In the 1970s, when Prakash Amte decided on an impulse to stay and work at Hemalkasa in Maharashtra few could have predicted what he would achieve over the next 30-40 years. Probably, not even his own father, the legendary Baba Amte. When he and his wife Manda, began their adventure in this quiet jungle, the place was beautiful but isolated from all civilisation. There was no electricity for the first 17 years. No supplies of food and no school for their children. The river Bandia flooded in July and Hemalkasa was completely cut off for 6 months in a year. And the challenges were enormous. The Madia Gond tribe were hunter-gatherers. They had little access to regular food and almost no health care. Diseases and deaths due to Malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, whooping cough, gangrene, ulcers and malnutrition were quite common. The tribal people were also very suspicious of city-dwellers and ran away if they saw them.

Today Hemalkasa is a thriving community. It has a 50-bed hospital and an OPD that treats over 40,000 Madiatribal in a year. It has a residential school up to Class XII for 650 Madia boys and girls and a training programme for barefoot doctors. It also has an animal orphanage that houses a range of wild animals from leopards, lions and bears to crocodiles, wolves, hyenas, snakes, porcupines, badgers, deer and owls. Their silent achievements were recognised by the world community with the Magsaysay award in 2008. All this hasn’t come without a fight, without its share of sacrifices.

They almost lost their elder son to Cerebral Malaria. All their three children, Diganth, Aniket and Aarti failed in the board exams. These things did make them wonder if they had made the right choice by choosing to live in the forest. What kept them going through the tough times was their compassion for the tribal. In Prakash’s words, “They come to us from a radius of 200 kilometres, we try to help them. Sometimes when I cut their wounds, the pus sprays onto my face and body. We never had gloves but it never mattered. When I watch their wounds — black, poisonous, foul-smelling — slowly turning red and healthy, that is my reward.”

Sources: Tehelka, Samidhi by Sadhana Amte