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Friday, March 5, 1999

A village sings its swansong

Darshan Desai  
DOMKHEDI (MAHARASHTRA), March 4: The night before Holi seemed as boisterous, as colourful as ever. The ground shook to the tom-tomming of drums, the jungle silence was split by the deafening cries of the dancers and the massive bonfire kept darkness at bay. Yet beneath the celebrations was a poignancy, a feeling of loss that caught you in the throat and in the heart and wouldn't leave. For this was to be the last Holi for the tribals of Domkhedi.

Sometime later this year, if calculations are proved right, the waters of the Narmada will wash away their village. The extra five metres added to the dam's height means that, come the rains, there's more water to spread out to and submerge surrounding villages. And Domkhedi is one of them.

The tribals should be safe, but they will never be able to celebrate Holi as they did this year. Dancing through the night, hundreds of them -- bodies painted with limestone, fruit hanging from their shoulders, imposing headgear flaunting peacock feathers -- bore a steelystoicism that hid the torment within.

The stoicism runs pretty deep. ``They can drown our houses and our farms, but nobody can finish our home, our culture, our Gods, our bonds. We will not leave this place; we will run to the hills to escape the water, but we will not leave,'' says Hulia Bhola Vasave, sarpanch of Domkhedi. But he can't conceal the catch in his voice, just as Keshubhai Vasave sitting next to him, can't hold back the tears in his eyes.

Most villages around Domkhedi in Akrani tehsil of Maharashtra's Nandurbar district celebrate Holi in full tradition, but the biggest one, at which where tribals from 50 villages gather, is the one by the hillock in Domkhedi. That's where the dhols ring out through the night, where the earth pounds with the thud of feet.

Caught between hostile rocky terrain and a treacherous river, Domkhedi exists without even basic facilities like electricity, transport, telephone and postal services. It survives on its river-based economy and its culture, whichthe tribals do not wish to part with. ``It is better to suffer and die here rather than live a dead hostile life at a resettlement site a hundred kilometres away,'' say the Vasaves.

Ask them what there is to cling to in Domkhedi and the reply is swift. ``Holi. Do you understand what it means? It's not just dancing around a fire with colours pasted all over. I know you will not understand, you are from the city.''

That may not be much of an answer, but it's more than what the future holds. Thirty-four of the 57 families from Domkhedi who are on record as having resettled in Rozva in Taloda tehsil over 100 km away since 1992, are actually yet to be given any land and have been clearly told by resettlement officials in that State that they would be given land by June 1999, only if there's any land.

``The Government told us this at a meeting on February 12; nobody from Domkhedi will go to the resettlement site because there is simply no land,'' explains Pratibha Shinde of the Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti(Rehabilitation Struggle Committee) working for the project-affected in Maharashtra.

While Maharashtra's Rehabilitation Minister Jaiprakash Mundada could not be contacted, Deputy Secretary (Rehabilitation) D R Mali admitted that the State Government hasn't been able to give land to 169 families, ``but we will provide for them, somehow.'' When he was told that others were not willing to move because there was no land, he said, ``No, no, we will give them when they come.''

The State Government, says Shinde, has not been able to allot land to the families shifted because it has provided land at the resettlement sites to the natives cultivating them for years and the latter are unwilling to part with it. The records say there are 700 hectares lying under dispute because of this; another 836 hectares is comprised of ponds and hills and is unfit for habitation.

Interestingly, since no land measurement has ever been done in Domkhedi -- or for that matter in the entire tehsil -- since the British left, it isdifficult for the tribals to prove land ownership. And so, how much land they will get when they are resettled remains a mystery. ``Though we have been tilling for ages, we have now been dubbed encroachers on these very lands,'' says K C Padvi, an Independent MLA from Akrani.

These are problems that have been there for sometime and are likely to remain in the future. But today is Holi, today Domkhedi is full of colour, song and dance. Problems can wait. There will be time enough tomorrow to worry.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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