position for harnessing the primary goods to achieve personal freedom. Thus although they are at a lower income strata compared to other poorer sections in surrounding areas, development has touched them in a holistic sense.
As I mentioned we are in the process of making Anandwan the first smart village in the country. In India there are 610 districts with 200 backward districts and there are 600,000 villages out of which 125,000 are backward. About 800 Million people in India live in villages and at least half of them are below 25 years of age. In India, most of the growth is seen in 58% small (<2000 people) to very large villages(>10,000 people), however we are only focussing on smart cities. To retain the youth is villages, we must make villages smart.
We are particular about maintaining the balance between the delicate fabric of natural ecosystem and technological advancement. Our organisation MSS constantly works to innovate appropriate tools and technology which may be potential solutions for the judicious and sustainable usage of natural resources. Through various projects such as development of forests through Multi-tier Silvipasture System, Plastic Reuse and Biological Waste Management, Rehabilitation of Mines, Rid the Weed, Low Cost- High Quality Housing and Plastic Tyre Check Dams, MSS has been innovating for development and propagation of appropriate rural technology.
Today, most of the energy consumption at the Anandwan premises has been purposefully externalised. All the food in Anandwan is cooked on biogas and solar cooking system. There are solar pumps that are used for agricultural purposes. Solar water heating systems have been installed in the dormitories of leprosy patients that reduce energy consumption.
To reduce its carbon footprint, Anandwan is planning to plant fast growing biomass banks and specialised forests over the 100-acre land that will rapidly recreate biodiversity and attract wildlife. There will be sewage treatment plants for reuse of every drop of water that is wasted. The plastic waste in Anandwan is cleaned and reused for making mattresses, pillows and bricks. Most of the cow-dung is used in the biogas and the remaining is channelized for organic agriculture. Anandwan is also planning many green buildings that will reduce the need of electricity and participate in rain-water harvesting. Anandwan also has 9 large ponds that conserve all the water falling on the land and these serve as carbon sinks.
The Anandwan community provides a working example of shared struggle to seek joy through creativity. Over the years, Anandwan has also become an incubation centre where the trainees become trainers, the empowered start empowering. Anandwan has been serving as a nodal centre for human motivation for decades together for those many who lose hope. Many of the inspired people have gone out to become institutions in themselves.
Anandwan today has several such factors that promote preservation of culture, prevent migration, use natural resources equitably and also promote inter-religious harmony and secularity. Hence Anandwan is perfectly eligible to become the first SMART village in India.

What are your hopes for the future of India?

I think more and more Indian youth are realising the futility of corporate jobs and looking for some concrete contribution in the social space. This is very good as India needs to be skilled and if youth start joining the process there will be a great systemic reform.
These days, social work as a career is expanding quite a lot after the new Companies Act 2013, Section 135 passed.  The government mandates that every company having a net worth of rupees five hundred crore or more, or a turnover of rupees one thousand crore or more or a net profit of rupees five crore or more during any financial year to spend 2 % of their profits under corporate social responsibility. There has been a greater uptake of students trained in social work, social entrepreneurship or any other social work related field by corporates, paying them at market standards.
However I look at social work as a very gratifying career. The most fertile pleasure in the world is to invest in others and there is no other job than social work that gives us this opportunity to obtain satisfaction and earn a good night’s sleep so well. A social worker does not have to get into the fierce performance related competitions, rat race or performance appraisals. He or she can carve their careers at their pace and their way. A social worker has fixed deposits of people’s blessings which are far more superior than the monetary ones.
The qualities you need are to be cultivated. One needs to be compassionate, down to earth, observant and cooperative. One needs to be able to confront challenges at the grassroot level such as power cuts, housing, food and water shortages, internet issues, hygiene issues etc. One should be able to document the grassroot position in proper words. One needs to be able to delay gratification and focus more on sustainability of work. One should not measure the value of his/her work through the likes on his/her facebook profile but one has to really count the value he or she created for the beneficiates and other stakeholders.


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