Less than half an hour from the horns and screeching tires of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, a naked child sits on the ground, bawling. He has injured his forehead while chasing a chicken, and the bruise is quickly turning a combination of black, blue and red.
The two-year-old toddles to his heavily pregnant mother, farm labourer Sidhu Pahu, 24. As far as healthcare is concerned, they are both on their own.
Botashi village in Palghar district sits between the Deobandh river and the thick Botashi forest. Every monsoon it becomes isolated from the rest of the world.
There are no roads or bridges here, so through the year the tribal villagers make their way across the shallow waters of the river on foot. When the river swells in the rains, there is no way across at all.
“I’ve been telling Pahu that she needs to move out of here before her due date of August 10,” says local activist Madhukar Shinde. “This place is just an hour from Nashik City and two-and-a-half from Mumbai, but in the monsoon there is nothing here to help the sick or the aged.”
It’s the same for the 500 households in the 16 villages of the Kandat and Shindi valleys near the Koyna dam in Satara district, and the families that live in the Sindhudurg fort village in the Konkan.
“We have lost many villagers to illness in the monsoon,” says RR Jungam of Waghavle village in the Kandat valley of the Western Ghats. “It is too dangerous to try and cross either the ghats that surrounds us or the backwaters of the dam. So we stock up on grains and pulses, and send the ailing or heavily pregnant to live with relatives or acquaintances on the mainland.”
There is no mail in the monsoon either, and the government school in Botashi is forced to shut because the teachers cannot make it across the river. Communication becomes difficult as bad weather disrupts already shaky cellphone networks.
“I feel blessed to have a phone that works during the monsoon,” says paddy farmer Subhash Sawant, 50, of Akalpe village in the Kandat valley. “In fact, mine is the only one, so the rest of the village uses it too.”
It’s unbelievable that in the 21st century, we still have villages like Botashi in a state as supposedly developed as Maharashtra, says Shinde. The roads that connect some of these areas are old and hence prone to damage, says Dilip Shinde, CEO of Palghar district. “The best way to fix the entire problem is to build bridges, which we plan to do in our district.”
A return to the barter system
Once it starts raining, grains and pulses become more precious than money, says paddy farmer Sitaram Gangar, 39.
With the village cut off by the thick Botashi forest on three sides and the raging Deobandh river on the fourth, food must be stocked up in advance in Botashi village, Palghar.
“By mid-August, most household run out of one thing or another, so we barter rice for dal or oil for ghee and sometimes for herbal medicines or painkillers,” Gangar says.
This village of 55 households also sends its children and pregnant women away during the monsoon. “Snake bites are a major threat in the rains,” says farm labourer Anant Navde, 25, who has sent his eight-month pregnant wife to her mother’s house in a village across the river.
She’s one of the luckier ones here. Farm labourer Sidhu Pahu, 24, is nine months pregnant but cannot move out of the village.
“I have nowhere to go,” says Pahu. “And even if I did, who would take care of my children while I was gone?”
With no bridges or roads here, even the local primary school is forced to shut, except for the odd days when the teachers can make it across the river on foot. Older children are sent to hostel schools in nearby villages.
“For eight years we have been asking the government to build a bridge across this river, but nothing has been done,” says Shraddha Shringarpure, programme manager at NGO Arohen.
By end-August, inadequate food and imbalanced diets have weakened the villagers’ immunities and there are outbreaks of malaria, gastroenteritis and skin allergies.
Every year, three or four people die trying to cross the flooded river during medical emergencies. An equal number die each year of viral fevers, pregnancy-related complications, snake bites and other medical conditions, because they could not get to a doctor.
Two years ago, Pahu’s close friend and neighbour Shemu Pavar died a month after delivering a baby during the monsoon. She died of what her family believes was an infection, as the villagers were trying to carry her to a doctor in a makeshift cloth stretcher. “Her body was swollen and there were huge boils all over her chest and stomach,” says Shemu’s mother-in-law, Yamuna. “In such cases, we sometimes make the person comfortable and wait for nature to take its course,” adds Gangar.
“Sometime ago we sent a request to the Public Works Department to build a bridge over the river,” says Palghar collector Abhijeet Bangar. “We will soon check on the proposal.”
Staying back to serve Shivaji
The Sindhudurg naval fort off the coast of Malvan town is a tourist attraction — spread over 48 acres, built on an outcrop of rock in the Arabian Sea by Maratha warrior-king Shivaji more than 350 years ago.
The fort was once a bustling township, with homes, godowns, armouries, public baths, stables and temples.
Twenty-two families still live here, determined to fulfil a promise their ancestors made to Shivaji’s youngest son, Rajaram. Rajaram built a temple within the fort in 1695, dedicated to the Maratha king. And he had appointed their ancestors caretakers.
“We still follow all the rituals they followed then. Every morning and evening, drums are played in the salutation ceremony, followed by a ceremonial pooja,” says Hitesh Venganekar, 29, a fort guide and ninth-generation drum player.
Even when the fort is completely isolated by the stormy monsoon sea, four of these families refuse to leave. From June to September, these residents, who are normally a 15-minutes boat ride away from Malvan, fend for themselves.
The rains even take away their livelihood—for most families, the stipends still paid out by the state are complemented by money made selling snacks and trinkets to tourists. In the monsoon, with no tourists, siblings working in the cities send in money to helps time them over, and the government sends basic rations before the rains begin.
Here too, children are sent away to Malvan so that they can continue to go to school. “I miss my mother and my pet cat Titi,” says Yeoti Sawant, 9, daughter of Mangesh, 44, a 10th-generation temple priest helper. “I miss the fort and the island. In Malvan, I live in one small room with my aunt and I have nowhere to run around and no friends to play with.”
During medical emergencies, a family may set sail on a boat made from the wood of the mango tree, but they have to time such journeys carefully to give themselves a better chance of making it ashore.
“All the women here can row, but we usually don’t take a chance because we have lost people while trying to cross over in the monsoon,” says Venganekar.
Still, the residents say, they don’t want a bridge or a permanent road to the mainland. “That would destroy the essence of this place,” says Saadiq Sheikh, 47, a fort guide and a ninth-generation drum player.
Schoolchildren forced to leave home or skip class
There are 16 scenic villages in the Kandat and Shindi valleys of the Western Ghats stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place.
To the north, east and west are the steep Sahyadri ghats or mountain passes, and to the south are the backwaters of Satara’s Koyna dam.
In the monsoon, the steep dirt road that connects the valleys with Khed, 23 km away, becomes so unpassable that even the daily State Transport bus service to these villages is halted.
The two-hour water route through the backwaters is closed too, because harsh winds and heavy rains make the waters too choppy for the villagers’ small boats.
“We are locked in our homes for more than three months every year,” says RR Jungam, 66, resident of Waghavle village in Kandat valley. “Farmers can’t sell their produce; women can’t go to the markets in Tapola or Khed for food.” The primary health centre is also forced to shut.
Villagers say the solution is to concretise the road through the ghats.
“There are so many villages in these two valleys that aren’t even connected by dirt roads. School-going children have to climb up and down the hills to get class. This becomes too dangerous in the monsoon, so they have to stay in the hostel, away from their parents,” says Pawar.
The zilla parishad office and the Public Works Department have submitted a proposal sometime ago to build a bridge over the Koyna backwaters, says tehsildar Atul Mhetre. “The cost is estimated at Rs 30 crore. If the state sanctions it, 80% of the villagers’ problems will be solved,” he adds.