The first of its kind in India, the ‘Amte's Animal Ark’ has a fascinating beginning. One day while wandering in the jungle, Prakash saw some tribals returning from a hunting spree. They had killed two Bonnet Macaques (kind of monkey) and were carrying them slung on a rod. One of them was a female and to her breast was clinging a baby Macaque, who was still alive. Moved by the sight, Prakash persuaded the tribals to give him the baby.
Over the next two days he bottle-fed the monkey and soon it forgot its own mother and came to regard Prakash as its mother. Prakash called it Babli and she went on to become the first inmate of the ‘Animal Orphanage’ at Hemalkasa.
When the tribals saw Prakash’s love for animals, they began bringing to him all orphaned, diseased and hurt animals as gifts, by way of gratitude towards their beloved doctor. The members of the LBP had no expertise on rearing animals but their affection for the animals enabled them to transcend their lack of training.
Today the list of animals at the LBP ‘Animal Orphanage’ is inexhaustible- leopards, lions, barking deer, mouse deer, chameleons, Nilgai (blue Indian bull), otters, wild boars, hyenas, vipers, cobras, kraits, owls, eagles, civet cats, crocodiles and monkeys.
The orphanage is the pride of the project and is a great sight for all those visiting the project. The story of these animals has been beautifully narrated in a book, 'Negal' (The Leopard Cub) written by Vilas Manohar, Prakash's brother in law.
Residential School: For tribal children, upto Class X, Imparting Formal & Non-Formal Education, Strength: 575, Junior college upto Class XII
Prakash and Mandakini Amte realized that the only way the tribals could escape exploitation and be informed about their rights was through education. In addition to reading and writing, agricultural techniques, health care and hygiene were also essentials that were required to be taught. With this perspective, a residential school was started in 1976. Gopal Phadnis, the principal since 1976, recalls how he and some other members of the LBP, went from village to village personally entreating the parents to send their children to school.
But the Madias were still suspicious, not of the LBP people but of education. Finally some of them relented, not for the sake of education but because of the meals their children would be given at school.
Prakash says, “We were not bothered about government grant or recognition, but about the enrolment of the Madia children and their continuing to study. We were planning about how to make the children want to come and stay and how to make their parents send them”.
Another problem stared the LBP workers in the eye: the textbooks, were all in Marathi and the Madias spoke a language that had no script. And as if this was not enough, the children often ran away from school and had to be chased and brought back. But despite all these hardships no one gave up.
Plans were devised and paths were built in a wilderness of problems; standard textbooks were discarded. The LBP people began learning in Madia language, common words and concepts and names of objects- living and non-living. Then the children were taught these in Marathi. Languages were taught in the old barter system technique, words exchanged for words, concepts for concepts and objects for objects!
The system worked, the children began getting the hang of it and stopped running away from school. Efforts blossomed, word got out and slowly the strength of the students in the school began increasing. The school that started in 1976 with 32 boys and three girls today has 575 students, most of them boarders, with many thousands already having passed out of the school.
The school has a tightly packed schedule. The morning instruction consists of formal learning and the afternoons are devoted to practical training in agriculture, carpentry, iron-smithy etc. During vacations each child takes home a packet of seeds for their kitchen gardens, which they teach their parents to rear and tend. The children are made to grow and eat their own produce even while at school so that they can convince their parents about the values of advanced agriculture.
In the last almost three decades, since the school was started, some of the children that have passed out from here have either taken up teaching as a profession, some have pursued sports and some medicine.
Two of them, Kanna Dobi Madavi and Pandu Pugati are doctors who now work at the hospital at Hemalkasa, trying to repay their debt to the institution that gave them the gift of education!
The Hemalkasa Cottage Hospital
The Gadchiroli district and Hemalkasa in particular is highly endemic to cerebral malaria, gastroenteritis, tuberculosis, malnutrition, diarrhoea, rheumatism, cirrhosis and attacks by wild animals.
Traditionally, the Madia Gond tribals were mainly animists believing in the 'Mother Goddess' and depended almost entirely on the local witch doctors for all their ills and maladies. Cultural taboos put other methods of healthcare out of bounds. Consequently mortality was very high. This necessitated the establishment of the Hemalkasa Cottage Hospital.
The Hemalkasa Cottage Hospital began in 1974 with a leaf thatched hut as accommodation for patients who traveled from far and near on foot, by bullock carts or dugouts, in all stages of various kinds of illnesses. An adjoining shed served as a surgical tent and a wooden bench outside was used to examine, cut open abscesses, dress wounds and give medicines.
The doctor duo of Prakash and Manda went from village to village treating rheumatism, leprosy, cirrhosis of the liver etc. Then in 1975, Dr. Schnellman, of the 'Swiss Aid Abroad' paid a visit to Hemalkasa. Moved by conditions in which work was being done, he contributed funds for the construction of some buildings - houses, godowns and a hospital. This helped immensely, giving a quantum leap to the work being carried out at Hemalkasa. Things became more ordered, comfortable and hence more efficient.
But the problem of electricity persisted. Broken bones were set without X rays and surgery was carried out under the light of kerosene lamps!
Today, things have improved. In addition to a 40 bed hospital, there is a dormitory, for less serious patients and the attendants of the serious ones. A very spacious room has been built for the examination of the patients. Many machines, gadgets, state of the art laboratory facilities and medicines are now available.
A team of doctors from Nagpur visit the hospital every year to perform major specialized surgeries at the annual medical camp held at Hemalkasa. The hospital is ably managed by Dr. Digant (Prakash's son), Dr. Kanna Dobi and Dr. Pandu Pungati (Madia tribals).