At 12 years of age, she looked like any other girl. When not at school, Sarika would help her father load empty cold drink crates at a nearby jetty. She’d pitch in by picking that odd empty crate herself.
One evening, while her father Namdeo Bhagat was at the jetty loading the crates, Sarika tried to help, as usual. But, just when she went to pick up an empty crate, a snake that lay coiled beneath sprang up and bit her. Sarika’s father rushed her to the sarpanch who initiated treatment – the ‘only one’ on Elephanta Island.
In a ritual performed, as a rule, on snake-bite victims, a small cut was made at the site of the bite and the part inserted forcibly into a young fowl’s rectum. The fowl yelped in agony and finally died as if to symbolise that the venom had been “sucked out of the victim and had killed the fowl”. However, even as everyone rejoiced, Sarika’s health only worsened.
The Islanders were then left with little option but to rush her to a hospital. But there was one hitch. There was none on the Island. Elephanta Island, aka Gharapuri, that lies barely 10 kms – a 40 minute-ride from Mumbai’s, India’s financial capital and the world’s costliest realty zone, Colaba, also doesn’t house a single medical practitioner.
Worse still, after six pm, all ferries that ply to mainland shut shop. So, Sarika had to be rushed across the sea in a private fishing boat to Uran. Despite an exhausting hour’s journey after which she was given preliminary treatment, her condition only worsened. The next morning, she was moved to Mumbai’s KEM hospital where the 12-year-old breathed her last. Islanders yet shudder as they recall how cherubic Sarika’s torso had bloated beyond recognition at the time of her death.
In the stark absence of medical aid and “absolutely no treatment in case of monkey and snake bites,” the 1,200-old Islanders and the ten lakh tourists visiting Elephanta Island annually had poor little by way of medical treatment in case of an emergency.
This was back in 1995.Cut to 2013 today, 18 years later too things remain much the same. Elephanta Island’s three villages – Rajbunder, Shetbunder and Morabunder – yet don’t have any access to medical facility on the Island. The Island’s residents receive very basic power supply from 7 pm to 10: 30 pm through an MTDC generator.
The World Heritage Site is set to witness the Elephanta Festival this weekend. Following the 26/11 terror attacks in 2008, the Maharashtra government had decided to adjourn the festival following security concerns. Last year, deviating from norm, despite opposition, the festival was relocated to The Gateway of India. This year, however, the two-day festival organised by Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) to be held on March 2-3, is expected to be a huge draw for foreign and Indian tourists alike.
The stretch leading from the jetty till the top at the caves will be lit up as part of the festivities during the two-day fiesta which will witness launches plying to and from mainland Mumbai for the festival on the Island till 11 pm. While thousands of tourists, mostly foreign, will visit the venue to partake in the fiesta, the real issues of the Island will again be lost in the cultural razzmatazz.
Tourists will arrive at the Elephanta jetty following a 40-minute ride in a launch from Mumbai’s Gateway of India all through the evening on both the days. From the jetty, they will be greeted with a light-and-sound bonanza complete with shopping options at stalls all along the 120 steps leading to the caves on the top. Once they reach the top, they will witness a music-and-dance programme showcasing celebrity performers in an event held in the open. Around 11 pm, the event will wind up and visitors will move to the jetty and leave the Island just as they arrived, through launches back to the Gateway of India.
What the tourists will, once again, fail to see, is the darkness that envelops the Island, night after night. There is no uninterrupted power supply on the Island whose residents receive barely three and a half hours of very basic electricity supply. Forget access to entertainment, they don’t even have power supply to tackle medical emergencies that occur regularly on the Island. Due to the dearth of power, there isn’t a single refrigerator on the Island to store vaccines or medication for emergencies too.
Apart from the power shortage, Elephanta Island doesn’t have a single doctor; no facility for formal education beyond Standard 10th; doesn’t receive filtered potable water and has no crisis management facility in place. Ironically, one of its villages, Shetbunder -till date – houses electricity and telephone poles since the British era when the Island housed a British military base that possessed electricity as well as telephone lines. It does seem that the Islanders were better off under the Britishers than today when they’re left without power and communication.
For over 25 years, Islander Kamlakar would travel from the Island to a hospital located on mainland Mumbai for treatment of alcohol-linked ailments after which he would return to Elephanta Island. On the night of 6 September, a few years back, his vital functions began to fail and his sons had to rush him in a private fishing vessel to a nursing home at Nhava on the mainland. Since the place didn’t have extensive medical facilities, they had to move him within hours to Kalamboli’s MGM hospital.
A feeble Kamlakar couldn’t take the travails of the transit and his body writhed violently and he started frothing at the mouth before his body turned limp. “If only we had some kind of medical facilities on the Island, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time travelling. Our father would have been alive today,” recall his son Mithun Bhoir even today as he struggles to earn his keep at his father’s stall.
Another Islander Sudhir Mhatre curses his fate for living at Elephanta Island. Each time he recalls his 62-year-old father’s last moments, Sudhir’s eyes start to brim over. “His feverish body lay writhing with pain as he slipped in and out of consciousness till beyond midnight,” he recalls. “There was no way I could have taken him to a hospital. The last launch had left the Island at 6:00 p.m. and the next one was available only in the morning. I felt so helpless. And, for the first time, I regretted staying on the Island,” he says. Sudhir Mhatre’s father passed away at 3:00 a.m. as he lay on the cold floor of his hut devoid of power, like many others earlier who couldn’t receive timely medical aid.
The Elephanta Festival to be held in all its finery over the weekend will have the world’s tourists converging to the World Heritage Site and celebrating the Island’s biggest sham. Incidentally, every year on 2nd November, a group of Islanders meet at a courtyard of a house at Shetbunder Gaon where they sit together and share a meal in memory of twelve-year-old Sarika Namdeo Bhagat with her parents and brothers. Sarika’s saga is symbolic of Elephanta Island’s reality: The truth of a World Heritage Site whose residents are robbed of their basic human rights.