Malay Desai

Elephanta Island hasn’t seen a flicker of electricity since India got free. Its 100-odd families .

After sunset everyday in Shetbunder, four-year-old Anish Mhatre flicks the TV switch on and stares at the shut screen, remote control in hand. His grandfather, Yashwant, sits in the ground-plus-one home’s verandah, straining his eyes to reread the morning’s copy of Mumbai Chaufer. Anish’s grandmother is making dinner preparations in the kitchen, a single pre-charged Chinese gadget her only source of light. After several minutes of looming darkness, LED bulbs outside multiple homes are alight, followed by whirring, buzzing and other sounds from across the neighbourhood.

For the next three-and-a-half hours, the inhabitants of the 40-something homes here make the most of the day’s only supply of electricity.Interestingly, Shetbunder, like the other two villages on Elephanta island, is so close to Mumbai, it is visible, perhaps with binoculars, from Mantralaya. Gharapuri, a.k.a. Elephanta, may have had a history of being ruled over by Portuguese travellers, and of being home to Buddhist and Hindu rock sculptures from 2nd century BC, but when the other islands of Bombay connived to form a megacity, this one, 6.2 miles south of Apollo Bunder, was the odd one out. Today, it attracts a million tourists a year, but it seems very few Lonely Planet-toting foreigners or local visitors know that Elephanta is also home to around 100 families too. Of these, even fewer know that they live without electricity, save for the 200 or so minutes of glimmer that comes via a diesel-powered generator.Stone age in rock-cut land

The line `So many years since Independence but we are still waiting for electricity’ doesn’t apply to Elephanta as the island did have power when it served as a strategic naval base prior to 1947. Manoj Padte, brother of the Sarpanch Sunil, points to the Raj-era cannon and explains, “The two cannons are still there, and underneath those there were set-ups to light the ammunition centres.After the British left, the systems disintegrated with apathy. My father’s times were spent in darkness and kerosene lamps, and later, every visiting CM has promised electricity `next year’ and it has never come,“ he says.

Ask village seniors of early days on the island and they recount dingy times. “With Mumbai so close to us, we haven’t developed as well as we should have, due to lack of electricity. There was no school when I was young, and even now, there’s just one, which doesn’t have English medium education nor a legitimate grant,“ says Tulsidas Bhuvas, of Morabunder, the far north side of the island that houses 30 families. The lone school now has just 47 students across 10 standards and most homes have sent their children to nearby Uran or Mumbai for education. Home after home has a similar narrative arc -of the unending wait for round-the-clock electricity, the subsequent dependence on inverters, and of youth who left to study, struggling for small jobs, and never returning, citing the lack of electricity. That said, all octogenarians feel that their life has gotten better after the evening doses of electricity and it’s been good as any further expectations have been pegged at zero.

In 1989, the first annual Elephanta Festival got with it generators, and the villagers who first experienced electricity pressurised the administrators to leave them behind.To this day, they still depend on the same generators, housed in a shed in Rajbunder, for their daily dose of power.

Of the powers-to-be

Not so far away from Shetbunder, a marbled Hindu temple is lit up for Hanuman Jayanti. It is in the compound of a two-storeyed bungalow, the first level of which has an empty drawing room with a running fan, many stuffed animals and walled photographs of Rajendra Padte, the longest serving head of village of Elephanta, `sarpanch’ from 1980 to 2012. He, after a group of ladies walk in to touch their forehead to his feet and leave, tells us about his efforts of seeking power.

“We tried everything, from a solar panel project with an Australian firm to windmills, but nothing worked in the long-term,“ he recalls, Ram bhajans blasting in the background. “In 2011, with Ratnakar Gaikwad of the MMRDA, we managed to get the closest, but the tender amount overshot the budget. Prior to that, in 1994, we had lobbied for the cause with the help of Gopinath Mundeji and almost finalised things but the JNPT Port Trust (which is close to Elephanta) refused to lay cables under the water,“ he claims.

Jugaad and theories

That Padte is the Director of Mahesh Enterprises, contractors with the Port Trust, may not be the only intriguing fact here. The Sarpanch’s post has been with the Padtes, a business family of 10 brothers, from the very beginning when Harishchandra Padte, the village senior, became the first head. Koli locals, such as the 75-year-old Mhatre, feel that this is the biggest hindrance in the lack of electricity and development of the island. “Let me tell you something. That powerhouse of generators in the middle there? It guzzles about 100 litres of diesel a day, facilitated by the Padtes. You do the math.“

His is not the only theory that paints the Padte as Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road. By other versions, the diesel-powered toy train was the family’s idea too, and although it’s a cool 10-rupee ride from the jetty, it stole the livelihoods of many auto-wallahs.

Back in Morabunder, Bhuvas narrates a `jugaad’ which got his side of the island some electricity when the generators began buzzing on the other side. “We asked them to use power for 30 minutes less every day and share the saved diesel. From that, we have been running our own generator from the past 10 years,“ he says, recounting how a solar panel project in association with an Australian firm was launched with much fanfare in 2010; without maintenance, the panels died in two years.

Bhuvas waits for the day when the caves would be lit and the computers in school would be running. “My sons, who work as tourist guides, would do a better job. Until now, without internet, all the history he narrates to visitors has only been learnt through MTDC officers and hearsay,“ he says.

Will sparks fly?
The plastic throwing behaviours of tourists may never come to an end, but Elephanta’s wait for locally produced, 24×7 electricity might have an expiry date. Sunil Padte, younger brother of the aforementioned Rajendra, is one of many who sounds assured. “CM Devendra Fadnavis has promised that come Independence Day this year, he will himself turn up to welcome the arrival of electricity.It’s been a long wait and this has been possible with much lobbying and multiple meetings,“ he says.

The Padtes feel that a critical figure to thank, if and when the sparks do fly, would be Mahesh Baldi, President of the Uran Municipal Council and an erstwhile BJP candidate from Elephanta. “MSEB, for the first time, will lay cables under water and an American consultant firm has been hired. The 20-crore project will be executed soon,“ he claims.

Until then, the Mhatres, Bhoirs, Mayanes and many more inhabitants of Elephanta island will have to deal with the restlessness every evening before the clock strikes seven.