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August 31, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

The Bulb Brought The Tears

The old woman scrambles down the gentle slope as our boat gets ready to leave. She waves to a young man who is with us. He waves back with a shy grin. Then, as the boat begins moving, we notice that she is weeping. Tears running down her cheeks, she continues to wave as we move off down the river.

Her name is Khatri Vasave. She lives in a tiny village called Domkhedi, on the banks of the Narmada river in northern Maharashtra. The young man's name is Anil Kumar. He is from Pathanpara in Kannur District, Kerala. After a few weeks here, he is returning to his home. In those weeks, Khatri has grown very fond of this tall engineer from Kerala. And that fondness has its roots, I suspect, in a single bulb.

For here's what Anil and his colleague Madhu accomplished in this hamlet. They got here on July 15. They surveyed the area and found a small stream gurgling through the hills a few hundred yards from the village. Enlisting the help of the villagers, they built a one metre high, four or five metres long dam across the stream. From the resultant reservoir, they laid a pipe through trees and across slopes, to a concrete tank halfway to the village. From that tank, they ran another pipe steeply downhill about 30 metres, to a little shed they built at the bottom. In the shed, they set up a small turbine they had brought from Kerala, and fed the pipe into it.

Finally, they strung wires from the turbine to some huts in Domkhedi. A turn of the valve one recent Tuesday, and there it was. On India's fifty-third birthday, for the first time ever, an electric bulb glowed in Khatri Vasave's hut. As also in a few other huts. In a mere one month spent here, Anil and Madhu had given these villagers what 53 years -- 636 months -- of Indian governments had not.

Electricity. No wonder Khatri weeps to see Anil leave.

Domkhedi is scheduled to vanish under the waters of the Narmada as they rise behind the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. In fact, even at the dam's present height, at the peak of the rainy season, Domkhedi already does get almost totally submerged. Its villagers are being drowned out of their homes and off their land to build a dam that will apparently supply drinking water and electricity to areas of Gujarat very far from here.

I imagine the irony must have occured to them at some point: nobody ever cared to bring Domkhedi's residents drinking water and electricity. And yet their lives here is the price they must pay so others in Gujarat can enjoy those things.

No wonder too, that the people of Domkhedi simply do not want Sardar Sarovar built. Last year, hundreds of people from here and around made that point by standing in the water as it rose: past their waists, chests and to their chins, flooding their homes. For hours and days they stood, until a nervous state administration pulled them out and arrested them.

This year, Domkhedi remains a focal point of the protests against the dam. Except that this year, there is a small difference. The huts here actually have electricity: just as good, just as potent, just as desirable as that dam claims it will provide some indeterminate number of years from now. But this is electricity produced right here in the village. Generated with the toil and sweat of these very villagers. In some ways, this year's is the loudest protest of all: this demonstration that even if they have been deprived of electricity, even if there is no chance they will get it any time soon, even if their lives are devastated so that someone else can get the stuff -- even so, they are willing and able to produce it for themselves. And at a cost of about Rs 15,000, with help from Anil and Madhu, that's just what they have done.

Of course, it is important to retain some perspective here. While six huts in Domkhedi are grateful for this power, on the face of it the idea does not seem practical on a larger scale. The turbine that is up and running in the village can supply 300 watts of electricity at best. That means perhaps ten houses lit with low-power bulbs. (Though the families use compact fluorescent lamps -- CFLs -- which consume the same power but produce more light than ordinary incandescent bulbs). For the time being, the electricity flows for just three or four hours every evening. Without doubt, this is a small effort; a "micro-hydel" project that Anil himself told us is better described as "pico-hydel".

Besides, there is the whole issue of what happens outside hilly areas such as Domkhedi. The turbine needs steadily flowing water, which is why they have built a tank and pipe the water 30 metres downhill here. That is not possible in the plains.

So with all that perspective to consider after listening to Anil, we trek up a narrow path, balancing precariously on the steep side of a hill, to the dam site. The first thing that strikes me is how tiny the stream is. Yes, there have been two poor monsoons in a row, no rain for days now. But even so, this is a mere trickle of water. I can hardly believe there is enough flowing in it to fill a bottle of water quickly, let alone light a bulb, let alone more.

But then something else strikes me: that is just the point, isn't it? I might have given this trickle no more than a glance. But two young men from Kerala saw its potential and persuaded these villagers of it. Here in Domkhedi, a few ordinary Indians have made creative use of their own resources. Scanty resources, sure, but they have been exploited right here, by those who live right here. And isn't that what self-reliance is all about?

If you look at it like that, you know that it is no mere toy that's on display in Domkhedi. Anil, Madhu and the villagers take it very seriously indeed, and then the larger scale is hardly the point. Anil said they have installed other turbines like this one in different villages in Kerala. One supplies as much as 4,000 watts (4 KW). He believes the total micro-hydel capacity in Kerala is 2,000 megawatts. Compare that to the installed electricity capacity in Kerala -- about 2,800 MW -- and you start understanding the potential. Anil wants to make a study in this part of the Narmada valley to estimate the capacity here. And China, Anil and Madhu tell me, has about 10,000 such micro-hydel plants in operation. They even supply power to the national grid there.

Not a toy. Besides, it also gives Domkhedi drinking water. The women here used to have to clamber up and down the hills every day to bring water to their families; in the monsoons especially, the water from the Narmada itself is very muddy. But now a pipe brings clear stream water from that tank right into the village. In addition, the Kerala engineers are building bunds to prevent soil erosion in the stream's watershed. The idea is to give the water more time to trickle into the ground and recharge the groundwater. In one or two years, they expect that the recharging will allow the stream to flow perennially, making the micro-hydel project more useful still.

And if all that is not enough, there is even a pedal-operated generator designed by a student at IIT, operating in Domkhedi. Pedalled for an hour, it charges a battery enough to power a couple of bulbs for four hours.

No doubt what is going on in Domkhedi is small. But it is at least a demonstration of what is possible. Of what the alternatives are to major projects that cause such a lot of destruction and displacement. What the alternatives are to waiting for apathetic governments to act, to provide. And it seems to me -- I believe it was on this trip to the Narmada valley that I fully understood -- that this is what those who have fought this dam so long have been saying all these years.

Let us decide, they are saying. Let us have a say. Let us make our lives, our futures. Don't take that away. No wonder Khatri Vasave is crying.

Dilip D'Souza

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