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Elephanta Islanders Face The Brunt of Political Apathy, Dearth of Tourists

By Gajanan Khergamker

Today, Shailesh Mhatre earns barely a few hundred rupees from sales at his stall on Elephanta Island’s Jetty. “And, that is a blessing,” says the 38-year-old COVID survivor. Life is just beginning to crawl back to normalcy on Elephanta Island, for the nearly 1,200 residents of Shetbandar, Rajbandar and Morabandar villages, after over two years of being literally marooned during the COVID pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns.

The Rajbandar villager contracted COVID-19 in June 2021 “while helping villagers of the island during the pandemic collect supplies from Uran in Maharashtra”. Shailesh incurred an expenditure of Rs 30,000 during the 10-day period of treatment for drugs and other facilities and had to procure a loan for the same. As soon as he recovered, his 58-year-old mother Hirabai Mhatre developed symptoms of COVID-19 and was admitted to a COVID facility for five days. “She didn’t develop any serious complications because she had taken the first dose of the COVID vaccine,” recalls a thankful Shailesh.
 

Yet, her treatment set him back by Rs 20,000 and while relatives loaned him the money at the time, he is in debt of Rs 50,000. Just recently, his mother also underwent a leg operation at a time when no boats would ply to Mumbai owing to the lockdown. “It was very critical for me to manage things at such a time,” he says. After pleading for help from villagers and relatives and just about managing the crisis, his mother now recuperates at home while he handles her fruit stall to keep the income flowing.  

Why, when octogenarian Shetbandar villager Janabai Gharat died three months ago following a brief illness and a stroke, her son and daughter-in-law cremated her on the island itself. “During the period, it was nearly impossible to make ends meet,” recalls daughter-in-law Nanda Gharat. Faced with an arduous crisis, the family had to resort to fishing to earn a living. The entire family began to catch Kalva – a rock-fish indigenous to the coasts of Elephanta Island - travel to Nhava village by a small trawler and sell them at Rs 150 per bottle. “My hands and back would ache endlessly with the activity, but I had no choice,” recalls Nanda, who would work every day, from 8 am till one pm, to fill barely one bottle of Kalva fish to sell.

Shetbandar village resident Prakash Patil’s epitomises the situation for islanders’ families. From a rental house in Uran where their youngest daughter Esha studied in the 10th Standard at the beginning of the lockdown, the family of four was forced to leave their rental place as they couldn’t afford it; return to Shetbandar village on Elephanta Island at their family home which needed urgent repairs and start work on their family food stall for a living.

“In time, following the first lockdown and the food business reduced to naught, we had to release two Bihari workers as we could not afford to pay them their salaries of Rs 10,000 each,” says 41-year-old Prakash Patil.

During the lockdown, Prakash with daughters Manasi and Esha would catch fish to sell in Nhava Sheva. Why, the family even had to sell their jewellery on multiple occasions last year to be able to scrape through the lockdown. At first, wife Veena sold her gold earrings for Rs 18,000/- to buy daily household items of use. And soon after, to repair the house, sold more jewellery including one of her mangalsutras and her daughters’ chains for Rs 2 lakh.

If that wasn’t enough, in August 2021, they were in for a shock when they received an electricity bill of Rs 23,000. “The authorities landed at our doorstep threatening to impound the electricity metre and that too without any prior intimation. I had to sell another mangalsutra for Rs 25,000 and clear the electricity bill,” says Veena. Presently, the family is in debt of Rs 28,000.

What seemed like a promising flow of tourists into the island following the slump in the second wave of COVID towards the third quarter of 2021 and ensuing lockdown in India has now been reduced to nearly naught. Fears of an imminent Omicron wave that threatens to fetch a third lockdown and more disaster have kept visiting tourists away from a struggling Elephanta Island.

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