Elephanta Island aka Gharapuri is in the news and for all the wrong reasons. That the Elephanta Island, known for housing UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Caves and receives more than 20 lakh footfalls of tourists annually, was shrouded in darkness every night for years on end – 70 in all – dashing all hopes and aspirations of progress for the 1,200 islanders living in three villages on the island didn’t quite qualify as news for the mainstream media. That the island lay barely 10 kms from India’s financial capital Mumbai yet lay cursed with despair only underlined the ludicrousness of the situation brought about primarily by political apathy at local levels as well as state. The government at the Centre couldn’t have cared lesser.
Ironically, over the years, not a single NGO or member of Civil Society felt it was important to campaign for rights of locals or against gross violations of basic constitutional guarantees, of the Right to Equality – Article 14 and the Right to Life as assured by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Nor did the mainstream media find it important enough to highlight the same. After all, it was an issue that affected a small section of people and 1,200 islanders didn’t have much political beef to bargain for their own rights.
However, all of that has changed. After seven decades of India’s Independence, in February 2018, the island was delivered power through India’s longest 7.5 km long undersea cable. The electrification project cost Rs 25 crore and took Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited about 15 months to complete. The undersea power cable, when readied, took around three months to lay. In each of the three villages of Elephanta Island, a transformer has been installed along with six streetlight towers each 13-metre tall with six powerful LED bulbs providing individual power meter connections to 200 domestic and a few commercial consumers.
In a function held at the island, social reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari formally switched on the power supply. The function was attended by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, ministers Chandrashekhar Bawankule, Jaykumar Raval, Ravindra, and other dignitaries. The task of electrifying Elephanta Island was a step towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prized target to electrify the whole of India within 1,000 days – a target met within just 987 days with Leisang in Manipur becoming the last village to be added to the national power grid on April 28th, 2018.
The Prime Minister described it as a “new beginning of a period of development” for the 1,200 people involved in fishing, farming, boat repairs and tourism-related activities. “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 PM Modi echoing the views of Elephanta Island’s families.
Incidentally, the 22-KV undersea cable has four lines, including one standby line ensuring round-the-clock power to the Islanders with excess capacity to meet requirements for more than 30 years. The cable has been connected directly with the MSEDCL’s Olwa sub-station, Panvel Division in Raigad on the mainland. The cable connection is expected to speed up work on the proposed 8-km long ropeway connecting Mumbai directly with Elephanta Island running above the Arabian Sea. The project planned by the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) will be the cynosure of all eyes and directly benefit nearly 20 lakh tourists visiting the island every year. Also, a water filtration plant may be set up to use water from a dam on the 16-sq km island to provide safe and clean drinking water to the locals and tourists.
And now, in May 2018, when the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) released the draft Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) maps for Raigad district, environmentalists have gone up in arms. The mangroves areas in Taloja, Kamothe and Gharapuri Island have, in the draft maps, been marked as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) II — 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.
The environmentalists maintain that Gharapuri Island, renowned for its centuries-old Elephanta caves, needs to be preserved as an open space and kept away from any development.
It is alleged that the Devendra Fadnavis-led government is now trying to open up Gharapuri island, also called Elephanta Island, for development. While CRZ-I covers ecologically sensitive areas within 100 metres of the high-tide line where no development is allowed, 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 are already developed; for example, Marine Drive in South Mumbai.
An environmentalist lobby, bolstered by a political opposition, is now all set to oppose the CRZ-II maps by filing ‘detailed objections’ and ‘resist any construction activity’ on the island. “This is a ploy to allow five-star hotels and resorts to come up on the island,” maintains an activist on grounds of anonymity.
“This government has been attempting to further commercial interests while compromising upon local needs and without taking into consideration fragile environmental issues,” she added.
The Islanders are exhilarated with the turn of events and are all braced to hop on the development bandwagon and with good reason. For years, they have been facing a huge survival crisis without power.
For India’s financial capital and neighbour Mumbai, the access to power is a given but for the inhabitants of Elephanta, the deprivation risks their very existence. Scores of islanders have died owing to lack of immediate medical attention in case of crisis such as snake bites, heart attacks even strokes that could well be prevented had there been a vaccine, antidote or an injectable remedy at hand.
Without power and the associated inability to store venom antidotes or blood-thinning drugs used to urgently dissolve clots in case of strokes or heart attacks, the islanders were left with little option but to die. The arrival of electricity on the island changes all of that. Access to clean drinking water, hygiene and safety, education and entertainment closely associated with the Right to Life is now within reach.
It simply makes no sense depriving islanders of the access to a ‘developed’ life, to clean drinking water, to medical aid, to entertainment and education without which their ‘Right to Life’ would be incomplete, even meaningless. The islanders, who have suffered for years on end, are the true stakeholders whose legal rights were deprived by the State for over decades. Constitutionally guaranteed Rights of Equality and Fundamental Rights such as Right to Life and Personal Liberty, Right to Work, Right to Movement and others are now being upheld…finally, by a government that is sensitive and responsible.