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SARDAR SAROVAR
THE MAHESHWAR DAM
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BABA AMTE'S VANAPRASTHA
The Agony and Ecstasy of Late Youth


PART 5

Life at Kasravad

The shade of a young banyan tree spreads over the hard, packed-mud surface on which a meeting of the Jansahayog Trust is in progress. The Trust was founded out of the approximately Rs 18 lakh Right Livelihood Award, or Alternate Noble Prize, conferred on the NBA in 1992. The NBA decided to use the interest on this money not for its own work but to help the wide range of activists struggling against displacement and for an alternative model of development. The Trustees of Jansahayog, headed by Baba, meet twice a year at Kasravad.

Eight years after Baba arrived at this new home of his, the bald landscape has been transformed by a burgeoning' 'anandwan' with tall trees and numerous flowering bushes. Tai is never short of flowers for her daily worship at the Shiva temple close by. All the vegetables served at meals are, grown in the kitchen garden on the west side of the house.

After the meeting, the Jansahayog trustees enjoy the special care with which Tai serves them food. Most of them are staying the night but Medha Patkar is rushing away. Watching the flowering and maturing of Medha's enormous and unique energy lends a bright glow to the twilight of Baba's life. They have differed on many things and sometimes gently quarrelled. But each passing year at Kasravad has deepened a bond.

Tai looks forward to times when Medha can be persuaded to take a break from her non-stop travels and rest a while at Kasravad. There is a special joy in watching Medha doze peacefully in the shade of that banyan. She will be off soon enough, attending to loads of correspondence even as she travels to the next meeting in a crowded bus or second class train compartment. Baba frets about the effects of all this over-work on Medha's health but has learnt to let her be.

Baba and Tai are never alone for long. Children from the homes close by pass through, at all hours of the day, to greet the elderly couple and receive little pink sweets. Alok Agarwal drops in for consultations to report on recent events. Alok, an IIT-trained engineer, runs the NBA's Badwani office and has emerged as the leading activist of the agitation against the Maheshwar dam. Bureaucrats of varying grades of seniority come by to pay their respects.

People from surrounding villages drop in sometimes out of good neighbourliness, just to chat-and at other times to discuss strategy as comrades. At eighty-three, Baba's ailment-racked body still retains a touch of the muscular wrestler's physique. For all the aches and pains that are part of his daily life, Baba's spirit is effervescent. He reminisces about the past and reflects on the ambiguities of the future with an equally bubbling sense of joy. But there are times of exasperation, for life at Kasravad has not been easy.

For someone used to ceaseless activity and interaction, the quiet lull at Kasravad has sometimes been very difficult. He came in search of his own peace and Baba knows that the road to that peace is often troubled and turbulent. But eight years of intimate kinship with the Narmada has, Baba says, changed him completely: 'This is the place where I could build a dialogue with myself and detect the minutest vibrations of my mother, Narmada. We should decorate her with small dams that don't interfere with her flow.' Baba scoffs at any description of his life at Kasravad as sanyas. He beams at Tai and says, 'This is Romance! We stand together breathless at the sight of the river.'

All over the world the struggle against the dams on the Narmada is seen as an intractable conflict between the forces of modern development and those who wish to transform it, to redefine progress itself. But for Baba this struggle signals the dawning of an age in which conciliation will replace confrontation. Those who live with this faith need the tenacity and stamina of long distance runners. And a spirit which sees prayer as the 'sigh of a flower'.

The sun has just set beyond that tiny temple of Shiva. The lilting notes of a flute float from the house to the darkening garden outside. Sanjay Sangvai young friend and fellow-traveller, is sitting beside Baba's bed playing a bamboo flute.

Later Baba reminisces about Bapu's advice that he should make palm jaggery a life-long mission. Now, sixty years later that advice makes perfect sense. 'Bapu said, "Look at the palm tree, it is a tube-well of sugar"' recalls Baba. 'What a poetic expression for a tree whose leaves are used for making brooms!'

Gandhi had urged young Murlidhar to devote himself to a community-based promotion of palm trees. This would have meant a vast movement for the planting and nurturing of these trees, tapping their sap and processing it into jaggery. Destiny had other plans, but now, with hindsight, Baba sees Gandhi's idea as vital and brilliant. 'If I had taken up this mission and palm-jaggery had been established as a social and economic process, there would have been no sugar lobby and thus no ground-water, crisis in Maharashtra today.' The prolific production and use of palm-jaggery would have created ample livelihood opportunities in rural areas and simultaneously added to the tree cover.

Perhaps, in comparison to that wider process, the green oasis and many enriched lives of Anandwan and- the last stand at Kasravad, seem like a lesser achievement. Then again, these fleeting reflections and longings are carried away in the ceaseless flow of Rewa Maiya and the fearless sadhak renews his struggle to be of the moment.

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