It could be a story straight out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. For years on end, Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that registers 20 lakh footfalls annually, got no more than two-and-a-half hours of power in the night through a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) generator. It didn’t have a single doctor on the island, there was no facility for formal education beyond Standard 10 and no crisis management process in place. The island is barely 10 km from India’s richest city and financial capital, Mumbai.
On November 2, 2018, a crowd converged on a house in Shetbunder Gaon on the island, historically known as Gharapuri, near the courtyard where a Tulsi plant grew in a memorial. It is a ceremony observed religiously for the last 23 years on the same day since 1995, a telling commentary on what the island lacks.
The villagers, elderly women and sombre-looking young men, sit together to share a meal in memory of 12-year-old Sarika Namdeo Bhagat with her family. Nobody says a word about Sarika lest it remind the family of their loss. Those who arrive for the first time are warned against mentioning her name. The family recalls with painful clarity the series of events that made the commemoration necessary.
On November 2, 1995 Sarika accompanied her father to the Elephanta jetty to help deliver empty cold drink crates. Just as she was about to lift a case, a snake coiled below sprang up and bit her.
Apart from the snakes that thrive in the thick foliage, monkeys have multiplied many-fold over the years. Nature is a twin-edged sword. It is Elephanta Island’s biggest draw and its gravest threat.
People picked her up and rushed her to the village where they initiated the ritual performed regularly on snake-bite victims. A cut was made near the bite and the spot inserted into the rectum of a young fowl. As it yelped and screeched, villagers hoped the venom would be “sucked out” and leave the girl.
The hapless fowl died but the girl’s condition only worsened. Realising that it was life and death now, locals knew they had to take her to a hospital. But there was a hitch: There wasn’t a single hospital or health centre on the island.
A barely-conscious Sarika was rushed across the sea in a private fishing boat to Uran where after an hour’s journey, she was admitted. Through the night, her condition deteriorated and next morning, she was rushed to Mumbai’s KEM hospital where she breathed her last. “I still remember young Sarika’s bloated torso,” recalls then-sarpanchRajendra Padte.
Apart from the snakes that thrive in the thick foliage, monkeys have multiplied many-fold over the years. Nature is a twin-edged sword. It is Elephanta Island’s biggest draw and its gravest threat. After reducing farming to a farce with the systematic damage they’ve inflicted, monkeys are the single-largest threat to any cultivation undertaken by residents who have little option but to set up handicraft stalls for visitors along the 120 steps leading from the jetty to the caves.
The entire island of three villages has a single “nurse” who provides basic first-aid and “no treatment in case of bites”. So, the 1,200 locals and the 20 lakh tourists who annually traipse through the caves of the island depend on this one individual, whether it is a case of indigestion or a broken limb.
As tourists get off the launches transporting them from Mumbai’s Gateway of India on to the spanking new jetty (an old one is out of public use but retained by locals for personal travel), they can take a mini-train ride to the base of the caves for ₹10. Here, they have to dodge an assortment of cows, goats and stray dogs that might chase them or even inflict a bite or two, not to speak of the monkeys which are known to snatch snack from the hands of tourists. They congregate in gangs around the steps, simian Mafiosi ready to relieve you of your stash of food for the journey.
“It’s best to hand over edible belongings you may be carrying rather than try to fight them. They’re ruthless,” says Elephanta Island regular and Mumbaikar Tarun Chandiramani.
“I’ve learned the hard way. After being attacked a couple of times, I make sure any eatable I carry is safely in my haversack and nothing stays open in my hands for the monkeys to grab,” he adds.
nce you buy a ticket to enter the island and reach the base, you are eligible for medical treatment thanks to the first-aid box kept for the purpose. It contains Crocin, Dettol, Band-Aids and a few gauze bandages, so you’re covered for minor contingencies. But if you’ve had a fall, suffered a more serious injury like a bite or gash, or developed a violent allergy, you’re on your own. You’ll need to take the ferry back to Mumbai for treatment.
By this time you have probably realised that monkey and snake bites are common but there is no anti-venom treatment available on the island.
“Without power there was no way to keep medicines refrigerated,” recalls Khushboo, the island’s only nurse. All of Elephanta prayed for Khushboo to marry a local and stay on so that they are not deprived of medical aid, however basic.
As fate would have it, Khushboo got married recently but to a man who lived in Uran. Ironically, her husband moved to Elephanta and began to work at her shop on the steps leading to the caves while she moved to Uran where she got a well-paying job at CIDCO. “We live together weekdays in Uran and I travel to Elephanta during weekends to handle the shop,” says her husband.
For the visitor to the island, the 120 steps from Elephanta’s base to the caves on top can seem never-ending. If you aren’t quite up to the mark physically, as is usually the case, you’ll find yourself stopping every few steps to catch your breath. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
To assist your ascent there are a host of doliwalas who carry you to the top on an open wooden palanquin called a doli, for a price. Chandrakant Mali, Shankar Patil, Gopal Gharat and others, locals and sexagenarians all, line up for their turn to lift those out of shape or out of breath up the steps to the entrance.
The catch here isn’t just climbing 120 steps. Each step is on a steep slope making the climb even tougher. And if there’s a lot of space between two steps you have to trudge along a steep incline without a break. They are guaranteed to give the fittest a bit of breathlessness by the end. The local sexagenarians make three to four trips up and back each day, without as much as a whimper of complaint. After all, that’s all they have to earn their keep.
lephanta’s three villages—Rajbunder with 550 people, Shetbunder (400) and Morabunder (250)—1,200 in all—have been established on the island for well over 500 years. The original residents were Agris and Kolis.
As legend goes, Agla—ancestor of the Agris—and Mangla (Kolis)—the ancestor of the Mangelas (fishermen) were born to the sage Agastya. Agla was told to subsist by making salt from the sea while Mangla was told to become a fisherman.
Parashuram, intending to throw back the sea, was persuaded against it by the intervention of the Agri and Koli women. On their request he consented to throw it back only 27 miles. This strip of land came to be known as Konkan. Elephanta, an integral part of Konkan, houses both Agris and Kolis.
The island also has a lengthy association with modern Indian history. Shetbunder at the base of the island near the jetty still retains broken-down electricity and telephone poles since the British period when the island housed a British military base that had both power and telephone lines. “Seems like the islanders were better off then when power wasn’t an issue to start with,” says Shetbunder’s Uttara Bhoir.
Anyway, the locals weren’t really bothered with the power situation, lack of communication or the absence of educational facilities. They never had these facilities so didn’t miss them. After tenth standard, students went to college at Uran and for higher education perhaps to Panvel on the mainland.
The first of these issues was resolved in February last year, when a 7.5 km long undersea cable, India’s longest, brought power to Elephanta. While the project cost came to about ₹25 crore, it took the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution company (MSEDC) a year and quarter to complete.
Now, each of the three villages has a transformer and six streetlights about 13 metres high. In a high-profile function attended by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and other ministers, social reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari switched on the power supply on an island that had been in the dark way too long.
Part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s target of power for all of India within 1,000 days of his term, the target was achieved in 987 days, with Leisang in Manipur becoming the “last village” to be added to the power grid on April 28.
The 22-kV undersea cable has four lines, including one standby line that ensures power round-the-clock with excess capacity to meet requirements for more than 30 years. It is connected to MSEDCL’s Olwa sub-station in Panvel division, Raigad.
An RO filtration plant is also set up to give islanders clean drinking water procured from a small dam on the 16 sq km island. In the pipeline is a proposed 8-km ropeway connecting Mumbai directly with Elephanta.
Till the ropeway comes through, and more tourists arrive, the islanders can watch television 24x7 instead of the barely two-hour window of previous days.
“Now I can see primetime programmes on my favourite channels without interruption,” says 19-year-old Malati while “my mother can watch Kapil Sharma show late even at night.”
heir joy was compounded by the release of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority’s (MCZMA) draft coastal regulation zone (CRZ) map for Raigad district in May 2018. It downgraded the environmental status for some parts of the island, making it easier for residents to renovate or change things around their houses.
“Har choti choti si baat ke liye ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) se permission lena padta tha humein. Ab hum hamare ghar ko apne aap hi theek kar sakenge (We needed ASI permissions for every small repair job. Now we will be able to repair our homes without the need to procure permissions),” says an islander refusing to reveal his identity, happy to be able to perform some basic repairs and minor construction work on his home next to the sea.
Apart from permissions from the Town Planning Authority required as per the new CRZ notifications 2018, for CRZ II (Urban) areas like Elephanta Island after reclassification, “For any bandhkaam (construction work) anywhere on the island, permissions are required to be taken from the ASI’s head-office at Sewri in Mumbai,” says ASI Monument Attendant Vikas Shinde. So the islander may have been too optimistic.
ASI permissions have been mandatory for any construction undertaken on the island irrespective of CRZ laws. This is because of the caves and other possible sites of archaeological significance on the island. “Whatever law may have changed with regard to coastal zones, the ASI’s No-Objection Certificate is mandatory for anyone constructing anything on the island,” said Shinde.
The mangrove areas in Taloja, Kamothe—on the mainland—and Gharapuri (Elephanta) were marked as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) II. These are areas already developed up to or close to the shoreline where authorised constructions are allowed—enabling developers to provide the sea view frontages that often fetch fat premiums.
A lot of homes in Shetbunder lie along the high tide line so water enters almost as a rule every monsoon. Residents had no option but to keep windows shut and quietly suffer the damage till it stopped raining, after which they would begin their annual repairs. These eco-zones are prone to major disturbances but locals seem unable to appreciate the risks involved in constructing or creating home-stay arrangements for tourists.
“During the monsoons, it’s like living under a waterfall,” says an excited Someshwar Bhoir. The USP of his home—proximity to the sea—happens to be the bane of their new-found trade. Someshwar’s daughter, incidentally, was born in a boat while his wife was being transported to mainland when in labour. Sagar, as she was named, is now married, lives on the mainland.
When Sagar was born in the middle of the sea, Someshwar had felt a medical facility on the island was far more important than tourism. Now, decades later, he looks forward to “developing” his home for tourists through a home-stay arrangement.
According to the new CRZ notifications, islanders will need permission from the gram panchayat for this conversion but that is of little consequence. After all, the panchayat is headed by one of their own. Baliram Thakur was initially a hot favourite over Rajendra Padte who reigned over the island for decades. But as soon as Thakur was elected, the villagers found themselves unable to reach him.
“The new sarpanch is only interested in getting himself photographed with ministers and leaders in the hope of getting politically strong,” says a Rajbunder resident and former aide who doesn’t want to be named. After all, “Aage jake ussi se toh har choti moti cheez ke liye permission lena padega. Usse bair karke nuksaan hi hai, (Now, in the days to follow, for every small issue, we need his help. It won’t pay to alienate him)”.
So while Baliram came originally only to give Rajendra Padte a jolt, changes to CRZ law and the prospects of an imminent surge in tourism have given his status an unexpected lift. But others have noticed what is happening and the fallout needs to be watched.
n behalf of Watchdog Foundation, lawyer Godfrey Pimenta wrote to the Raigad Collector and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in June 2018 saying, “By marking the island as CRZ-II (Urban), you will be opening it for development and turn the place into a concrete jungle. Environmental destruction has to be stopped or it will ruin this great island.”
It is a ploy to permit five-star hotels, holiday resorts besides home-stays to come up on the island. This government has been attempting to further commercial interests while compromising local needs and without considering environmental issues. We will not let that happen.
Almost all environmentalists studying the zone are unanimous that Gharapuri needs to be preserved as an open space, with no development. It should ideally be marked CRZ-III (Open Space Area/Rural) and all construction banned. Also, documentation of mangroves around the island must be undertaken along with requisite steps to prevent “development” to preserve an already stressed eco-zone. “Most of the mangroves are being destroyed on the island owing to the flurry of development along the coastline,” says Pimenta. “If permitted to go on without checks, we’re asking for a disaster.”
In June, 2018, the month after the CRZ maps were released, the state government announced a collaboration with Airbnb, the American community-driven hospitality company, for home-stay facilities on Elephanta. The MTDC with Airbnb has already identified several places around Shetbunder as potential locations. According to plans, the villagers are to be trained by Airbnb to provide quality service.
But the project has yet to take off, a common occurrence with MTDC projects, thanks to the corporation’s dismal approach towards the industry, its stakeholders and associated variables. So, while Elephanta Island is preparing for an influx of tourists and residents have got cracking on renovations and additions, there are a lot of snags.
The theory was that the CRZ II (Urban) classification was the Fadnavis government’s way of opening up Elephanta Island to construction activity. While CRZ-I covers ecologically sensitive areas within 100 metres of the high-tide line where no development is allowed and CRZ-III covers areas within 500 metres of the high-tide line and are considered “No-Development Zones”, CRZ-II covers areas within 500 metres of the high-tide line already developed, for example, Marine Drive in south Mumbai.
So, when Elephanta Island was marked CRZ II (Urban) the environment lobby, bolstered by political opposition opposed the classification by filing “detailed objections” to “resist any construction activity” on the island.
“It is a ploy to permit five-star hotels, holiday resorts besides home-stays to come up on the island,” maintains Mumbai-based NGO Vanshakti Founder and environmentalist D. Stalin. “This government has been attempting to further commercial interests while compromising local needs and without considering environmental issues. We will not let that happen,” he says.
“We have filed objections and will not allow construction,” says Stalin adding, “in the coming monsoons, we will conduct independent surveys to ascertain how most of Elephanta’s villages lie precariously close to the sea and are hit by waves on a daily basis.”
He added that, “the island is surrounded by mangroves and a recent High Court order bans any activities in the zone. How can the state government act in such a cavalier manner with such a fragile island? This is asking for trouble.” Mangroves are known to provide the perfect buffer for floods and tidal issues, which is why the zones are protected by law and are slotted as “No-Development Zones”.
“And, incidentally, there aren’t even any pucca roads on Elephanta island which has been classified as CRZ II (Urban). How can the state call a zone urban if power supply began only recently,” said Stalin.
Despite the initial brouhaha, there is a lot of ambiguity on the issue of permissions needed for construction. The state government is happy announcing partnerships and the locals couldn’t be happier with prospects of earning a fortune by leasing out their properties to foreign business but the reality is different. There is little space on the island to do business as such. Apart from the new jetty and the pathway leading to the top, there are no spaces for shopping. All available spaces are already taken by locals, leaving nothing for outsiders.
For the residents the real lure is the prospect of homestays in the villages. Every second house on the island seems to be getting an extra floor, and a few “guest rooms” to meet the flurry of tourists that are expected. People seem intoxicated by the promise of plenty held out by tourism, an industry whose potential they’re newly examining.
Left to itself, nature finds a balance, says Stalin. “Look at how, during the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004, the Great Nicobar and Car Nicobar islands were hit the worst due to their proximity to the quake and relatively flat terrain. More than one-fifth of the population of the Nicobar Islands was hit,” said Stalin, “while Chowra lost two-thirds of its population. Even Trinket Island was divided in two.” At the same time, the Sentinelese tribals have resisted human entry on North Sentinel Island which, till date, has no modern-day development. It emerged unscathed from the Boxing Day tsunami.
he new CRZ notifications released in December 2018 permit, on CRZ-II notified islands, construction of buildings for residential purpose “only on the landward side of the existing road”. This is a misleading phrase because all construction on islands or in zones with coastal roads, takes place on the landward side. So, by definition, construction can take place on the entire island as it will fall on the landward side of the existing “coastal” road encircling it.
As things stand, CRZ violation is rife across the island. Residents of all three villages have begun construction in and around the coastal zone with absolute disregard for ecosystem integrity.
If one follows the new notification strictly and permits construction only on the landward side, all of Elephanta’s seaside homes can be refurbished, repaired or re-constructed without a legal hitch. That the homes lie in a highly-precarious zone on the high-tide line or close to it is of little consequence.
“Look at the old jetty, for instance, used for passenger ferries arriving from Gateway of India for years and now out of use for the public. The water levels have risen drastically over the years,” recalls Chandiramani. “The new jetty provides tourists with the option of a toy train ride till the base of the island too,” he says. The old one lies almost submerged.
While the new jetty originally had stalls only on one side, once the Island got electricity, people set up stalls lining both sides, maximising the shopping experience for the tourist. But for visitors a trip to the island is primarily to get away from the maddening rush associated with life back in Mumbai.
As things stand, CRZ violation is rife across the island. Residents of all three villages have begun construction in and around the coastal zone with absolute disregard for ecosystem integrity. “We’re actually cutting the branch we’re sitting on,” says an uneducated yet worldly-wise 68-year-old Elephanta Island resident and stall-owner whose son is constructing two more floors on top of her one-storied house to accommodate tourists. “Despite my warnings, he refuses to relent. He says, this is the only time we can get rich.
“We don’t need to live like this all our lives,” she says. “Ab kya karein? Usko itna samjhaya toh bhi maanta nahin. Loan leke bana raha hai sab. Kuch ulta seedha ho gaya toh kya karenge loan ka? (Now what to do? Despite the warnings, he doesn’t seem to understand. He has even taken a loan for the construction. Now, if something goes wrong, how will we repay it),” she says.
She couldn’t be more correct. If the 2018 CRZ notifications are struck down by court, considering the string of court filings being planned and all plans for tourism on Elephanta Island stalled even for a few years, the people dreaming of a big payday from tourists with bulging wallets will be facing disaster as loans come due, interest burdens surge and they are unable to pay.
With tourist arrivals on the island set to increase, especially after the ropeway from the mainland starts operating locals need to take stock of their resources. The provision for power, to an extent in surplus for now, will take time to be used up fully, but the fears of congestion are already coming true. Tourists jostle for space, shoulder to shoulder, tripping over each other as they alight from their launches on to the jetty. Apart from overcrowding there is the problem of swiftly-dwindling resources of potable water, open spaces around the island, and the once-wonderful cave-viewing experience is often interrupted dodging selfie-crazed crowds or local guides.
“Previously, there was a surge during weekends and holidays but they were otherwise spread out through the week. Now the numbers are reaching unmanageable limits almost on a daily basis,” says boat attendant Rahim Sulaiman who finds it impossible to manage the crowds. “Very often, the launches are booked by groups of tourists nowadays,” he adds. So, a lot of casual visitors have to lurk in wait for empty seats to grab on launches that earlier plied half empty. “Often we even turn away tourists and ask them to come the next day, something that never happened earlier,” added Rahim.
ronically, towards the end of 2018, the villagers led by a brand-new sarpanch demanded security and were provided with two officers and 20 personnel deployed to protect the island around the clock.
For an island where visits are restricted between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. with the last launch leaving at 6 p.m., the need for security seems a bit extravagant, especially compared to the total absence of basic medical facilities for locals and visitors.
The show of security goes together with the state’s plans to set up resorts and home-stays across the island. Whether the security is needed or not isn’t important. What is important is the fact that it heralds a sense of anticipation, an ill-placed display of anticipation associated with almost all of Maharashtra’s tourist spots starting with the Gateway of India.
Entering the Gateway to board a launch for Elephanta Island tourists have to traverse multiple security checks by police personnel, dodging barricades placed indiscriminately as stumbling blocks, repeated frisking, a sea of obnoxious photographers, and more. The security personnel on Elephanta and the highly-controlled entry-point processes prolong the ordeal.
When a state decides to promote a zone, it would be natural to assume that promotion includes processes for the welfare of the zone, its people and the tourist as well. That, in the case of Maharashtra, is simply not happening. Indeed, the government starts to count the chickens well before the eggs are laid. The much-touted Airbnb partnership has been followed by delays in processes that have only embarrassed the corporation. The rise in footfalls are still mainly projections on paper and the locals, spurred by dizzying prospects of profit, could well be left high and dry.
The Maharashtra government announced the partnership in June 2018. But till date nothing seems to have moved on the home-stay front. “We will inform you of the details when available,” is the staple MTDC response when asked for an update. While home-stay facilities were to be launched in conjunction with Airbnb at 35 places across Maharashtra, with Elephanta Island the latest, the project is yet to see the light of day.
On Elephanta the flurry of activity has put erstwhile sarpanch Rajendra Padte in militant mood. “We will not let outsiders do business on Elephanta,” he warns while deriding Baliram Thakur’s attempts to modernise the island and boost tourism. “We have been on the island for years and have ensured that its resources stay with the natives. With all this talk of foreign tie-ups and outsiders, Elephanta Island will not remain the same. It will be taken over by outsiders. And in no time we’ll be searching far and wide for a green patch or a tree as is the case in most islands that have been ‘developed’ for tourism,” he says.
“I will never let that happen. Not in my lifetime,” says Padte who initiated most of the development on Elephanta. “I am not against development. By all means, make roads, provide facilities for villagers, but don’t think you can sell off this island that belongs to us—the people.”
hile there is a need to balance tourism with local interests, the trend today, particularly among politicians and local representatives, is to earn brownie points with their respective political parties while disregarding local interests. In a meeting attended by officers of the Intelligence Bureau, the Navi Mumbai police, Coast Guard, Forest Department and Maharashtra Maritime Board, in November 2018, it was decided that the gram panchayat would maintain a register of tourists visiting the island. A dress code for tourist guides provided with identity cards was finalised, CCTVs were installed and a survey of the villages carried out.
So, everything is in place or at least looks like it’s in place. One thing missing is that if anyone, local or tourist, is bitten by a snake there’s no chance of emergency treatment. Also, while the Forest Department was expected to identify a location for the construction of toilets for tourists, a year after the Island got regular power supply and 72 years after Independence, there is a distinct shortage of toilets for tourists.
The only ones available are in a single block, for men and women at the base of the island, and a few more in another block, on top, inside the cave area. For practical purposes, today eight persons at most can use a toilet at any point of time. The lakhs of others can wait their turn. Plans to construct more toilets, however, have been floating for a very long time. Funds, too, are available but there’s a lack of initiative that has stalled new construction of an absolutely basic human need.
The other major lacuna is the absence of a potable water facility for tourists despite an RO plant starting up after the initiation of power supply. It is only for locals. “I am always forced to buy bottled water at rates beyond printed MRP because islanders insist that they have to transport the water all the way from Mumbai,” says Elephanta regular and Pune resident Lyla Goel. “Earlier, I would pay the extra out of sheer pity for the locals,” she says. “Last time I visited Elephanta Island, 24x7 power has almost all locals engaged with their mobile phones constantly. They overcharged me again for water which I feel strongly should be made available free by the government.”
So tourists have few options but to buy bottled water at exorbitant rates. “It feels like loot on the island. Everything is overcharged and there is no process to complain or put things in place,” says Chandiramani.
The new CRZ notifications have sparked a collective fervor among the locals to make the most of the opportunity and earn a fortune and haul themselves level with the rest of India. Any attempt to moderate or monitor the elaborate processes promised by the notification lead to violent polarisation spurred by political interests.
“Constructing along the coastline of Elephanta Island even near the high tide line is asking for trouble,” warns Stalin. A single storm could wreak havoc along the shoreline. The island witnesses violent squalls and thunderstorms during the monsoons when all boating activities come to a halt. Tourism on Elephanta depends entirely on the weather. For instance, during the monsoon months, June till about mid-September, the number of passenger launches plying from Gateway of India falls markedly. Sometimes there is not even one a day. “Often, we may ply from Gateway of India to Elephanta in the morning but get stuck owing to bad weather that may prevent us from returning,” says Rahim.
“It’s because of such unpredictable weather during the rains that a lot of tourists avoid travelling to Elephanta,” he adds. And then, there’s Hathi (also known as “Elephanta” to sailors, brief but violent squalls), that locals dread encountering at sea. It happens to be an annual monsoon weather pattern that hits just after the seasonal rains end almost always in September, year after year without fail. “Haala ki Hathi sirf do, teen ghante ke liye aata hai, uski taakat itni hoti hai ki sab ko hila deta hai. Aise mein, bahar nikalna bewakoofi hai (Despite Hathi unleasing its wrath on Elephanta Island only for an hour or two, it is so strong that it wreaks record havoc in its wake. With the weather getting uncontrollably windy then, it makes little sense to step into the sea),” he adds.
“With the weather so unpredictable, encroachments on the island are prone to structural collapses and falls, leading to human and material loss. Encroachment along the mangroves is guaranteed to invite trouble for the rest of the island. With the natural buffers removed, there’s nothing that man can do to prevent floods from high tides around the island,” says Stalin.
We know that natural disasters are compounded by unnatural interventions with nature. In the one-upmanship games being played on the island, particularly keeping the natives’ interests at stake, the risks are too high for comfort.