“Unlike in movies, there are no happy endings in real life,” says 52-year-old Kalya Pawra, a resident of Bilgaon, a small tribal hamlet in Nandurbar district, 490 km north of Mumbai.
Almost 12 years ago, Bilgaon, with a population of 1,840, was propelled into the limelight after Swades, a film starring Shah Rukh Khan, was released in India. The film, which drew inspiration from the works of the villagers, permanently etched into the celluloid frame their heroic efforts as they built the country’s first community-operated micro hydel power project in 2003.
In spite of its song-and-dance routine, and the cinematic liberties that the film had taken, it made Rs 9.75 crore at the box office, and pushed Bilgaon on to the national stage. Politicians and activists made a beeline for the village and stories were written about its transformation.
But a decade later, after a flash flood washed away a part of the hydel power project in 2006, the village has now fallen off the radar.
“We had become used to people coming down on a weekly basis to look at the work we had done. These days, hardly anyone shows up,” says Pawra.
The villagers’ project had started off as a unique attempt at nation building and empowerment when the tribals, who had spent 50 years without any access to electricity, decided to take matters into their own hands with the help of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).
The plan was to harness the force of running water of the Udai and Titodi rivers, which run close to the village, and generate electricity. The project was designed by the People’s School of Energy and built by the the NBA, and the tribals finished it within a span of nine months at a cost of Rs 10 lakh. The project generated power for 12 tribal hamlets located within six kilometres of Bilgaon.
Over 250 tribal households, which were living in the dark since Independence, were able to light up their houses for the first time after paying a nominal fee of Rs 10 to Rs 30 for a new connection.
For three years, 400 students like Mangesh Padvi, who studied in Jeevanshala back in early 2000, a residential school for tribal children in the area, had access to electricity.
Suddenly, one morning in August 2006, the swirling backwaters of the Sadar Sarovar Project washed the project away, and with it Bilgaon’s claim to fame.
Villagers claim they suffered a double blow. Not only did the village plunge back into darkness, but the numerous celebrity and media visits, which brought cheer to the villagers, also dried up.
Residents of the village have now tuned their lifestyles according to the rising and setting off the sun. The 400 students of Jeevanshala finish their dinner by 5 pm and spend the remaining sunlight hours completing their homework and studies.
“The project lies abandoned today. No one wants to revive it. The drought in the region has also played a role.
The flow of water in the river for the past two to three years is also not conducive to the project,” social activist Datta Wagh says. Almost 75 per cent of population in Bilgaon is below the poverty line. Its high tribal population and negligent development has made the area a target zone for future Naxal growth.
The state, which had touted the project as an inspiration for people’s participation in development of the country, also seems to have turned its back on the village.