A monsoon landscape near the Mulshi dam (Photo: Alamy)
A thick canopied jackfruit tree stands just off the dusty road. Far from human reach, its enormous fruit loom from branches. Its view is the Mulshi lake and the Mulshi dam, located around two hours out from Pune, if one drives westward towards the coast. The tree’s companion is a semal tree whose buxom red flowers dazzle against a blue sky. Villagers, sitting in the shade of the jackfruit tree, assume it is around 100 years old. They say that if the jackfruit tree could speak, the stories it would tell. It would reveal the history and present of the Mulshi taluka. It would tell how the two rivers of the area, Mula and Nila, were dammed 100 years ago, and how this taluka saw the world’s first anti-dam movement. While the Narmada Bachao Andolan is one of the best known anti-dam movements in India, its roots can be traced to this village block in western Maharashtra. The jackfruit tree has been witness to the satyagraha against the dam, the building of the dam, the submergence of villages, the forgetting of the locals and leaders who helmed the movement, and it now watches on as a new generation of residents tries to raise awareness about the unique history and geography of this area.
Back in the 1920s, the farmers of Mulshi Peta had protested against the construction of the dam that was to be built with government support by the industrial house of the Tatas. One of the main leaders of the movement was the socialist and nationalist Pandurang Mahadev (Senapati) Bapat. The electricity from the dam was to be supplied to the railways and textile mills in Bombay. When the Mawalas (residents of the Maval region, of which Mulshi Peta is a part) realised that 48 of their villages were to be submerged by the proposed reservoir, they joined hands with leaders of the Indian National Congress and fought against the dam from 1920 to 1924. At the time it was feared that close to 8,000 people would be displaced by the dam and 10,000 acres from 54 villages of the Mulshi Peta would be acquired.
An online search will tell you that ensconced in the Sahyadri, Mulshi is today known as an ecotourism hotspot. With majestic forts, such as Tailabaila, brooding over and home to a route that passes from Mulshi through the Western Ghats to Konkan, the area is ideal for the intrepid traveller. To visit during the monsoons is to be immersed in a lush wonderland, where the hillsides heave with life and every leaf, every stalk flaunts a shade of life. The ghats turn into a Narniascape of mists and waterfalls.
When we travel to Mulshi in mid-March, the summer sun has extracted all green, leaving behind a tinderbox of brown, against which only the semal flower blazes. The rains are still a good three months away. Walking these paths today it is difficult to fathom that this taluka is actually one of the world’s wettest spots, and in the last few years has even overtaken Cherrapunji in Meghalaya.
Milind Mujumdar, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, explains that the record rainfall at the Tamhini Ghat station (a pass located between Mulshi and Tamhini) is particularly unusual as it is located on the leeward side of the Western Ghats, whereas heavy rain tends to fall on the windward side. The mean monsoon rainfall between 1995 and 2013 was 6,498.4 mm but in 2019 it crossed a record 10,000 mm. Mujumdar says the recent high rainfall here can be attributed to the cloud structure and low pressure troughs, where heavy rainfall extends for spells of 10-12 days.
Mulshi’s monsoon majesty and its historical significance will lure any outsider. But within its villages a discontent has been brewing for over a century. While the majority of the villagers continue to struggle socially and economically, a group of people originally from the area have taken it upon themselves to get Mulshi on the map. By highlighting the region’s historical significance and natural beauty, they wish to bring in tourists who might bolster the local economy. They realise that the first step towards change is knowledge. They’ve taken it upon themselves to know their 1,029 km2 taluka better—by traversing its hills and dales—on foot.
A group that has taken a pivotal role in this endeavour is the Western Ghats Running Foundation, led by Dighvijay Jedhe. Jedhe is a mountain and trail-running enthusiast, a ‘farmer for lifetime’ with deeprooted connections with the Sahyadri ranges. Along with a group of other runners and nature lovers they create social awareness by hosting trail and mountain-running marathons. The races are their way of familiarising people with the literal and metaphorical ups and downs of the ghats.
Advocate Rajesh Satpute of Male village is a young and intrepid runner and explorer. He enjoys doing recces of the ghats, walking up to 50 km a day. During the lockdown, while the country was shut, he did what he does best: he donned his Hoka shoes and took off on a run. In two days, he traversed 100 km in the ghats. Jedhe says that just before the onslaught of the monsoon, the entire catchment area of the dam shrinks, allowing for enough space to walk. Following Satpute’s lead, Jedhe and eight others decided to do a similar parikrama of 110 km around the lake, over three days. The walkabout showed them what they had long known, as Jedhe says, “I don’t think there is a more beautiful area in Maharashtra.” But in this beauty they also saw the kachcha houses of villagers and armoured guards. He adds, “The villagers there can only see ‘Owned by Tata’ signs. That is how he’s spending his life.”
As the centenary of the satyagraha approaches, those like Jedhe and Pawar are trying to decide how best to commemorate it. Traversing the area on foot, speaking to the locals, listening to their problems and documenting their hardships is their way of contributing to Mulshi’s present and future.
We meet a group of the residents at Anil Pawar’s house, an agriculturalist who lives just off the highway between Pune and Mulshi. Pawar shows us around his library filled with Marathi books, which he built for his young daughter’s birthday. Over tea and poha, a group of village mukhiyas from Mulshi taluka discuss their concerns. The discontent of the group is palpable, especially since 2021 marks the centenary of the Mulshi Satyagraha. Today, speaking to the mukhiyas Govind Saruse, Anil Mapari and Hanumant Surve, one can still hear the echoes of those who first opposed the dam back in 1921.
The Mulshi dam powers south Mumbai. The locals though have neither land nor work. Their stories once again raise the question: who benefits?
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The Mulshi Satyagraha has faded from much of English language history of the freedom struggle. However, it is still remembered in Maharashtra because it gave rise to leaders such as Senapati Bapat and VM Bhuskute. In English, the most comprehensive account of the Mulshi Satyagraha can be found in the well-written and accessible book The World’s First Anti-Dam Movement: The Mulshi Satyagraha 1920-1924 by Rajendra Vora. A professor of politics, Vora had written a historical account, using primary sources, of the Mulshi Satyagraha in the 1990s in Marathi. On the insistence of ecologist Madhav Gadgil, Vora translated the book into English. However he died a year before the English translation, published by Permanent Black and with a foreword by Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani, was released. They write in the introduction, ‘The Mulshi dispute was the first intimation of the conflicts that arise when a densely populated and ancient agrarian civilisation begins the long and sometimes very painful march to industrialisation. The Mulshi Satyagraha was not merely a precursor to the Narmada Bachao Andolan; it anticipated the protests in Singur, Nandigram, and a dozen other places where the state likewise intended to transfer land owned by many small peasants to a single, privately owned company. Like those other disputes, Mulshi opposed country to city, subsistence to commerce, farmers to factory-owners, the aam admi to the fat cat.’
The mukhiyas and villagers we speak to reiterate the sentiment of Vora’s book. A century ago, their land was taken and their villages submerged in order to power the mills of Bombay. Today, they are left with ghost villages occupied only by the elderly as the young have had to leave for Pune and Mumbai for employment. They watch as posh resorts emerge in their area, draining the resources, which they should have first access to. Beyond the summer months, this might be one of the most glorious regions of India, but for those living by the dam, life has been a struggle.
Praveer Sinha, CEO and managing director, Tata Power, contests these allegations. He says, “Hundred years back, when Jamsetji thought of producing power, he talked about clean power, affordable power, abundant power, and that continues even now. Hundred years later the relevance is even more. For us it is very important that we continue the legacy that was started with the Mulshi hydro power plant which provides power to the city of Mumbai and provides water downstream to farmers, civilians, industry and commercial establishments. The purpose for which it was set up has been amply demonstrated and has proven that the right thing has been done. It is in the larger interest of the people and community who’ve benefitted from this.”
In Vadgaon village, where we stop for a traditional meal of pithla and bhakri, we speak to 60-year-old Sundar Maruti Wagh. She has lived in this village for about 40 years, having moved from the adjacent one where her parents were based. She has two sons and a daughter, none of whom has studied beyond Class 7. Her children make a living in Pune doing “labour”. She says the only time there is work in the village is the four months during the monsoons when rice is sown and cultivated. For the other eight months she says there is no work in the village. Her 33-year-old son, who is visiting from Pune to take care of her after she had a paralysis attack, nods
Subhash Wagh, the Vadgaon village mukhiya, says that many young men he knows have left this area and gone to Pune and Mumbai, and have become either beggars or thugs. With only a primary school available, most of the residents have studied only till Class 4. The closest middle school is 40 km away in Male. Subhash completed his schooling by taking a boat to Male. The boat option no longer exists. Those in the village realise that the dam might even have been a necessity, what they want today is a way to earn a sustainable livelihood and rights to their own land.
Speaking to the Mawalas of the area brings the many arguments in Vora’s book to life. The Mulshi Satyagraha was officially launched on April 16th, 1921, on Ramnavami. The protestors ran a notice in the Kesari newspaper that the dam was being built for ‘wealthy people of Bombay’, and as it was going to ‘submerge our land and homes’, it was ‘not acceptable to us’. At the time, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu came out in support of the satyagraha. They too saw it as a way of reaching amenities to Bombay at the cost of those living in Mulshi.
Suhas Palshikar, a political scientist, adds, “The Mulshi struggle was not just an anti-dam movement, it was also a struggle that combined anti-colonialism with anti-capitalism.” Even now the locals feel that they have borne the brunt of both. They say they have neither land nor work nor basic amenities like schools or hospitals in their village. Their story and the stories of their parents and grandparents once again raise the question of who benefits and who loses out in ‘development’ projects.
The Mulshi dam provides power to much of south Mumbai, a commercial and business hub for the country. For those of us enjoying uninterrupted power, its source or the repercussions of it barely register. Sinha adds, “The amount of economic activity that has happened because of the dam has helped the local people. The biggest thing that has happened over there is that the area has been protected. Had it not been for the dam, the area would have been encroached on and exploited badly. The dam over the last 100 years has kept the area pristine and has ensured that no one comes and disturbs the natural habitat. No one exploits water, or takes over the natural flora and fauna. So the dam has been able to protect the integrity of the place.”
While the industry’s narrative and that of the locals will forever be at odds, solace can only be found in the enterprising locals trying to resurrect Mulshi taluka from decades of state apathy and history’s amnesia.