“To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure,” Jawaharlal Nehru said from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his first address to the nation.
Fifty-six years later, 10-year-old Mangesh Padvi and 1,200 fellow tribals in the remote village of Bilgaon tucked away in the hilly Satpuda range 490 km north of Mumbai decided to heed Nehru’s advice.
In a unique attempt at self-empowerment, the tribals who had spent 50 years without electricity decided to build the country’s first community-operated micro-hydel project, with help from non-governmental organisation Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).
Lugging bricks on their heads, children and adults alike spent nearly 2,000 man hours building the project that would help convert the force of the Udai and Titodi rivers into electricity.
Three years later, they were shoved back into the previous century, their project washed away by the floodwaters of a massive irrigation project.
Repeated requests to the state government for help to rebuild it have gone unheeded.
The project was designed by People’s School of Energy, a Chennai-based NGO that focuses on alternate energy sources. It was built under the supervision of the NBA, which provided most of the Rs 10 lakh that the project cost.
The rest of the funds came from the impoverished tribals, a few hundreds rupees from each household.
The project began to generate power in 2003, lighting up 250 households in 12 tribal hamlets.
Each family paid just Rs 10 to Rs 30 for a connection.
Oddly enough, the project was inaugurated by then state Rural Development minister R.R. Patil.
Overnight, politicians and activists were rushing over with congratulations. Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan even built his film, Swades, around the story of the village and its power project.
But now the project has been destroyed by the backwaters of the Sardar Sarovar Project, the villages have rejoined the ranks of those forgotten by the Other India.
And the tribals have gone back to living by the rising and setting of the sun.
The 400 students of the local residential school finish dinner by 5 pm so they can spend the rest of their daylight hours finishing their homework.
“We got used to having electricity in our village,” says Mangesh Padvi (16), a Class 9 student. “Spending the evenings in the dark is not pleasant.”
The state government, which had held up the project as an inspiration and a model of people’s participation in development, has not offered to help.
Though the nearest electrical outpost is just 4 km away, there have been no attempts to bring power to the villages, and repeated requests for funds to rebuild the micro-hydel plant have gone unanswered.
“All 12 hamlets have been in darkness since August 2006,” says Ajit Pawra, member of the local panchayat samiti (village council). “The local tehsildar carried out a site investigation that month to assess the damage, but we have heard nothing since then.”
Nandurbar Collector Saurabh Rao says he was not aware that the project had been destroyed.
“If the villagers do approach us, we will be more then willing to help sort out the issue,” he says.
Yogesh Pawara isn’t holding his breath.
“The government has money to send its people to this remote area to ask us to vote, but it can’t spend a few lakhs to help with our project,” he says. “Is this how democracies work?”