IT IS a humid Monday afternoon on the Gharapuri Island, home to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Elephanta caves. The caves are shut and tourists are few, so 56-year-old Gita Mali, a local vendor, whiles away the afternoon watching television at her home in Shetbunder. “This brings us new hopes,” says Mali, pointing at the ceiling fan that whirs silently above her. A portable tower fan blows wind at her as she watches a Marathi film.
On February 22, when chief minister Devendra Fadnavis kicked off the first-ever 24-hour power supply to this island located 10 km off the coast of Mumbai in 70 years, residents were filled with hope. This, for them, is the first step towards their larger fight for basic amenities — a healthcare facility, better roads, drinking water, mobile towers and an ATM. Home to around 1,200 people in three hamlets, the island received power for only three hours a day — 7pm to 10pm — through a generator until last month.
Residents claimed that their island was neglected by local authorities as well as the state government. “In the past, many ministers and political parties promised electricity to the villagers but not many followed up on their promises. The island was neglected as funds were hardly allocated. The process of laying cables in the sea and obtaining clearances for the same were difficult, too,” said a government official, requesting anonymity.
Ninety-year- old Lilabai Bhoir is glad that electricity reached the village in her lifetime. “People would call this place kalokha chebet (island of darkness). Doctors and nurses, too, were unwilling to live on the island as there was no electricity,” she says. Bhoir lives two blocks from the ruins of a healthcare centre set up in the 1980s. “Now that the village is lit up, it’s time to have a doctor here. At my age it is difficult to travel all the way to Uran on a ferry for a checkup,” she says.
Bereft of round-the-clock power supply, the island has seen little development. The roads are in disrepair. Fed up with the lack of infrastructure, many residents have migrated to Mumbai for “a better future for the children”, leaving the only school on the island with a paltry number of students.
“It is unbelievable that despite our proximity to Mumbai, which enjoys immunity from power cuts, it took us so long to get electricity. It has set us back by several decades and forced many of us out of the island,” says Sarpanch Baliram Thakur, standing at a jetty in Rajbunder, only two kilometers away from Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) — just enough for lights from the ships to reach the island.
According to Thakur, locals loved to sit at the jetty and “marvel at all the electricity consumed by the port, just a few kilometers away, while they lived in darkness.” Now, it is at this spot that the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited brings power to the island through four 7.5km long undersea cables. “Things are going to change for us. Earlier, contractors would refuse to take on any work because their machinery would be useless here. Not anymore,” says Thakur.
There are now plans to develop the island into a global tourist destination. As of now, tourists are allowed only in the daytime, from 10 am to 6 pm. “First on our list is a healthcare centre followed by a tank for drinking water in each hamlet. Then we want better roads at the earliest. We are also proposing to set up homestays in the villages so tourists can stay overnight and get a feel of our life. Now that there’s electricity, the deadline for tourists should be lifted soon,” says Thakur.
“The island needs an English-medium school. Many of my neighbours and friends have moved to Uran or Mumbai to study in a better school,” says 15-year-old Rishikesh Koli, a Class X student. Studying for his board exams on a terrace lit by a fluorescent bulb, Koli hopes of a village that can host tourists from across the globe — “a ring road along the sea, just like the Marine Drive in Mumbai, a hospital, a bank and a better mobile network”.