March 22, 2004
Eighty five-year-old tribal, Batu Narbaji, is a little surprised to see two strangers from Mumbai in his village, Bharad, by the banks of the Narmada in the northern tip of Maharashtra.
Most of the visitors come by boat from across the river — from Hapeshwar in Gujarat, says Batu as he gazes at the river that has been the source of life for centuries. But not any more. Today, the river is threatening to rise due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project, flooding any village that comes in its path — Bharad included.
The last saheb to visit this hilly and rugged land was during the British Raj, says Batu. He was in his early 20s then, and his job was to carry the gora sahebs on his back if fatigue or muscle cramps got the better of them in this difficult terrain.
Not surprising then that the village is caught in a time warp. There are no motorable roads, no lights, no telephones, no post offices, no televisions or newspapers. And while the rest of the country is hot on the campaign trail, in Bharad and the adjoining villages of Sikka and Pendryapada, they don’t even know who the Prime Minister is. As far as they are concerned, Indira Gandhi still rules the nation.
It is with great difficulty that a four-wheel drive manages the punishing climb up to a village called Roshmal, in Dhadgaon taluka. Beyond Roshmal, the government has not even made a pretence of doing anything as the villages there are soon going to be submerged under the Narmada anyway.
Ask them if they are fully aware of the consequences of the Sardar Sarovar Project, and they reply in the affirmative. ‘‘The river will rise and drown our houses and fields,’’ says Moilya Rovendu Pavra, a fisherman. The tribals seem to have accepted their fate matter-of-factly. Many of them have not been included in the rehabilitation lists that have been drawn up by the State Government, but even that does not worry them. They have all reposed their faith on the local deities, who, they believe, won’t desert them after taking care of them for so many centuries.
Paper currency has no value here; poultry and cattle mean everything. Breakfast consist of a thick jowar rotla, fresh goat’s milk, with some roots and rock salt to tickle the taste buds. This meal provides enough energy to trek for four hours at a stretch, before taking a break at another hamlet and drinking cool water drawn from 250-year-old wells.
Elsewhere, people complain about the roads and electricity. But here, despite the impending doom, there is not a whisper of worry. So is India really shining, because these villagers who are on the verge of being evicted from the ancestral land are still smiling.
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