Power Corrupts On Elephanta Island

India | Environment
It was incredulous yet true! For years on end, Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site registering 20 lakh footfalls annually, received power for not more than two and half hours in the night through an MTDC generator; hadn’t a single doctor on the entire island; had no facility for formal education beyond Standard 10th and absolutely no crisis management process in place. And, the island was located barely 10 kms away from India’s financial capital…Mumbai!

Not Too Long Back

Sometime back, on November 2nd 2018, a crowd converged at a house in Shetbunder Gaon on Elephanta Island, historically known as Gharapuri, near its courtyard where a Tulsi plant grew in a memorial in a ceremony undertaken religiously for the last 23 years on the very same day since 1995.
The villagers, comprising elderly women with moist eyes and sombre-looking young men, sit together to share a meal in memory of twelve-year-old Sarika Namdeo Bhagat with her family. Once again, like every annual occasion, nobody speaks a word of Sarika lest it remind the family of their loss.

Those who arrive for the first time are warned against even bringing mention. The family yet recalls with painful clarity the series of events that led to the disaster…till date!

Cut to November 2nd 1995: A twelve-year-old Sarika had accompanied her father to the Elephanta jetty to help deliver empty cold drink crates. Just then, as she was about to lift a crate, a snake coiled below sprung up and bit her!

As was the norm, the villagers picked her up and rushed her to the village where they initiated the ritual – performed regularly on snake-bite victims. A cut was inflicted near the bite spot that was forcibly inserted into the rectum of a young fowl. As the fowl yelped and screeched, the villagers hoped the venom would be ‘sucked out’ and leave the girl.

However, the fowl went on to die and the girl’s condition only worsened. Realising the futility of the situation, the locals knew they had to rush her to a hospital. But there was a hitch: There wasn’t a single hospital or health centre anywhere on the island.

So, a barely-conscious Sarika was rushed across the sea in a private fishing boat to Uran where after an hour’s journey, she was admitted. Through the night, her condition deteriorated and the next morning, she was rushed to Mumbai’s KEM hospital where she breathed her last. “I still remember young Sarika’s fully bloated torso that lay still with death,” recalls the-then sarpanch Rajendra Padte.

Apart from the snakes that thrive in the island’s thick foliage, it’s the multitudes of monkeys that have grown multifold over the years. Nature is a twin-edged sword. It is Elephanta Island’s biggest USP and its gravest threat too. After reducing farming to a farce with the systematic damage they’ve inflicted, the monkeys are the single-largest threat to any cultivation activity undertaken by the residents left with little option but to set up handicraft stalls for visitors all along the 120 steps leading from the jetty upto the caves.

And, in the stark absence of medical aid with the exception of a ‘nurse’ who provides basic first-aid and “no treatment in case of bites,” the 1,200 locals and the twenty lakh tourists - at Elephanta Island have poor little by way of medical protection in case of an emergency.

Health And Hazards

As tourists embark from the launches transporting them from Gateway of India at Mumbai onto Elephanta’s spanking new jetty (an old one has been put out of public use and is retained by locals for personal travel), they can avail a mini-train ride to the base of the caves for Rs 10. A few minutes later, after traversing a curved extension to the jetty, the mini-train drops tourists to the base of the island. Here, tourists have to dodge an onslaught of cows, goats and stray dogs who chase tourists for a bite or two if not the entire carry-away snacks of say corn (butta) or fruits being transported on person.

Once you manage to buy a ticket to enter the island and reach the base, you can avail basic treatment for minor injuries through medications fitted in a first-aid box kept for the purpose. Apart from say Crocin, basic Dettol, Band-Aids and a few gauze bandages, there’s nothing by way of treatment or crisis management available here. If you’ve had a fall, suffered a more serious injury like say a bite or gash, or developed a violent allergy, you’ll need to rush back to Mumbai for treatment.

If you’ve survived till here and manage to enter the island and reach the base of the 120 steps, you have to swiftly dodge onslaughts by ferocious monkeys who attack in numbers and physically snatch any plastic bags containing food you may be carrying. “It’s best to hand over any edible belongings you may be carrying on hand rather than try to fight them. They’re lethal and ruthless,” says Elephanta Island regular and Mumbaikar Tarun Ramani. “I’ve learned the hard way though. After being attacked a couple of times, I make sure that any eatable I carry is safely ensconced in my haversack and nothing stays open in my hands for the monkeys to grab,” he adds.

And then, once you entered the island, monkey bites and snake-bites are common place but there is absolutely no anti-venom treatment available on the island.

“With the absence of power on the island there was no way to keep medicines refrigerated all the time,” recalls Khushboo, Elephanta Island’s only nurse. All of Elephanta Island prayed for Khushboo to marry an islander and stay back on Elephanta just so that they are not deprived of medical aid, however basic.

As fate would have it, Khushboo got married recently but to a man who lived in Uran. Ironically, Khushboo’s husband moved to Elephanta Island and began to work at her ‘shop’ on the steps leading to the caves while she moved to Uran where she procured a well-paying job at CIDCO. “We live together during weekdays in Uran and I travel to Elephanta during the weekends to handle the shop,” says her husband.

Fitter Than The Rest

For the visitor to the island, it is an arduous climb of 120 steps all the way from the base of the island at the jetty right upto the caves on top. And, if you aren’t quite up to the mark, as is usually the case, you’ll find yourself stopping along the route every few steps to catch your breath along with similarly-exhausted travellers.

So, to assist your ascent are a host of ‘Dolly Drivers’ who physically lift you up till the top seated on a wooden open palanquin called a ‘Dolly’, for a price of course. Elephanta Island’s Chandrakant Mali, Shankar Patil, Gopal Gharat and others, locals and all sexagenarians line up for their turn to lift those out-of-shape or out-of-breath as may be from the base of the Island up the 120 steps, till the entrance of the caves.

Now, the catch here isn’t just climbing the 120 steps. Each step is on a steep slope making the climb even tougher. And, if there’s a lot of space between two steps, you can be sure of having to trudge along a steep incline without a break. They are guaranteed to give the fittest a bit of breathlessness till the end at the top for a bit of relief.

The local sexagenarians make three to four trips up and back to base to tug another till the top through each day. And, all without as much as a whimper of complaint. After all, that’s all they have to earn their keep!

As Legend Goes

Elephanta Island’s three villages – Rajbunder that houses 550 locals, Shetbunder that houses 400 and Morabunder which houses 250 natives – 1,200 locals in all have inhabited the island for well over five hundred years.

Elephanta’s original residents were Agris and Kolis. As legend goes, Agla - the ancestor of the Agris - and Mangla (Kolis) - the ancestor of the Mangelas (fishermen) were born to sage Agasti. Agla was told to subsist through the manufacture of salt from the sea while Mangla was told to subsist by fishing.

Parashuram, intending to throw back the sea, was prevented by the intervention of the Agri and Mangela women on whose request he consented to throw it back only 27 miles. The strip of land, thus formed, came to be known as Konkan. Elephanta being an integral part of Konkan houses the Agris and Kolis.

The island also has a lengthy association with modern Indian history. Shetbunder that lies at the base of the island near the jetty yet retains broken-down Electricity and Telephone poles since the British period when the island housed a British Military Base that possessed electricity as well as telephone lines. “Seems like the islanders were better off then when power wasn’t an issue to start with,” says Shetbunder’s Uttara Bhoir.

Anyway, even the Elephanta local wasn’t really bothered with the power shortage and lack of communication as well as shortfall in educational facilities. The spirits remained high: After all, they never had the ‘facilities’ like neighbouring Mumbai and couldn’t quite figure what was the big deal about them either. So, after passing the tenth standard, the Elephanta student would go to study at a college at Uran and then pursue higher education at, say, Panvel in mainland Maharashtra.

For decades, seven in all since Independence, while the state government continued to dilly-dally on issues of ‘basic development’ here, the will to survive ran high among natives here.

And then, there was power!

In February 2018, power reached Elephanta Island via a a 7.5 km-long, and India’s longest, undersea cable. While the cost of the electrification project came to about Rs 25 crore, it took the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution company (MSEDC) a year and quarter to complete.

Now, each of the three villages on the island has a transformer of its own and six street-lights about 13 metres high. In a high-profile function attended by Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and other ministers, social reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari switched on the power supply on an island that had been in the dark for way too long.

Part of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s target of electrification of all of India within 1,000 days of his term, the target was achieved in 987 days, with Leisang in Manipur becoming the ‘last village’ to be added to the power grid on April 28.

“There is no greater contentment and joy than the fact that the lives of the countrymen be full of shine and there be happiness in their lives,” said the Prime Minister, echoing their sentiments.

A 22-KV undersea cable supplied to the Island has four lines, including one standby line that ensures the supply of round-the-clock power with excess capacity to meet requirements for more than 30 years. It has been connected directly with the MSEDCL’s Olwa sub-station, Panvel division, in Raigad on the mainland.

An RO water filtration plant is also set up on the island so that islanders can have access to safe, clean drinking water procured from a small dam on the 16 sq km island. And, in the pipeline is a proposed 8-km ropeway connecting Mumbai directly with the Elephanta Island.

Till the ropeway comes through, and more tourists arrive on the island, the Islanders can watch television around the clock instead of the barely two-hour window period when an MTDC generator would provide them power in the evenings.

“Now I can see most of the Primetime programmes on my favourite channels without any interruption,” says 19-year-old Malati while “my mother can watch, Kapil Sharma show late even at night.” The small pleasures of entertainment that the rest of India takes so much for granted are now within reach for Elephanta’s native and for the first time in their lives.

…and a surprise sop to boot!

Swift to follow within months of obtaining power was, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority’s (MCZMA) draft coastal regulation zone (CRZ) map for Raigad district released in May 2018, wherein mangrove areas in Taloja, Kamothe and Gharapuri Island were marked as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) II.

These are areas that have already been developed up to or close to the shoreline where authorised constructions are allowed – enabling developers to work in the area.

And, Elephanta’s Islanders were a exhilarated lot. “Har choti choti si baat ke liye ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) se permission lena padta tha humein. Ab hum hamare ghar ko apne aap hi theek kar sakenge. (We need to take permission for any small repair job to be undertaken from the ASI. Now we will be able to repair our own homes without the need to procure permissions,” says an Islander refusing to reveal his identity, happy to be able to perform some basic repairs and bandh kaam (minor construction works) of his home that lies next to the sea.

A lot of homes in Shetbunder lie along the High Tide Line of the sea with waters entering their homes almost as a rule every monsoons leaving the residents with no option but to keep their windows shut and quietly suffer damage till it stops raining, after which they embark on their annual repairs.

“During the monsoons, the sea enters our homes and the view our home provides tourists is spectacular. It’s like living under a waterfall,” says Shetbunder resident Someshwar Bhoir. The USP of Bhoir’s home—its proximity to the sea—happens to be the very bane of their new-found trade. Someshwar’s daughter, incidentally, was born in a boat while his wife was being transported to mainland by sea when in labour. ‘Sagar’ as she was named is now married, lives in the mainland but bears testimony to the acute dearth of basic medical facilities leave aside a mid-wife or maternity facilities on the island.

Then, when Sagar was born in the middle of the sea, Someshwar realised the dire need for medical facility for locals on the island more than the need for tourism. Now, decades later, he looks forward to ‘developing’ his home for tourists arriving through a home-stay arrangement. Today, Sagar’s picture remains framed on a wall, the angst of her birth without medical facilities a memory forgotten.

Now, apart from the fact that they won’t need to take any permissions from the ASI they began to see dreams of developing their homes for home-stays even rent them out to tourism companies.

The fact that they will need to take permissions from the Gram Panchayat for any of it is of little consequence. After all, the Gram Panchayat is headed by one of their own. The new Sarpanch Baliram Thakur was, initially, a hot favourite over an age-old Sarpanch Rajendra Padte who reigned over the island for over decades. But, as soon as Thakur was elected, the villagers found themselves unable to reach out to him. Power corrupts the powerful and Thakur is only a mortal.

“Now, the new Sarpanch is only interested in getting himself photographed with State ministers and leaders in the hope of getting politically strong,” says a disgruntled Rajbunder resident and a former aide of the Sarpanch on grounds of anonymity. After all, he says, “Aage jake ussi se toh har choti moti cheez ke liye permission lena padega. Usse bair karke nuksaan hi hai, (Now, in the days to follow, for every small issue, we need his help. It won’t pay to alienate him)”. So, politically, while the new Sarpanch, Thakur came in originally only to contest an age-old candidature of outgoing Sarpanch Rajendra Padte, who had been holding fort for over years, the more recent changes in the CRZ law and the ensuing prospects of an imminent surge in tourism have only added to the dizzying cocktail of power.

On behalf of Watchdog Foundation lawyer Godfrey Pimenta then wrote to the Raigad Collector and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in June 2018 saying, “By marking the said island as CRZ-II (Urban), you will be opening them for development and turn them into a concrete jungle. The environmental destruction has to be stopped or it will ruin the history of this great island.”

And, almost all environmentalists studying the zone are unanimous in their suggestion that Gharapuri Island needs to be preserved as an open space and kept away from any development. The Island should ideally be marked as CRZ-III (Open Space Area/Rural) and all construction activities on the island be banned. Also, the documentation of mangroves around the island must be undertaken and requisite steps taken by way of ensuring prevention of ‘development’ to prevent damage to an already-fragile eco-zone.

So, soon after the CRZ maps were released in May 2018, in the very next month, the Maharashtra government announced a collaboration with Airbnb, the American community-driven hospitality company, to start home-stay facilities at Elephanta Island.

Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) with Airbnb identified several places around Shetbunder village on the island as potential home-stay locations. According to plans, the villagers were to be trained by Airbnb to provide quality home service to rent-seeking tourists.

Needless to say, the Airbnb project has been stalled as is the case with most tourism projects undertaken by MTDC in the state whose potential for tourism is thwarted with preposterous regularity by the corporation’s dismal approach towards the industry, its stake-holders and associated variables.

So, while all of Elephanta Island’s natives braced for an influx of tourists from over the world on their seaside homes and got cracking to build over and above what was originally theirs, a lot of snags stalled their most prized project.

Environmentalists Warn Of Disasters

The theory was that, by marking the zone as CRZ II (Urban) in May 2018, the Fadnavis government was now trying to open up the Elephanta Island for development. Now, while CRZ-I covers ecologically sensitive areas within 100 metres of the high-tide line where no development is allowed and CRZ-III covers areas within 500 metres of the high-tide line and are considered ‘No-Development Zones’, CRZ-II covers areas within 500 metres of the high-tide line but have already been developed, for example, Marine Drive in South Mumbai.

So, when Elephanta Island was marked as CRZ II (Urban) the environmentalist lobby, bolstered by political opposition opposed the CRZ-II maps by filing “detailed objections” to “resist any construction activity” on the island.

“It is the state’s ploy to permit five-star hotels, holiday resorts besides home-stays to come up on the island,” maintains Mumbai-based NGO Vanshakti Founder and Environmentalist D. Stalin. “This government has been attempting to further commercial interests while compromising local needs and without taking into consideration fragile environmental issues. We will not let that happen,” he says.

“We have filed objections to these maps and will not allow construction activities on this island,” says Stalin adding, “in the coming monsoons, we will conduct independent surveys to ascertain how most of Elephanta’s villages lie precariously close to the sea and are hit by the waves on a daily basis.”

He added that, “the island is surrounded by mangroves and a recent High Court order bans any activities in the zone. How can the State Government act in such a slipshod manner with such a fragile island? This is asking for trouble.”

“There, incidentally, aren’t even any pucca roads on the island which has been classified as CRZ II (Urban). And, how can the state call a zone urban if it has procured electricity only recently,” said Stalin.

The Last Straw

If that wasn’t bad enough, arrived the new CRZ notifications in December 2018. Now, according to the new notifications 2018, on CRZ-II notified islands, construction of buildings for residential purpose will be done “only on the landward side of the existing road”.

Oddly, all constructions on islands or in zones with coastal roads, take place on the landward side of existing roads . This is because, by definition, constructions are now permitted on the entire island as they fall on the landward side of the existing ‘coastal’ road encircling the entire island.

So, if one were to follow the new CRZ notification strictly and permit construction only on the landward side, all of Elephanta’s sea-lined homes can be refurbished , repaired or re-constructed without any legal hitch. That the homes themselves lie within a highly-precarious zone ‘on’ the high-tide line or close to it, is of little consequence.

So, the island stands today with CRZ violations committed all over unabashedly. The three villages have initiated constructions in and around the coastal zone with absolute disregard to the fragility of the island. “We’re actually cutting the branch, we’re sitting on,” says an uneducated yet worldly-wise 68-year-old Elephanta Island resident and stall-owner whose son is ‘constructing two more floors’ on top of her already-existing one-storied house to accommodate tourists. “Despite my repeated warnings, he refuses to relent. He says, this is the only time we can get to become rich. “We don’t need to live like this all our lives”,” she says. “Ab kya karein. Usko itna samjhaya toh bhi maanta nahin. Loan leke bana raha hai sab. Kuch ulta seedha ho gaya toh kya karenge loan ka? (Now what to do? Despite warning him against it, he doesn’t seem to realise. He has even taken a loan for the construction. Now, if something goes wrong, how will we repay it,” she says.

And, the unlettered lady couldn’t be more correct. If the most recent 2018 CRZ notifications just happen to get struck down by court, considering the string of litigations being planned and all the lofty plans for tourism on Elephanta Island stalled even for a few years, those who have availed loans to construct over and beyond their homes will be burdened by surging interests of a loan they will be unable to repay and be reduced to penury.

Basics yet out of reach

Now, the 20 lakh footfalls per annum on the island are set to increase with the spurt in promotional activities and India’s longest rope-way all set to arrive bringing more to an island quickly running out of resources.

Ironically, towards the end of 2018, the villagers spearheaded by a brand-new sharp-shooter Sarpanch demanded ‘security’ for the villagers and were provided two officers and twenty personnel that were deployed to protect the island around the clock.

For an island where visits are restricted between 9 am and 6 pm with the last launch leaving the island at 6 pm, the need for security seems a wee extravagant. Specially, when perceived against the need for basic medical facilities for 1,200 locals and the 20 lakh-plus tourists set to arrive on the island every year, that yet remains out of reach.

It’s the visual demonstration - of security personnel that show their presence in full strength on the jetty - that is now made available to tourists visiting the island. The show of security goes in sync with the state’s lofty plans to set up resorts and home-stays across the island. Now, whether the security is needed or not isn’t important. What is important is the fact that it augurs a sense of anticipation: An ill-placed display of anticipation associated with almost all of Maharashtra’s tourist spots starting with the Gateway of India back on mainland from where the tourists arrive.

Entering the Gateway of India to aboard a launch for Elephanta Island is a mind-boggling task for tourists who have to traverse through multiple layers of security checks by police personnel; dodging barricades placed indiscriminately as stumbling blocks; frenetic frisking processes, a sea of obnoxious photographers and more. So, the security personnel on Elephanta Island and the highly-controlled entry-point processes only fall in place.

When a state decides to ‘promote’ a zone, one would presume that the promotion would include the initiation of processes towards the welfare of the zone, its people and the stake-holder - the tourist in this case. That, in the case of Maharashtra is simply not happening: While ignoring the most obvious parameters that need to be addressed, the state jumps the gun and begins to count the chickens even before the eggs hatch. After the lofty and much-touted Airbnb partnership, the delays in processes only embarrass the corporation. The footfalls remain relegated to projections on paper and the locals, spurred by greed and dizzying prospects of profit, left high and dry.

“We will not let outsiders do business on Elephanta Island,” warns erstwhile Sarpanch Rajendra Padte who, onl his part, rubbishes his present-day counterpart Baliram Thakur’s attempts to modernise the island and boost tourism. “We have been working on the island for years on end and have ensured that the island’s resources stay with the island’s natives. Now, with all this talk of tie-ups with foreign companies and outsiders, Elephanta Island will not remain the same. The pristine island, housed by locals, will be taken over by outsiders. And, in no time, we’ll be left with no option but to have to look for a green patch or a tree as is the case in most islands that have been ‘developed’ for tourism,” he says.

“I will never let that happen. Not in my lifetime,” says Padte who initiated most of the developmental projects of Elephanta Island before relinquishing political power to Thakur. “I am not against development for the people of Elephanta. By all means, make roads, provide facilities for Elephanta’s villagers, but don’t think you can sell off this island that belongs to us - the people of Elephanta,” he says.

Need For A Balance

While there is a need to balance tourism with local interests, the trend today, particularly among politicians and local representatives, is instead to earn brownie points with their respective political parties while completely disregarding local interests.

In a meeting held with officers of the Intelligence Bureau, the Navi Mumbai police, the Coast Guard, the Forest Department and the Maharashtra Maritime Board, in November 2018, it was decided that the gram panchayat would maintain a register of tourists visiting the island; finalise a dress code for tourist guides provided with identity cards; CCTVs installed and a survey of the village undertaken.
So, everything is put in place or at least looks like it’s put in place. Never mind that if there’s a snake-bite, there’s absolutely no place to avail immediate medical attention.

Facilities Not In Place

Interestingly, while the Forest Department is yet expected to identify and provide a place for the construction of toilets for tourists after a year of the Island receiving power and 72 years of Independence , there is a distinct paucity of toilets for tourists.

The ones available are in a single block comprising toilets for men and women at the base of the island, and then a few more in another block, on top of the island, inside the cave area. So, for all practical purposes, today, only about 8 persons can avail a toilet at any point of time leaving the rest waiting for their turn. And, the plans to construct more toilets have been floating for a very long time. Despite the presence of funds, it’s the lack of initiative that has stalled the construction of toilets - a basic human need - on the island.

Also, there is no potable water facility for tourists on the entire island despite an RO filtration plant being active after the initiation of power supply to Elephanta but available only for locals. “I am always forced to buy bottled water at rates beyond printed MRP because the islanders insist that they have to ‘transport the water all the way from Mumbai’,” says Elephanta regular and Pune resident Lyla Goel. “Earlier, I would pay off the extra out of sheer pity for the locals,” she says. “This time around, when I visited Elephanta Island last, the 24x7 power has almost all locals engaged with their mobile phones constantly yet overcharged me for water which, I feel strongly, should be made available for free by the government,” added the designer.

Without any option to avail potable water for free, tourists are left with little option but buy bottled water at exorbitant rates charged indiscriminately. “It feels like a loot on the island. Everything is overcharged and there is no process to complain or put things in place,” says Mr Ramani.

The new CRZ notifications have corrupted the collective mien of the Elephanta native who feels that this is his best opportunity to earn a fortune and bring himself on par with the rest of India. Any attempt to moderate or monitor the elaborate processes promised by the ill-placed CRZ notification lead to violent polarisation spurred by political interests.

“Constructing along the coastline of Elephanta Island even near the High Tide lines is asking for trouble,” warns Mr Stalin. A single storm could wreak havoc on the island which witnesses some very powerful hurricanes during the monsoons when all boating activities come to a halt. We know that natural disasters are compounded by unnatural interventions with nature. In the one-upmanship games being played on the island, particularly keeping the natives’ interests at stake, the risks are too high for comfort.

And…some things don’t change!

The times have changed but some things simply don’t. Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site registering 20 lakh footfalls annually and set to receive more following the installation of India’s longest ropeway, now receives power around the clock yet doesn’t have a single doctor on the entire island; no facility for formal education beyond Standard 10th and absolutely no crisis management process in place. And, Elephanta Island is located barely 10 kms away from India’s financial capital…Mumbai!

This report has been prepared for DraftCraft International’s Flagship Initiative, The Elephanta Island Project to research, analyse and determine the rights and liabilities of Islanders, local and foreign tourists vis-a-vis the responsibility of the State towards all stakeholders and natural resources while upholding the law of the land and ensuring the protection of environment that tops the list of priorities. The initiative examines laws and policies regarding islands, sea transport, privacy, women’s rights, health, protection of the environment and rights and liabilities of tourists guaranteed to all by the State in context of the Right To Equality, Freedoms, The Right to Life and Global Conventions to which India is a signatory.