By Tripti Nath, Womens Feature Service
Leela Bai Margale, a 40-year-old widow in Mugaon village of Pune district, Maharashtra, finds the lights of the grand Lavasa Lake City near Pune tantalising. Once the sun goes down, her village – located a mere 65 kilometres from bustling Pune – life is steeped in darkness.
Elections are in the air. The state goes to the polls on October 13. But, unfortunately, no matter which government comes to power, life will not change for the 800-strong community, mainly tribals, living on the fringes in Mugaon, a remote village in Lavasa. Mugaon falls within Baramati, in western Maharashtra, the constituency of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Supriya Sule. The tribals here have been living lives riddled with poverty, lack of infrastructure and even basic civic facilities like electricity and potable drinking water.
In fact, tribals here have been fighting darkness for what seems to them like forever. So bad is the situation that women like Leela Bai and Thumma Bai even welcome a star-lit sky, a full moon night or the full beam of a passing vehicle. The children here cannot even take time out to play after school; they must come back and finish their homework before daylight fades away.
The villagers have lost all hope of ever having electricity in their homes and have learnt to grope their way in the dark with the help of kerosene lamps. The few who can afford battery operated lighting devices count themselves very lucky.
But electricity is not the only problem they face here. What affects the women the most is the daily struggle to arrange for safe drinking water for their family. “Earlier, we were getting water from the tanker every two days. But after activist Medha Patkar led an agitation here in May 2009 to get justice for villagers who were said to have lost their land to Lavasa, we have stopped getting water. To cope with the situation we have dug up pits from where we draw groundwater to meet our daily requirement. But, this is not easy. There are days when I have to make ten trips to fetch water,” reveals Leela Bai. Thumma Bai Walekar, another villager, points to a pit behind her hut from where she and her six married daughters draw water to meet their daily needs.
Talking about the power situation, Leela, who has three daughters and a son, says that she does not feel safe in her home as there is no light. “I have kept stray dogs as pets to guard us,” she reveals.
Why does Leela feel the need to keep stray dogs at home to feel safe? Why is it that there is no electricity in her home? Why does she have to spend the better part of her day fetching water for the family? Is it just administrative inaction or are there any other reasons?
According to social activist, Medha Patkar, who is almost worshipped by the farmers here for joining their struggle to reclaim their land from the Lavasa authorities, “All this harassment and deprivation is with one single aim – to compel the remaining people to leave their land. But women are the most courageous. They don’t leave land easily. That has been our experience in all the struggles. They value the natural resources that feed them and their children, more than money. Thumma Bai and Leela symbolise that strength and perseverance. Otherwise, absence of water and electricity is the fate of many villages in India anyway.”
Lavasa is probably India’s largest hill city being developed by Hindustan Construction Company (HCC). Located in the picturesque landscape of the Sahayadari mountains, Lavasa is spread over 12,500 acres. It has been conceptualised keeping in view the Maharashtra government’s aim to develop the state tourism. HCC Real Estates has over 65 per cent stake here and Lavasa is expected to be developed by 2021. The first town of Lavasa, Dasve will be ready for occupation by 2010.
Patkar, who will be visiting the area on October 3 to hold meeting a meeting with displaced people in Dasve and Mugaon under the banner of National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement, is not the only one talking about the issue of land grab. As per the People’s Commission of Inquiry (PCI), “The Government of Maharashtra declared about 25,000 acres of land for the development of hill station undertaken by Lavas Corporation. The land was usurped from Mulshi and Velhe tehsil from Pune district. Dasve and Mugaon are in Mulshi tehsil.” The report has alleged that the Lavasa Corporation went in for direct purchase from its owners: “From the complaints made by farmers villagers, it transpired that the company used various tactics for grabbing the land from these illiterate and poor people. There are many instances of fraudulent deals.”
The PCI was appointed after a 11 day long ‘dharna’ (protest) in October 2008 at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, by a large number of ‘adivasis’ (tribals), dalits, farmers, fish workers, farm labourers, unorganised workers, hawkers and ‘basti’ (slum) dwellers, who have been displaced due to dams and projects, across Maharashtra.
Sampat Kale, an activist working for the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, says, “There are many people living in the Lavasa Corporation Limited project area of Mugaon and Dasve, who have not been getting water for almost four months now. Water and electricity supply has been cut and they don’t have other civic amenities. In the rainy season, they get water but, in the summers, it’s a big problem. Women have to walk two to three kilometres to bring water.”
Kale feels that the plight of the tribals within the community needs urgent attention. “There are around 70 families – about 350 to 400 people – living in the Lavasa project area. They are all tribals treated in a sub-human manner. As Indian citizens, they also deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” states Kale.
He also alleges that the Lavasa authorities treat the project area as their ‘kingdom’. “They think that it is their Special Economic Zone (SEZ). What is happening in Lavasa is no different from what is happening in SEZs across the country. It is as if the villagers are living in jails. They are certainly not happy with this situation,” he says.
Pointing to the lack of political will to do anything for the locals here, the activist feels that the local MP, Supriya Sule, is indifferent to the problems being faced by her constituents. But the young leader, who is also Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s daughter, in quick to defend herself, “I have become a Member of Parliament (MP) only three months back. I am like an infant. You can’t expect me to run when I have just been born. There are some new areas like Bhor, Velhe and Mulshi that have been added to my constituency. There are a lot of new villages in my constituency. I’m working on these issues and need some time to get it to some level of development.”
When asked specifically about whether Lavasa was impacting the developmental priorities in her constituency, there was an edge to her tone, “Why should Lavasa impact development in my constituency? The Maharashtra government has given permission for the city to be built, and I have nothing to do with it.”
Potable water and electricity may be cliched demands from people consigned to the margins everywhere in this country. But when these people happen to be the citizens of one of India’s most prosperous states, it says a lot about political priorities and administrative will.