By Moin Qazi
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. — Eleanor Roosevelt
The world is witnessing a new breed of women leaders and game-changers that are gate crashing and boldly scaling new heights even as they are pairing their ingenuity and knowledge with passion for bringing lasting solutions to most pressing social challenges and creating a sustainable and more equitable world. Several of them are young icons who are stepping into power in technology, philanthropy, politics, business and media. They are showing the pathways to fundamentally transform our world – to end hunger and poverty, make healthcare universal, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. The world is poised at the cusp of large scale transformations in which everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and social entrepreneurs in order to bring collective peace and prosperity in harmony with our environment.
A new twinkling star on the Indian horizon is Sheetal Amte. One may assume that fame should have accrued naturally to her, being born with a privileged lineage. Apart from the iconic global status of her legendary grandfather Baba Amte and almost equally impressive credentials and highly fascinating lives of sons, Vikas and Prakash and their wives, Bharati and Mandakini, all of them doctors by qualification, Sheetal has her own distinct contribution to nation building. Surprisingly an Amte pedigree is not an instant and assured springboard for power or stardom. Carrying this legacy demands selfless commitment against impossible odds. Moreover, Sheetal arrived on stage in an era where the world refuses to acknowledge you except on your own merits. We live in a world far more complex and uncertain, demanding much more of us and our collective sense of moral imagination.Sheetal has made a bold entry into the female leadership brigade and her achievements in a short time mark the rapid ascendancy of her trajectory.
Sheetal is a medical doctor, disability specialist, motivational speaker and social entrepreneur. Poised and elegant, she is a thoughtful campaigner who works methodically to drive change without seeking the limelight. For years after her studies, she worked in the shadows of Anandwan while at the same time seeking exposure to the new development winds blowing across the world. She finally emerged from the woodwork to become CEO of Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS -Leprosy Service Society) the flagship organisation that was her sagely grandfather’s’ primary locomotive of social change. In January 2016 she was selected by world economic forum as ‘young global leader 2016’.
Her formative years were spent in Baba’s tutelage and they have shaped her perceptions of the world. “I am conscious of my responsibility to uphold the ideals he represented – a deep commitment to public service”, chuckles an otherwise reticent Sheetal.
Apart from the roll of great honours like John Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the 1988 United Nations Human Rights Prize, Padma Vibhushan award and International Gandhi Peace Prize ,there are a thousand stories of Baba Amte and they have been recounted a thousand times—a man who renounced his father’s huge estate embracing an austere life, a man whose first encounter with a leprosy patient left him repulsed and totally transformed him; a man who created a commune called Anandwan, “forest of joy” for the benefit of leprosy patients, social outcasts and those with disabled speech and hearing, visually impaired, the orthopedically challenged and the socially backward tribals. His focus was more on the social implications of leprosy which he viewed as a cultural plague. He later made a vigorous foray into environmental issues.
Anandwan was set up in 1951 in the primitive forested backyards of eastern Maharashtra on rocky land that was covered with scrubby vegetation and infested with scorpions, wild boar, cobra and scorpion. This task was carried out by a small band of people: Baba himself, his wife, two sons aged 1 and 2, six badly maimed leprosy sufferers, a lame cow and a dog. An army of leprosy patients and other social outcasts created fertile fields from barren rock land and forests and tilled it from scratch with half a dozen tools and their stumps of hands.”Charity destroys, work builds”—became Baba’s life-long credo.
Anandwan village is now home to some 3,000 inmates who are victims of social apartheid. It is a classic representation of the village of Gandhi’s dreams. All of it is the result of the industry of another man, Vikas Amte himself. He is a silent crusader and one of world’s great institution builders’ .The perfection we see in even the tiniest activity at Anandwan is the fruit of Vikas’s relentless efforts to groom and empower every inmate at Anandwan. The pursuit of excellence, for him, is not just a passion but a daily habit. He founded Swaranandwan, ‘The Orchestra of the Abled-Disabled’, the cultural group of Anandwan inmates, in 2002. More than 100 artistes who are leprosy affected, physically and mentally challenged and blind perform music and dance. “Baba Amte is a process. One death won’t breach that. He has already given a direction, reason, logic and purpose,” says Vikas.
Though influenced by a number of political personalities and ideologies including that of Marx, John Ruskin, Mao and the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, Anandwan is noticeably devoid of any belligerent political overtones-for through all his reading and development ,the man who founded it not only retained his own individuality but passed on the spirit of freedom to those around him. It continues to resonate through the founder’s pithy quotes on walls and in the literature of the Anandwan. But Gandhiji’s philosophy of spartan living certainly allured Amte. Baba was an illumined sage with extraordinary insight. Every aspect of his life and work was charged with moral and spiritual significance. His spiritualism was not the one shaped by conventional religion but was honed by his own internal search for Truth and the eternal verities.
This was the reason why he was such a clear sighted revolutionary. He epitomised Che Guevara’s vision of a great thinker: “The merit of Marx is that he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understanding its dynamics, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it, he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed.”
Anandwan has also served as a social laboratory for three generations of Amtes for experimenting with their social and economic philosophies. These experiments have yielded some of the most daring social and ecological programmes in India.
Sheetal’s chromosomes have unique and diverse strands: the laser sharp intelligence of father Vikas which flows from Baba Amte and the pure compassion of mother Bharati which flows from Sadhanatai ,Baba Mate’s wife and his most powerful ally and source of moral strength. She combines the audacity of her father with the humility of her mother.
She very well knows she has to be to be audacious enough to set goals that can make her stretch and give clarity of vision and purpose. But you have to be humble to know the limits and, therefore, set the bar accordingly. Sheetal’s brother Kaustubh, a chartered accountant by training, who manages the finances of Anandwan is the man who will step into Vikas’s shoes when the third generation of Amtes assume full leadership. In fact, he has to regularly relieve his father on the steering wheel to enable him to attend important meetings across the country. Says Kaustabh: “We are not just a family of four or five but of 4000 and Baba always said ‘responsibilities are not transferable’, so we came back.”Prakash’s sons Digant, a doctor, and Aniket, an engineer—have too joined their father’s work in the globally acclaimed Hemalkasa project, nestled in deep tribal land.Prakash has countless awards to his name and has been christened” the Albert Schweitzer of India”.
Not content to rest on the laurels of Anandwan’s traditional projects, Sheetal founded ‘mashaal’ and ‘chirag’, the exclusive leadership training programs for motivating medical professionals across India. She has also set up a centre called ‘nijbal’ for offering a complete suite of services for rehabilitation of the disabled.
I first met Sheetal when she was in high school: a serious, aloof, demure, quiet and reserved girl bewildered by the aura in which she lived. On the surface, she looked an unlikely candidate for a larger role in Anandwan. Now, as I look back, and after seeing her evolve over the years, I realize that what I saw was just a single slice of her identity. At a more granular level you will find a finely honed analytical person with a cool brilliance but a tough, gritty core undergirding the soft exterior. She’s a genuinely talented and impassioned advocate .So when you hear her speak about issues, in her low rich voice, you immediately the strength of her convictions and a propulsive desire to change the status quo. The idea that hard work equals success has been in her DNA. She has spent her spare time innovating and constructing integrated solutions to social problems. Her compassion is a natural trait that epitomised her grandmother, Sadhanatai. She is fundamentally an aesthete, with eclectic tastes. Whatever downtime she has, she settles into a quieter routine, ands spends it with her 3 year old son, Sharvil.
Sadhanatai was perhaps the finest practitioner of the art of compassion. Her compassion was whiter than the whiteness of falling snowflakes. It was hardwired into her brains. We can see glimpses of that magic in Bharati. Into the old, often frightening world of leprosy wards she comes regularly, practising the compassionate art of nurturing patient’s hopes. Many of the lost tormented souls have been transformed by the magic of her luminous presence. Sheetal’s soothing expressions reinforce her mother’s benign attention. There is none of the cold forlornness of abandonment here .Life continues to flutter even in the pall of gloom dispels all their lonely miseries. In Anandwan today, the Amte mystique –symbolised by Baba and Tai -not only survives, but flourishes in exuberance.
What are Sheetal’s dreams for Anandwan? Sheetal is part of the core team that is working hard for making Anandwan India’s first smart village. For her, social work provides both personal and professional joy. Most important to her, a social worker is insulated from the corporate turf wars and ego bashing, fuelled by the fierce race to meet performance targets and generate limitless profits. Sheetal believes that if you focus on generating social value you automatically get personal value as a natural by product .if you work on just personal value you work on a very short term horizon. This myopic approach has now corrupted the mainstream corporate philosophy. “We are not looking to corporatize Anandwan—whoever comes here to work has to fit in with the values of this place. The right mindset is needed,” Sheetal muses.
With her skills and experiences, she is working to bolster the key foundations of rural society –primary education, basic healthcare and sustainable development. She is trying to create a doorstep health museum for building awareness about preventive care for health problems, nutrition, health rights among the low income groups including school children to decrease the disease burden and mitigate the financial distress of the poor on account of expenditure on health. Her career went stellar when she entered the health arena. She has been awarded a grant by Lancet Commission on Global Surgery and WHO alliance for setting up ‘Centre for Excellence for Medical Leadership, Ethics and Motivation’. Under her leadership, Anandwan holds free health camps, particularly for retinal disorders, mental illness and diabetes detection and management. Sheetal also serves on the Advisory Board of Indian Institute of Public Health and Public Health Foundation of India.
She endorses the idea of Bill Drayton, the greatest modern leader in social entrepreneurship, that the central challenge is to make everyone a changemaker. The first step, she argues, is to take the first step. Social change flows from individual actions. Small gains well consolidated as part of a sequence can mean more than big gains which are unstable and short-lived. By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions. Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and best way forward is through innumerable small steps; they could be just nudges and tiny pushes. Slower and smaller steps also help build people’s adaptability to changes. We should look for small innovations, not just blockbusters.
Sheetal firmly believes that what we need for any revolution to succeed is humility. When we design solutions that recognize everyone as equal partners, we have a real chance to achieve our goals. This logic comes from the power of empathy—not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born out of a profound humility. The problem today is that most social leaders are really not listening, or they’re listening only to what they want to listen to, or they assume they’re so right that they’re need not listen. This is leading to a lot of suboptimal solutions in the world.
The kind of leaders we need —and certainly the ones the new breed comprising Sheetal and their ilk aspire to be —reject ideology, reject the status quo, reject trite assumptions, and are really open to listening to solutions from people who are actually the most impacted by the problems. This is the alchemy that characterises the real heroes of the future.
History has shown us that many of today’s challenges can be overcome in the years ahead. The world has the tools, resources and knowhow to improve the lives of all people. We just need to empower people to use their own knowledge to shape their futures the way young leaders like Sheetal Amte are doing. If we do that, more inclusive development will be within our reach. As Bill Drayton himself puts it: “Entrepreneurs cannot be happy people until they have seen their visions become the new reality across all of society”.