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'If people get two square meals and a job, they won't take to guns'

December 01, 2015 10:02 IST

'The only positive I see are the youth of India who were earlier just after money. The young now want to do something for society.'

Winners of Indians for Collective Action awards speak about their experiences. Ritu Jha/Rediff.com listens in.

IMAGE: Indians for Collective Action Co-Founder Dr P K Mehta, left, presents the award to social workers Dr Mandakini and Dr Prakash Amte.

Indians for Collective Action, a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit, honoured social workers and physicians Dr Mandakini and Dr Prakash Amte at its annual award gala at the India Community Centre, Milpitas, California.

"I am proud to say in the past 40 years, I never came across news about rape in our tribal village," Dr Mandakini Amte said, speaking about the Hemalkasa hamlet in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district, while accepting the Social Innovation Award.

Each year, the Indians for Collective Action honours individuals who have made an outstanding contribution in India.

This year, the Amtes shared the award with Professor Thomas Kailath, the Hitachi America Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Stanford University.

Speaking about the rise in rape cases in India, Dr Mandakini Amte said, "You will not hear (in our village) about rape cases the way it has been happening in the rest of our country. The reason is that both men and women are treated equally."

Dr Prakash and Mandakini Amte -- he is a surgeon and she an anesthetist -- have been honoured with the Magsaysay Award for their work in establishing the non-governmental organisation project Lok Biradari Prakalp, under which they run a 50-bed hospital, a school with 600 students, and an orphanage for animals.

Until she married Prakash -- whose father is the legendary social activist Baba Amte, -- Dr Mandakini said she had no knowledge of a forest lifestyle. "I knew before marriage that he was going to work for tribal people in a jungle. I am from Nagpur, completely an urban girl."

"I agreed to live in a jungle, but wasn't aware of the challenges. You could only see forest officers and a few shopkeepers," she recalled. "Living was difficult, but I prepared myself for every challenge and wanted to help the tribals. Being a doctor I felt it was my responsibility."

Though her primary duty was to medically treat tribals, she was perturbed and saddened to see their condition. They were not able to afford clothes or food. She realised she could not request them to take the medicine she prescribed when they were severely malnourished and had no food to eat.

"I felt we also had to change their lifestyle. We taught them farming, distributed seeds and fertiliser as loans, on the terms (that they would) return the seed after the harvest. We also taught them to grow vegetables which they sold to us."

What did she learn from her much-loved father-in-law? Dr Mandakini said, "He never misused money, donations or funds raised for a social cause. Every night, before going to bed, he would write in his note book each and every amount of money spent. We have been following that."

Dr Mandakini and Dr Prakash Amte have, they said, transformed not just a village, but the whole area. The hospital is now being looked after by her sons and daughter-in-law, and attracts patients from thousands of villages. It was unfortunate, Dr Mandakini said, that while so many grants are given by the Indian government to tribal, they did not reach all tribals because of the Maoist insurgency, which affects Gadchiroli district.

"Where we live, it is calm and it is a jungle. It has been 42 years living in the forest (since her marriage) and I am happy with what I have done so far. I feel satisfied," she said.

Dr Prakash Amte was hesitant to talk about the Maoist issue when asked by a guest at the gala. "It is a sensitive issue. I will say one thing: If the people are not exploited, if they get two square meals a day and employment, I don't think anybody would like to take a gun in his hand. And that is the solution."

In his acceptance speech, he spoke about how a picnic, arranged by his father, moved him to serve the tribal folk of Hemalkasa and that he learnt about tolerance from them, many who come to him for treatment travelling 80 to 100 kilometres on foot.

Why did Dr Prakash Amte choose to serve the tribals?

"I gave my word to my father. I have seen different kinds of sorrow at Anandwan (the community rehabilitation centre which Baba Amte founded) since I was a child. A leprosy patient driven out of his family -- Baba said he wanted to do something for them. I said I would too. I was 22 then," he told Rediff.com

Even today, Dr Amte said Hemalkasa is mostly cut off from the rest of India. Development has hardly reached the area though in a few places there are roads and electricity, even mobile phones.

"The only positive I see are the youth of India, who were earlier just after money and were not aware how to spend easy money. I see a change coming," he said. "The young want to do something for society. During weekends, many youth come over to volunteer, to help."

IMAGE: Professor Thomas Kailath, left, accepts the award from Mahendra Mehta, co-founder, Indians for Collective Action.

"Our life, though very difficult, is very satisfying," said Professor Kailath, who was honored by United States President Barack Obama with the National Medal of Science in 2014. "I am following the path laid out by my late wife Sarah Kailath -- nothing made her happier than making other people happy."

The engineer and entrepreneur manages the Sarah Kailath Women's Leadership Programmes. When Sarah, his wife, was 9, she gifted her gold bangles to pay for another girl's school fees. That spirit evolved over time and she established a trust in 1996 in Bengaluru.

Professor Kailath told Rediff.com, "The main goal is upliftment and empowerment of women and children of limited means with a focus on girl children, but not exclusively of course."

The Trust supports several projects in India -- the Asian Women and Children's Centre and Jagruthi are the main ones. The AWCC, founded by Zubeda Ishaq, from Portland, Oregon, caters to slum kids from Bengaluru: "It's the school she (Ishaq) ran for girls. She is doing an excellent job," Professor Kailath said, adding it was started with much struggle to convince parents of Muslim girls to send them to school, to help eliminate poverty and illiteracy.

The school offers free food provided by Akshaya Patra and uniforms to build attendance.

Jagruthi, founded by social worker Renu Appachu, helps sex workers and their children and also runs a neighbourhood school. "We have given our parents' home in Bengaluru," Profeesor Kaliath said, "to use to run classes."

"In the last two years," Pushpa Subbarao, president, Indians for Collective Action, said, "the ICA took on six new non-profits in India. Today it supports 38 projects."

The Indians for Collective Action supports scores of projects in India in the areas of -- but not limited to -- education, environment, livelihood generation, youth training, women empowerment and social change.

Abhay Bhushan, former president, ICA, said, "Our approach generally is to 'teach them to fish' rather than 'giving a meal'."

Do the amendments to India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act impact non-profits?

"The FCRA affects the newer organisations quite adversely, as they have to wait, sometimes several years, before they can receive funds from us," Bhushan said.

He understood the original intent of the FCRA -- to prevent foreign political meddling -- but added, "I think the FCRA could have been better targetted to such organisations that are politically based."

Bhushan said the Indian Institutes of Technology and some R&D organisations were exempted from the FCRA, and felt this could have been extended to legitimate social organisations that do not engage in political activity.

"With the slower bureaucracy and corruption that is rampant in India, some of our NGOs have to wait for a very long time to receive funds from us," he reiterated.

This prevents them from providing much-needed services to the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The Indian government, he said, "can help NGOs by easing FCRA restrictions, by cracking down on political meddling, and taking steps to facilitate their work in areas such as education where NGO-government partnerships makes sense."

Ritu Jha in California