Print edition : October 24, 2003

Decentralised alternatives such as a micro-hydel project and an indigenous primary education system create a new development paradigm in the Narmada Valley in Maharashtra.

recently in Nandurbar

AS the sun sets over the Satpuda range in Nandurbar district in northern Maharashtra, pinpricks of light flicker on faintly, visible here and there in the jungle clearing. As the sky darkens, the lights burn brighter, and the 12 padas (hamlets) of Bilgaon extend their daylight hours for the first time in their existence.

At the Bilgaon's micro-hydel power project.-PHOTOGRAPHS: VIVEK BENDRE

Although electric poles are scattered all over the hills surrounding Bilgaon, they have never been wired. "They have been around for decades," said sarpanch Sukhlal, pointing to the tilted poles that have responded to inclement weather and the gradual shifting of the ground. "Maybe they are wired only on paper." The villagers had given up hopes of getting electricity. That is, until last year, when their homes were electrified by what everyone now calls "people's energy".

In mid-2002 the people of Bilgaon, along with activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the People's School of Energy (PSE), Kerala, began work on the village electrification system. Six months and 13.5 km of wiring later, in January, the Bilgaon micro-hydel project was inaugurated by Maharashtra's Minister for Rural Development R.R. Patil.

Designed by the PSE, the hydel project taps the power of a natural waterfall. The 15 kW of electricity produced is adequate to light all 12 padas that fall within 4 km of this tribal village. A two-metre high check dam stores 15 lakh litres of water, which is channelled into a tank capable of storing 30,000 litres. Water flows at the rate of 400 litres a second from a height of 8 m to drive a turbine. This, in turn, drives a generator at the rate of 1,500 rotations per minute (rpm) giving Bilgaon its electricity.

In the months when the river Uday is in full flow, the village would have electricity round the clock. When there is less water, there will be four hours of supply, after sundown. But, as K. Anil of the PSE emphasises, it is not the technicalities of the project that are important. "It is the politics of water, of use and control over resources, of the overall development paradigm of the country. That is what the NBA is fighting for and that is why we came here - to strengthen the NBA's struggle, " Anil said.

Children studying at night. Electricity has changed life in Bilgaon.-

Much thought has gone into the construction of the hydel project and it is based on the principles of sustainability and equitable sharing. The water channel, for instance, was constructed by digging through rock to avoid the submergence of agricultural land.

Ravi Kuchimanchi, an NBA activist and volunteer with the Association for India's Development, compares Bilgaon's hydel project with that of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). "While the Bilgaon project lights up 12 unelectrified hamlets of Bilgaon village, the SSP dam produces very little electricity and none of the Adivasi villages will be electrified by it. The installation cost of the Bilgaon project is Rs.40,000 a kW while the SSP is wasteful for Maharashtra at Rs.56,000 a KW. Thirty-three tribal villages in Maharashtra and tens of thousands of hectares of forest land are being submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Bilgaon project has not caused any damage and all the work was shramdan (voluntary) saving Rs.2.5 lakhs in the eight months of work."

During the day the electricity generated is used for pumping drinking water and for other livelihood activities. Extra access to water has meant that villagers can plan for a second crop. The turbine also drives a mill. Equitable usage of electricity is ensured because every family is a member of the Bilgaon Navnirman Samiti. Energy use has been prioritised with preference given to the lighting of homes, the pumping of drinking water, community agriculture, livelihood creation and, finally, entertainment. There are five television sets in the village. Electricity charges are fixed at Rs.10 a tubelight and Rs.30 a television a month.

A MINI micro-hydel project was first built in 2000 at Domkhedi, the site of the NBA's monsoon satyagraha. Producing a mere 300 W of electricity, the project electrified the satyagraha hut and seven houses. No signs of that remain since most of Domkhedi has been submerged. This monsoon, when six of the jeevan shalas - literally, schools of life - were submerged in the Narmada Valley, it was part of the continuing ordeal that people in the valley have been enduring. But, strangely enough, it also became a symbol of the endurance, resistance and resilience of the people.

Jeevan shalas or schools of life, the first of which came into existence 11 years ago, run primary classes for Adivasi children.-

Jeevan shalas

This year the jeevan shalas complete 11 years of their existence. The first batch of students who started their education in remote village schools, constructed primarily with bamboo and grass, finished their school education from different schools in the State. It was a proud moment for Ganesh guruji of the Nimgavan jeevan shala. "The first batch of SSC students passed out this year. They left our jeevan shala after the fourth standard but we still see them as our pupils. Of the 24 students who took the exam, 20 passed out, five of whom with first class," Ganesh said proudly. Over the years 750 children have studied in this jeevan shala. Like all the others, the Nimgavan school provides education to many villages, sometimes as far away as 140 km.

Jeevan shalas provide primary education to Adivasi children. In fact, in the remote regions they are the only providers of formal education Adivasi children have access to. Government schools existed only on paper and those that were functional treated Adivasi culture and knowledge as primitive. Adivasis felt a sense of alienation when they attended them. In 1991 they decided to create their own school using Adivasi youth as teachers. The idea caught on. From the first school started in Chimalkhedi, the village that was completely submerged this monsoon (Frontline, September 12), there are now 13 jeevan shalas in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh with over 1,500 pupils and 36 teachers. The idea is not to replace government schools but to provide a relevant education.

The essential principles of jeevan shalas are to develop self-respect among Adivasis for their culture and knowledge. One of the most important contributions of the NBA to education in the valley has been the creation of course books in Pavri, the language of Adivasis in north Maharashtra. New pupils, probably staying away from their homes for the first time, feel a sense of comfort with teachers who speak the same language and have the same customs and diet. Sham Patil, an NBA supporter from Dhule, explains, "Every new child gets a teacher who speaks his own language, unlike ashram shalas (state-run schools) where the teachers are exogenous. Marathi is taught in jeevan shalas but it is not the dominant language."

The jeevan shala at Manibeli, one of the first of its kind.-

Asked what he liked best about his school, Subhash from Mahad village, who attends the Nimgavan jeevan shala, said it was being with his friends, working in the fields and learning to write. With a routine that involves waking up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at 9 p.m., the children are provided an education that is a blend of the formal State syllabus and Adivasi working knowledge about herbs, animal welfare and farming. The children of the Narmada Valley lack the security that most school children have. One generation of these children grew up seeing the struggle for justice and this has automatically become a part of their education. The jeevan shala's motto of "Ladai aur padai saath saath" (struggle and study together) guides the children to a great extent. Jania, who is from the Chimalkhedi jeevan shala and who recently passed from a school, is now an NBA activist. Vijay, another jeevan shala alumnus has excelled in sports, achieving national-level recognition as a marathon runner.

Initially the jeevan shalas were not recognised by the State Education Department and children were not allowed to join secondary schools if they had their primary education in jeevan shalas. This changed in 1992, and now the NBA's work is recognised by the State. After a recent visit to the valley, R.R. Patil promised to provide the jeevan shalas with facilities that included uniforms and midday meals. The schools have so far been run by village communities, who contribute cash and grain. Parents either pay for tuition or donate grain. Much of the materials come from private supporters outside. Teachers are skilled in making teaching aids and the children have been taught to use the pedal generators that produce electricity for the schools.

The Minister was introduced to the jeevan shalas by 25-year-old Geeta Vasave, the first woman panchayat leader of the region. Geeta, who is from Nimgavan, was the first Adivasi woman in the Narmada Valley to graduate in Marathi. Like her father, she is the elected sarpanch of Undya Roshmal Panchayat. "There were four other women contestants but I was the most educated and so I won," she said. With 20 villages, Undya Roshmal is the biggest panchayat in Akrani tehsil. In the recently held elections, NBA representatives won 10 out of 13 seats in this panchayat.

Inspired in every way by NBA leader Medha Patkar, Geeta is one of the key Adivasi activists of the NBA and has been involved in the activities of the non-governmental organisation since she was in the sixth standard. Determined to do what she can to save the valley, Geeta believes that "the only way for Adivasis to progress is to convert forest villages into revenue villages. All these government yojanas (schemes) have been useless. Adivasis have a better idea of their rights after the Andolan came here," she said.

The NBA is primarily seen as an organisation that fights for the rights of displaced people. But the fact is that the NBA is not just about protests. Keenly aware that the governments of the three States involved in the Narmada Valley projects are likely to remain unresponsive to the plight of the displaced, the NBA, along with volunteers and other NGOs, has undertaken the task of reconstructing their lives and proving that there are alternative, sustainable forms of development.

Amid the prevalent loss and destruction in the Narmada Valley, Bilgaon's micro-hydel project, the jeevan shalas and the presence of an educated Adivasi woman sarpanch are instances that prove that decentralised alternatives are a part of the new development paradigm.

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