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Juice By The River: Diary of a Trip

February 15, 2003

A tribal village in Maharashtra's Nandurbar district, Bilgaon sits on a spur above the confluence of two rivers, the Udai and the Titodi. The latter is named, appropriately given the sound of its flow, for a bird. The Udai is some 50 feet higher than the Titodi. So it plunges over a gorgeous waterfall to make its rendezvous with the bird. As the Udai, the joint waters carry on to meet the Narmada a few kilometres downstream. The Titodi is much the smaller river, but also the cleaner and more energetic. In fact, it is startling how clear its waters are, and how refreshing to just sit in. Which we do, a couple of hundred metres upstream from the falls. Our own voices, the gurgling stream, birds singing and not one other sound.

Well, there's wiry Khadriya the fisherman, cajoling me to taste his wares. Not fish, though. Also taking advantage of the seclusion of this spot, he has set up an elaborate bit of homemade machinery to brew liquor. He boils some obscure berries in a pot that sits on the stony bank. The resultant vapours make their way through a canted pipe, up and then slanted down into another pot that sits in the coolness of the river. He uses a delicate ladle, made of a slender twig and two neatly folded leaves, to offer me some of the liquid. It's clear as the river, almost insufferably strong and aromatic, and even those few sips set my head whirling. I never could hold my liquor anyway, but this brew kicks like a wild ass.

I sort of fall back into the river. Suddenly the birds and the water sound ten times louder than before. And very discordant.

The unique site of this village, with its rivers at different levels, makes it a near ideal spot for a unique project. With help from the villagers of Bilgaon, two young engineers designed and built it over about a year. First, a 2-metre high concrete dam across the Udai, perhaps 60 m long. Then a channel for the siphoned-off water, leading around the spur. The second half of this involved actually blasting through rock, to make a trough six feet deep.

I was there for some of the blasting, and here's a primer. Dig a thin, long hole in the rock at a carefully calculated angle. Pick up a handful of the yellow explosive which, that morning, was drying in the sun like some exotic and tempting fruit. Cram it into the hole. Thread in a fuse. Wave away idle gawkers. That's us, so we leg it to either well above the spot or far below, across the Titodi and behind a knobby tree. One of the Kerala men casually lights the fuse with his cigarette, takes a drag and then as casually strolls up the slope to join us. With a deep and rumbling thump some seconds later, great chunks of rock erupt into the air. A few more inches have been carved from the hillside. Or not, if the original angle was slightly off.

The channel ends in a large concrete tank. From its bottom, a thick metal pipe leads steeply downhill to a shed that houses a turbine and generator. The 'head' -- the distance the water falls from tank to turbine -- is eight metres. The energy in the falling water, as it plunges into the turbine, turns into 15 kilowatts of electricity (time to dust off those old physics texts). Juice that's every bit as good as the stuff you are reading this by.

Bilgaon is also home to the Monibai Rukha Valvi Ashram school: 350 tribal students who use the Titodi to bathe, who eat off sparkling steel thalis in endearingly long lines in the village square. One holiday morning last August, I watched as they did their bit for the project. Holding their gleaming thalis, they waded about two-thirds of the way across the Udai. Bent over to fill the thalis with black mud from the river bed, an always desirable ingredient in mixing concrete. Laughing and shouting, playing and splashing, they waded back to shore, picked their way gingerly around the spur, and contributed their thali-mite to a pile of wet mud that sat high above the Titodi. Mud that is now part of the tank.

Today, bulbs blink on command in homes where light has only ever meant candles and lanterns, or possibly torches powered by expensive cells -- and Bilgaon's youngest residents have contributed to that little miracle. I remember them clearly, exchanged smiles with them when I returned in January.

Yes: at the inauguration in mid-January, a symbolic switch was flipped and electricity flowed through several kilometres of wire into 300 houses in the 12 spread out padas, or hamlets, of Bilgaon. One pada is even across the Udai, meaning one length of wire runs there, disappearing over the hill on the far side. That's 300 houses in 12 padas that have never had electricity. Never. Not in British times, not in half a century of free India, not in 40 plus years as part of the Great State That Renamed Bombay To Mumbai. Never, unless you count torch batteries, two Government-supplied but now defunct solar panels and monsoon flashes of lightning.

Now they have the real thing. Electricity. Electricity for nearly two thousand people, flowing from a dam, channel, tank, turbine and generator: a micro-hydel project finished in a year, built by the villagers of Bilgaon and those two engineers. That's Anil Kumar and C G Madhusoodanan, though just Anil and Madhu to an entire village. They belong to the People's School of Energy in Kannur district, Kerala, a group of engineers like them who have been doing work like this for some years.

And just how young are Anil and Madhu? Less than three years out of engineering college.

For my money, for my hopes, for what they did in Bilgaon, they are an inspiration to us BITS, IIT and wherever else types. Even if, at about the time Khadriya was plying me with riverside brew, a man called Gates was gracing a certain alumni reunion in sunny California.

Incidentally, I personally checked a significant portion of those several kilometres of wire in Bilgaon. Upshot: didn't find any bare stretches.

Why did I check? On the way to Bilgaon, we spent the night in the Government guest house in Dhule. They gave us the 'VIP Kaksha, Poorva:' the Eastern VIP Room. The room, they told us, that ministers use, on offer to us plebes because no ministers were expected. I found two major differences from the guest house's ordinary rooms.

One, some unidentifiable creature was crawling around the Indian-style, and it wasn't human. Not that I would have been happy if it was. Two, the geyser connected to the mains with a stretch of bare wire, looping perilously close to the switch. Perilously close, period. Thus my casual checking in Bilgaon.

I bathed twice in Dhule, very gingerly indeed, trying hard to prevent the water I sloshed on myself from also sloshing on the strands of bare wire. I am happy to report that I lived. And while bathing, I found one more attraction in the Eastern VIP Room Bathroom whose praises I have also lived to sing. Turning the water on and off, the tap gave me a shock.

Bare wires and shocks. Really, when will we ever learn to stop pampering our ministers?


Dilip D'Souza

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