India Interior

Factory with a healing touch

Usha Rai | Updated on April 20, 2018 Published on April 20, 2018

Wheelchairs made at Anandwan cost ₹6,500 and every year at least a 1,000 are sold

Magic with wood Govinde Khorpe and Sunita proudly display their creations

How lives ravaged by leprosy are rebuilt in Anandwan, Maharashtra

It was a place that people once feared to enter. They believed the air at Anandwan was teeming with leprosy bacilli. But not anymore. Today it is thronging with life and new energy with the stigma once associated with leprosy visibly dissipated. People come from across the country and distant lands, to see this wonderful complex spread across 450 acres in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. Here, not just leprosy patients and those cured, but the deaf and others with physical disabilities lead productive lives. They craft an array of beautiful products, weave textiles and make simple wheelchairs for the residents as well as for hospitals and disability centres across the country.

Anandwan is like a sprawling factory of different products where a large per cent of the labour is disabled. Clawed hands, or even no hands or a foot does not seem to matter as residents find their way to their work stations in wheelchairs.

Founded in 1948 and registered in 1951, Anandwan, about 100 km from Nagpur, is like a large, self-contained village. People once rejected by society are socially independent, have set world standards for rehabilitation and coordinated some of the most daring social and ecological programmes of the country. There are two hospitals in Anandwan, a college, an orphanage, a school for the blind, a school for the deaf and a technical wing. More than 5,000 people are dependent on Anandwan for their livelihood.

Living in harmony

Despite all the hustle and bustle of visitors and the whirr of machinery making steel cupboards and coolers, there is an inner tranquility at Anandwan. Several hundred leprosy-afflicted and physically challenged find food and shelter. It is also a centre where, in keeping with Baba Amte’s vision, residents imbibe lessons in self-help, self-respect and selfless service.

The place is spotlessly clean and the tradition is to serve all visitors a wholesome but simple meal on the house.

The inmates of Anandwan weave cloth, make greeting cards, bags of different kinds, sweaters and rugs, and chisel wood to carve the most amazing handicrafts. Bandages and dressing material for wounds, soft, special footwear for normal as well as deformed feet are also made at Anandwan. Wheelchairs produced here cost ₹6,500 and every year at least a thousand are sold.

At the woodcraft workshop, Govinde Khorpe (55) and his wife Sunita (50), both cured of leprosy, proudly display their creations. While Govinde came to Anandwan when he was still in his teens, Sunita came from Chandrapur as she entered adulthood. It was Baba Amte who not only cured them but also encouraged them to become partners for life. Though neither had any skill in carpentry, they trained under a Naxalite who, having lost an arm, fitted himself with a self-designed artificial limb and began running the carpentry unit.

Govinde and Sunita learnt the strength and texture of various kinds of wood and how to sculpt it into fetching artefacts. Their guru is no more, but Govinde has donned his mantle and teaches carpentry and woodcraft to newcomers. Ganesha, sculpted out of coconut shells, is a popular product of the carpentry unit.

Govinde and Sunita have a house in the campus. Food is provided by the Maharogi Sewa Samiti which runs Anandwan. Govinde, a better craftsman, earns ₹6,000 a month, Sunita is paid ₹1,000.

There is also Shakuntala who has been living for 20 years in Anandwan. Despite being unable to use her arms, she uses needle and thread with her feet. She is completely independent, making her own cup of tea in the morning. A large number of the residents work on the farm, ensuring that most of the vegetable and other requirements are met from the agricultural fields.

But looking at the macro picture, has leprosy declined over the years? Sadly, for the last five years, there has been an annual increase in new cases of leprosy detected, especially in Gadchiroli and Chandrapur. Door-to-door screening in the State last September revealed 5,004 new cases. Of the 1,329 inmates of Anandwan, 31 are under treatment. Surgery is conducted at Anandwan for clawed hands and disfigurement. A team of 20-30 doctors come from the UK every year and operate on 60 to 70 cases.

Fittingly, the spirit of Anandwan is embodied in the words of Mark Twain, prominently displayed on a wall: “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can read.”

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

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Published on April 20, 2018
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