The disastrous collapse of the bridge on Savitri river near Mahad made the headlines in the local newspapers today. Of the signature spots that the tourists all over the world know in India, Goa and Mumbai rank among the toppers. And the road that connects these two, some 500 odd km in all, is a world-class example of apathy and callousness. But then, everything related to Konkan is a victim of government sponsored sadism – let it be roads, trains, water or ‘development’.
Let us look at the first aspect, roads. Start with a simple exercise. Open google maps, ask for directions from Mumbai to Goa. You will get a preferred route that is through Pune, Satara, Kolhapur and Belgaum. It is some 30 km longer, and about 50 minutes shorter. Why? The Belgaum route, till Belgaum, is four lane. The Mumbai Goa ‘highway’ is two lane throughout. Every overtake is a separate thriller, often ending in tragedy. There is a time-killer stretch on that ‘highway’, some 60 odd km from Mumbai; a 6 km stretch from Pen to Vadkhal. If you cover it in 30 minutes, you have hit a jackpot. If you take 60 minutes, you still gloat in the normalcy. If you take 90 minutes, you can start making some noises, but none of the locals will hear you out sympathetically. And this is a Mumbai-Goa highway. Mover 110 km more to the south, and you will encounter a wonder called ‘Kashedi Ghat’. This Ghat not only gets deteriorated beyond imagination every rainy season, it also offers blockades that can (and often do) continue for days. Reason? Simple; either some heavy container that can’t negotiate the acute turns gets stuck or mother earth shakes herself a bit, causing a landslide.
Talking of landslides, that is the genetically coded problem for the wrongly named ‘Konkan Railway’. Every rainy season, there is landslide in the Ratnagiri-Rajapur section, and the services are disrupted (again, for days, not for hours). Wrongly named? Yes, because the railways benefits Konkan residents as a paper napkin benefits prawns.
Let us delve deeper in the second chamber of horrors, the dark and murky secrets of ‘Konkan’ Railway. Another simple exercise – go to the Indian Railways official website, and get the schedule of Mumbai-Trivandrum Netravati Express. If the site is not user-friendly, don’t complain. That is by design, and is a part of the great ‘Make In India’ campaign. If the site is user friendly, people may linger on the site longer than needed, and waste a lot of valuable time that should go in ‘Make In India’ activity would be lost on an entirely ‘unproductive’ pursuit. Well, once you succeed, look at the distances between adjacent stations. Let me cut your work short and give you the numbers for the first ten stops: 18, 34, 78, 179, 106, 195, 75, 24, 40, 46. You can’t escape noticing that there are large ‘unpopulated’ patches, patches that don’t warrant a stop, from the third stop (Roha). That ‘unpopulated’ patch of 480 km (179 + 106 + 195) is Konkan. So, calling it Konkan Railway is a cruel joke. May be, I am being biased, skeptical and cynical all at once. May be there is a simpler explanation – this is an ‘Express’, so it doesn’t stop at sundry small stations. Simple solution – let us look at the numbers after the tenth stop. Here is the complete series: 18, 34, 78, 179, 106, 195, 75, 24, 40, 46, 36, 77, 56, 21, 22, 47, 44, 59, 22, 52, 23, 14, 15, 19, 14, 21, 22, 47, 25, 16, 15, 30, 32, 33, 22, 19, 34, 23, 12, 19, 13, 13, 27, 24, 41. Oh, so the ‘Express’ suddenly slows down, stopping even after 12, 13, 14 and 15 km. In short, ‘Konkan’ railway is named after a region that it doesn’t serve.
Thirdly, the water problem. The average rainfall in the three coastal districts of Konkan (the real Konkan) is 3884 mm (Raigad), 3364 mm (Ratnagiri) and 3287 mm (Sindhudurg). Not only the rainwater, the water discharged from Bhira power station is also left to flow unhindered, unused.
And come March, the womenfolk from Konkan villages will start scouring the surroundings for water. Where does the water go? Arabian Sea. So isn’t the government doing anything? This report states in clear words “…despite spending more than Rs 6,000 Crores in building these dams for decades, not a single Major or Medium irrigation project has been completed in Konkan till date by Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC)..”.
Traditionally Konkan has been a low-yield agricultural zone. The agricultural produce lists mangoes, jackfruits, cashews, betelnut, coconut, rice and sundry grains. Of these, mangoes seem to fall under ‘cash crop’. But if you go to the villages, you will see that the money from mango crop moves to the middlemen, either in bigger towns or in Mumbai. Of course, the money is realized only if the crop doesn’t fail, which it does in one-third cases on an average. The jackfruits don’t have any monetary value; go to villages in April/May and see laden jackfruit trees standing in abject desolation. There are no takers even to take the fruits down the tree. Go in Jul/Aug, and you won’t be able to go near the trees; the fallen jackfruits rot and generate a nauseating odor. The cashews can be cultivated as a cash crop. It can give three products, the cashew-nuts for table consumption, the oil from cashew-nut shells (the oil is in high demand in shipping industry) and cashew fruit juice (either bottled or distilled to make Feni). Of these, neither activity is done in Konkan on a commercial scale to give any succor to the cash-strapped farmer. Betelnut has a market, but it is limited. And earning pots of money from betelnut would entail having hundreds of acres of land. The landholding pattern in Konkan has an upper ceiling of around 10 acres. Coconut market faces the same fate as betelnut, apart from the fact that the country-wise market is captured by farmers from Kerala. Even in bigger towns in Konkan, the coconuts for consumption often come from Kerala! The rice that is cultivated in Konkan is not consumer-friendly. It is sticky, one has to cultivate a taste for it, and the yield is low. Other grains face the same fate.
And this is not a new story. It has been the story from the beginning. So migrating out of Konkan is a deeply rooted tradition. The ‘Peshwa’ clan didn’t migrate to Pune for nothing! Later, the worker class in Mumbai was almost entirely made up of menfolk from Konkan. The three districts of Konkan have a men-women ratio that is as close to 50-50 as possible. In fact, in Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, it tilts in favor of women. Because the menfolk migrate to other cities or gulf countries for earning money.
Coming back to the disaster, some pointers to indicate how ‘important’ the government considers the region in general. The NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) quickly reached the spot. How quickly? Well, in just 12 hours (10.53 am: NDRF team reaches Mumbai-Goa bridge collapse site in Raigad.) The chief minister, leader of opposition and road transport minister immediately rushed to the spot, just 12 hours after the mishap. What did they achieve? Quite a lot – they managed to increase the traffic jam and slow down the rescue. The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) certified the bridge as ‘fit’ in May 2016. Will any action be taken against NHAI? If you think that there is a non-zero probability of the answer being ‘Yes’, you must be commended for possessing excellent imagination, completely removed from reality.