Magsaysay award for Prakash, Mandakini Amte

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Manila, Jul 31: Prakash and Mandakini Amte, a couple who run a hospital and school for the Madia Gond tribals in eastern Maharashtra, are among the winners of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards for 2008, it was announced on Thursday, July 31.

They were chosen for the award in the Community Leadership category for "enhancing the capacity of the Madia Gonds to adapt positively in today's India, through healing and teaching and other compassionate interventions." Prakash Amte grew up in Anandwan, an ashram and rehabilitation center for leprosy patients in Maharashtra founded by his father, the renowned Gandhian humanitarian Murlidhar Devidas Amte, or Baba Amte. He was busy with post-graduate surgical studies in Nagpur when Baba Amte called him, in 1974, to take over a new project among the Madia Gonds. ''In a leap of faith, he and his wife Mandakini abandoned their urban practices and moved to remote Hemalkasa,'' the citation said.

The other winners include Ahmad Syafii Maarif, the head of Indonesia's powerful Muhammadiyah group, Thai prosthetic limb manufacturer Therdchai Jivacate and Sri Lankan social worker Ananda Galappatti.

Grace Padaca, governor of the Philippine province of Isabela, received the award for government service. Crippled by childhood polio, she defeated a powerful political dynasty in the 2004 elections and was re-elected last year.

Akio Ishii of Japan received the award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts, the foundation said. Ishii is the head of publishing house Akashi Shoten, which has about 2,800 books in print that place discrimination, human rights and other difficult subjects in Japan's public domain, the foundation said.

The award for public service was given to the Centre for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually Reinforcing Institutions, of the Philippines.

The citation honouring the Amtes said hidden amid the dazzling human mosaic of India are millions of tribal people. For centuries they have lived apart in remote highlands and forests. The Madia Gonds, for example, occupy a 150 square-kilometer swath of eastern Maharashtra, bordering Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh States. In a thousand isolated villages, they survive by hunting and gathering and shifting cultivation. When Prakash and Mandakini Amte arrived in their midst 34 years ago, the region had no modern services.

Government officials considered it wild and served there only reluctantly. By contrast, the Amtes, medical doctors, came by choice.

The young couple settled in a doorless hut without a telephone or electricity or privacy. They practiced medicine beside the road and warmed themselves by a wood fire at night. The Madia Gonds, shy people and suspicious of outsiders, spurned their help at first. Prakash and Mandakini learned their language and patiently gained their trust. The miraculous cures of an epileptic boy with terrible burns and a man near death from acute malaria turned the tide. "Once a patient is cured," says Prakash, "he comes back and brings four new patients." Beginning in 1975, SWISSAID provided funds to build and equip a small hospital in Hemalkasa. There Prakash and Mandakini performed surgery and treated malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery, burns and animal bites. To conform to tribal sensibilities, they placed most of the hospital's facilities out-of-doors, beneath the trees. They charged nothing.

Illiteracy had made the Madia Gonds easy prey for corrupt forest officers and other greedy outsiders. The Amtes helped them assert their rights and intervened to mediate disputes and rid the area of abusive officials. In 1976, they opened a school. The Madia Gonds were reluctant to send their children but, in time, the school prospered and became a center for both academic and vocational education. Prakash and Mandakini's own children were educated there.

The Amtes have used the school at Hemalkasa to introduce the Madia Gonds to settled agriculture-growing vegetables, fruits, and irrigated grains organically-and to encourage them to conserve forest resources. This includes wild animals, a tribal dietary staple. The Amtes' popular animal sanctuary at Hemalkasa promotes the survival of animals as part of nature's balance.

Simplicity and respect guide the Amtes' work with the Madia Gonds.

Prakash wears only a singlet and white shorts as he goes about his work, so as not to identify himself with "well-dressed" outsiders.

Where applicable, the couple incorporates tribal cures in their medical practice. In school, children perform tribal songs and dances.

Today, the Amtes' hospital has 50 beds, a staff of five doctors, and treats 40,000 patients a year free-of-charge. It is a regional centre for mother-child welfare and health education. Its "barefoot doctors" bring first aid to outlying villages. The Amtes' school, meanwhile, has grown to 500 students and is comprehensive.

Among its graduates are the Madia Gonds' first doctors and lawyers and teachers as well as officials, office workers, and policemen.

"More than 90 percent of the students have come back to serve in the community, including my sons," says Prakash, reflecting on his and Mandakini's legacy. "Maybe it's the way we have led our lives." Established in 1957, the Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia's highest honour and is widely regarded as the region's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It celebrates the memory and leadership example of the third Philippine President, and is given every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who manifest the same sense of selfless service that ruled the life of the late and beloved Filipino leader.

The eight 2008 Magsaysay awardees join 263 other laureates who have received Asia's highest honour to date. This year's Magsaysay Award winners will each receive a certificate, a medallion bearing the likeness of the late President, and a cash prize. They will be formally conferred the Magsaysay Award during the Presentation Ceremonies to be held on August 31 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.


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