Meet The SHEROES – Dr. Sheetal Amte, CEO, Maharogi Sewa Samiti
On her young, capable shoulders rests the present and the future of India’s most marginalized people--the leprosy-afflicted. It’s a legacy that has been handed down to her by her late grandfather, Baba Amte, who devoted his entire life to the betterment of the health and life of the leprosy-afflicted populace of Warora, a place in the Vidarbha Region of Maharashtra, near Nagpur.
Leprosy, those days, was called ‘Maharog’. Dr Amte’s NGO, the Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), became the only organization that battled leprosy, worked day and night to stop it from spreading, helping the leprosy-afflicted save themselves from death and from public shaming and shunning.
Our writer, Sonali Karande Brahma spoke to a young lady with a mission, Dr. Sheetal Amte--a third generation social entrepreneur, Young Global Leader 2016 (World Economic Forum) and Innovation Ambassador to the UN Innovation Summit, 2016.
Dr. Sheetal Amte, we would love to hear about the work you do.
I am a doctor, a disability specialist and a social entrepreneur. I work as chief executive officer with one of India’s leading non-profits, Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), Warora, operating from one of the most backward districts of Central India, building the livelihood capabilities of the most marginalized people, especially those with disabilities like leprosy, the orthopedically handicapped, vision- and hearing-impaired and the primitive tribal populace. We have been doing this for the last 67 years.
What is the essence of Anandwan village?
Anandwan is not a regular village. A project of the MSS, it is now a world-renowned, presidential award-winner cooperative village carved from barren land by these crippled social outcasts.
Established by my late grandfather in 1949 on a 50-acre barren land with six leprosy patients, a lame cow, 14 rupees, two sons aged one and two (my father and uncle), his wife and an unrelenting optimism in a hut surrounded by wild animals, today, the village is home to some 2,500 people with disabilities such as leprosy, leprosy survivors, youth and children with other different disabilities, orphans and the destitute.
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 all set to become the first smart village in India.
When did you decide in your life that you would take the Anandwan dream ahead and lead it?
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 difficult for me. What was difficult was to choose to come back to Anandwan after marriage. This included convincing my in-laws and the traditional society.
The fact was that I could never really enjoy life when it was full of comforts, but without a purpose. So one day, I really had this hard talk with my husband about the kind of life we wanted for ourselves. We realised that what we want is a life full of purpose, not affluence; contentment, not greed; compassion, not just passion; peace, not pace. We knew that Anandwan would be the best place for us to spend the rest of our lives in, because Anandwan is a society free of caste, creed, religion and any barriers.
Such societies are hard to find and need to be preserved. And it was our responsibility to preserve the culture and the people. So we came back here.
What does your typical day look like? How do you balance work and home?
Mornings are for household chores and reading the entire newspaper. Then I bathe my child. We bathe together. This practise is highly recommended by child experts to remove gender stigma from children’s minds. Then, I go to the office.
Work is full of planning, administration work, financial management, meetings, field visits, new projects, and conflict resolution. In between, I go home for lunch and come back to work after putting my little one to sleep. I call it a day at 6.30 pm.
7.30 pm to 10.30 pm is family time. I paint and embroider with my child. I put my child to sleep at 11 pm and then it’s me-time.
The best way to balance your work and home is to be aware of 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 are your thoughts about social work as a career? What qualifications and qualities does one need to have a career in this field?
These days, social work as a career is gaining a lot of momentum after the new Companies Act 2013, Section 135 passed by the Government mandating every company with a certain net worth/profits/turnover to spend a certain percentage on Corporate Social Responsibility. There are many students and people choosing social work as their primary work area and corporates are paying them at market standards.
To do effective social work, one needs to be compassionate, observant and cooperative. One needs to be able to confront challenges at the grass-root level--such as power cuts, housing, food and water shortages, internet issues, hygiene issues etc. One needs to be able to delay gratification and focus more on sustainability of work.
How do you think a layman can make a difference to society?
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 II is the subtle, moral part of human nature that works on the philosophy of accumulating blessings through giving, forgiveness and redemption. Adam II builds our Eulogy virtues. These two are in perpetual confrontation with each other. We need to consciously build our Adam II so as to bid our final adieu to this world with serenity, pride and fulfilment.