SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Going’s tough at Gharapuri

Sole link: The train that took so long to arrive.

Sole link: The train that took so long to arrive.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Gajanan Khergamkar

GAJANAN KHERGAMKER

It may be a renowned heritage site but the inhabitants of Elephanta Island tell a tale of unavailability of basic human facilities.

When, at the turn of the millennium, an NGO installed a computer at a school at Elephanta Island, it looked like a dream come true. To combat an incessant power shortage that crippled the island, there were plans for the computer to be powered by a mini-generator. And, on the face of it, the 1,200 Koli and Agri natives of Elephanta aka Gharapuri seemed on the verge of global connectivity and a development to match pace. Jumping on the growth highway, the natives would be tailing, and closely too its esteemed neighbour...Mumbai! But like all good things come to an end, the dream too burst like a bubble. With the mini-generator refusing to arrive, the computer couldn’t start at all before finally making a disappearing act from the island itself.

Till date, the story of the computer that never worked and how life otherwise zips ahead at India’s financial capital an hour away from the island do their rounds in Elephanta Island’s villages — Rajbunder that houses 550 locals, Shetbunder that houses 400 and Morabunder with 250 natives. How a computer would work on an island that gets power only for about two and half hours in the evening is anyone’s guess.

Ask deputy sarpanch Rajendra Padte who claims to have been single-handedly instrumental in whatever can be considered as development of the island’s lot, and you get answers as diplomatic as they come. “You see, the NGOs involved in the protection of the environment and development of tribes made a lot of noise even when we had to install a mini-train to transport visitors from the jetty to the base of the caves,” he recalls.

Problems galore

“They (the NGO) insisted that the train’s engines would lead to air pollution and ruin the atmosphere here. A lot more smog and aerial residue is released daily by the motor boats in and around Elephanta Island,” he says. “We had to struggle to get the mini-train service initiated finally in 1999, a full five years since the train service was readied in 1994,” maintains Padte. The ire is justifiable considering the mini-train service is handled by Padte’s company.

Politicians have done little for the island, whose inhabitants have bettered their selves solely due to the Gram Panchayat. The water used by Elephanta’s residents continues to be well-originated and bitter in taste. However, with the completion of a reservoir at Rajbunder, with a capacity of five crore litres of water, in May this year, leakage issues have been tackled and the reservoir filmed internally for imminent use. “It’s a matter of time before the reservoir’s waters is cleaned, filtered and used by Elephanta solving the problem of potable water once and for all,” says Padte.

But where health is concerned, living on Elephanta Island can be a tricky situation. There is not a single chemist available on the island. Health services are presently looked after by 22-year-old nurse Khushboo Shevekar who did a course in nursing at Alibag after her 12th standard. “I can only provide first aid to tourists but in case of bites (monkeys and snakes being rampant) they would have to avail of treatment elsewhere,” confesses Khushboo revealing the inadequacy of medical treatment on the island.

Today, at the base of the island before the 120 steps leading to the caves begin is a handicraft stall that used to be run by Kamlakar Bhoir for over four decades. Now it is in the hands of his sons Mithun and Turesh who are a bit inept at tackling customers with the panache of their father, a seasoned businessman who “wouldn’t let a potential customer go without a buy”.

Health issues

Failing health would force Kamlakar to be hospitalised for urgent, interim treatment every now and then. For over 25 years, Kamlakar travelled from the island to a hospital in either Bombay or New Bombay for treatment after which he would return to Elephanta Island.

Finally, at about 2.30 a.m. on September 6, Kamlakar’s vital functions began to failand his sons rushed him in a private fishing vessel to a nursing home at Nhava. From Nhava, which didn’t have the facilities for intravenous treatment, the boys rushed him to Panvel and then to Kalamboli’s MGM hospital, only to find a violently writhing Kamlakar frothing at the mouth in transit before his body turned limp and lifeless. “If only we had some kind of medical facilities on the island, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time travelling. Our father would be alive,” recall his sons struggling to earn their keep at their father’s stall.

“His eyelids began to shut as breathing turned laborious,” said an almost-choking Sudhir Mhatre as he recalled his 62-year-old father’s plight during his last moments. “His feverish body lay writhing with pain as he slipped in and out of consciousness till beyond midnight,” recalls Sudhir. “There was no way I could have taken him to a hospital. The last launch left the island at 6.00 p.m. and the next one is available in the morning. I felt so helpless. And, for the first time, I regretted staying back on the island,” he says.

Sudhir Mhatre’s father passed away at 3.00 a.m. as he lay on the cold floor of his hut devoid of electricity, like many others earlier who couldn’t receive timely medical aid.

Evidently, it isn’t without reason that GenNext at Elephanta Island looks beyond the sea to its closest neighbour, Mumbai for a solution to its housing, power, employment needs. And why not, considering that almost every home in Elephanta Island has a story to tell. A story of how the unavailability of basic human facilities like water, power and medicine snatched a member’s life and how the natives of the renowned ‘World Heritage site’ visited by over 10 lakh tourists annually continue to struggle for survival each passing day.



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