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Sheetal Amte was devoured by her own noble revolution which was 'sadly' aborted

Seetal with legendary social worker grandfather Baba Amte
By Moin Qazi*
In the death of Sheetal Amte, India has lost a young and bright social warrior. A great talent has been snuffed too early. 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 had 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.
Sheetal’s chromosomes had unique and diverse strands: the laser sharp intelligence of father Vikas which flowed from Baba Amte and the pure compassion of mother Bharati which flowed from Sadhanatai ,Baba Mate’s wife and his most powerful ally and source of moral strength. She combined the audacity of her father with the humility of her mother.
Sheetal very well knew she had to be audacious enough to set goals that can make her stretch and give clarity of vision and purpose. 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 there was a finely honed analytical person with a cool brilliance but a tough, gritty core undergirding the soft exterior. She was a genuinely talented and impassioned advocate of diverse causes. So when you heard her speak about issues, in her low rich voice, you could immediately grasp the strength of her convictions and a propulsive desire to change the status quo. The idea that hard work equals success was in her DNA.
She spent her spare time innovating and constructing integrated solutions to social problems. Her compassion was a natural trait that reminded all of her grandmother, Sadhanatai. She was fundamentally an aesthete, with eclectic tastes. Whatever downtime she had, 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 could see glimpses of that magic in Sheetal. Into the old, often frightening world of leprosy wards she would come regularly, practicing the compassionate art of nurturing patient’s hopes. Many of the lost tormented souls would be transformed by the magic of her luminous presence.
Sheetal’s soothing expressions reinforced her grandmother’s benign attention. There was none of the cold forlornness of abandonment. Life continued to flutter even in the pall of gloom dispelled all their lonely miseries. In Anandwan today, the Amte mystique –symbolised by Baba and Tai -not only survives, but flourishes in exuberance.
What were Sheetal’s dreams for Anandwan? Sheetal was part of the core team that was working hard for making Anandwan India’s first smart village. For her, social work provided both personal and professional joy. Most important to her, a social worker was insulated from the corporate turf wars and ego bashing, fuelled by the fierce race to meet performance targets and generate limitless profits.
Sheetal committed suicide on Nov 30. Her plan to corporatise Baba’s legacy, not liked by her workers, received backlashes which she couldn’t handle
Sheetal believed that if you focus on generating social value you automatically get personal value as a natural byproduct .When 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 Amanda -- whoever comes here to work has to fit in with the values of this place. The right mindset is needed,” Sheetal would muse.
Sheetal's "War and Peace", acrylic on canvas, posted on twitter
With her skills and experiences, she was 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 was 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 held free health camps, particularly for retinal disorders, mental illness and diabetes detection and management. Sheetal also served on the Advisory Board of Indian Institute of Public Health and Public Health Foundation of India.
She endorsed 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 argued, 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 believed 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.
Sheetal’s plans for corporatisaton of Baba’s legacy were well intentioned but far ahead of her times. They were not wholeheartedly embraced by her workers and there were recent backlashes which she couldn’t handle. She was always a tough fighter – not to be elbowed by crisis – but too much of bad press about her seemed overwhelmingly unbearable and she was devoured by her own noble revolution which was sadly aborted.
The kind of leaders we need -- and certainly the ones the new breed comprising Sheetal and their ilk aspired 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 did. If we do that, more inclusive development will be within our reach. Bill Drayton himself puts it: “Entrepreneurs cannot be happy people until they have seen their visions become the new reality across all of society”.
---
*Development expert

Comments

Anonymous said…
Excellent perspective on this amazing woman gone too soon. As a development person myself, I can very much relate to the massive inner and social conflict that arises when you try to approach something with deep compassion and humility but need to make something larger and blockbuster-ish in order to feel validated. you are absolutely right that in the silent, step by step approach is where this change lies. Sheetal Amte's decision to end her life versus keeping on fighting the good fight is a real wake up call to those of us who are conducting our lives in a similar manner. Thank you for your very compassionate and out-of-the-mainstream perspective you have given.
Vijay Bharatiya said…
Thanks Moin for the write up. Having been associated with Anandwan through Bharat Jodo Knit India march in 1988-89, I saw the interesting side of Dr.Sheetal Amte in your article. I have been working with youth for long.You have rightly given message to the younger generation " The kind of leaders we need -- and certainly the ones the new breed comprising Sheetal and their ilk aspired 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." Thanking you for sharing a transformative narrative.

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