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The Un-Making of the Bollywood Movie Swades

Do you remember the fairy-tale like movie Swades?… about the NRI Mohan Bhargava (played by Shahrukh Khan) who returns to India, accidentally lands up in a remote village (with no electricity, plenty of illiteracy, and backwardness), and uses his engineering and organizing skills to help the villagers build a micro-hydel plant to bring electricity to the village…

Well, it wasn’t an imaginary story, though it was almost like a fairy-tale. The movie was loosely inspired by the NRI couple, Ravi Kuchimanchi and Aravinda Pillalamarri, who, in 1998, decided to return to India and work in the development sector. Ravi, a doctorate in particle Physics from University of Maryland, had founded the Association for India’s Development (AID) in 1991—which now has about 50 chapters across the world; Aravinda, was a senior volunteer in AID.

Their story was documented by Rajni Bakshi in her book Bapu Kuti, and when Ashtosh Gowarikar read it, it became the theme for the movie… What Ravi and Aravinda had helped/ participated-in creating was an actual project… and which is still remembered as a model of decentralized people-friendly sustainable development—The Bilgaon Micro-Hydel Project.

Here is the fairy tale of the Bilgaon Project:

For 55-years since Independence, people of Bilgaon, a tribal village in Maharashtra located on a tributary of Narmada river, Udai, had never seen electricity. There was also hardly any possibility that this region with 12 hamlets (about 180 families) —scattered over a distance of 4km—would ever get connected to the national grid, which passed them by about 12km away. The power-lines from India’s mega-hydel project, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, being built on Narmada river, clearly avoided the tribal villages…

In many ways Bilgaon represented almost 40-50% villages in India: The nearest all weather road was about 60km away, and a seasonal muddy road connected it to the nearest outpost about 18km away. What they did have was a 9-meter high waterfall on the river Udai which could be tapped for electricity…

The work on what came to be known as The Bilgaon Project started in May-2002 and on January 14, 2003, a 15KW generator lighted up every single house in Bilgaon and the ashramshala—the boarding school which housed 300 children. More than a technological marvel (in fact, such projects have existed elsewhere in the world), it was a marvel of localized, collective and sustainable action:

It was a remarkable piece of collaboration: Rolled-out under the aegis of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the project blueprint was designed by two young engineers barely 3 years out of college, Anil Kumar and C G Madhusoodanan—Anil and Madhu for the villagers—from Kerala’s Peoples School of Energy (PSE); it was implemented by Mumbai-based Sarvodaya Friendship Center; the special turbine was designed by a professor from Indian Instt. of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and four chapters of AID had provided the funding for Rs 12lacs.

  • The project was owned by the Bilgaon Navanirman Samiti, in which every household had a representation. The entire structure – the check dam, canal, tank, powerhouse – was built through the 2000-mandays of shramdaan(voluntary labour) by the village inhabitants.
  • the electricity was equitably distributed and charged for: Rs 10/month for a bulb, and Rs 30/month for a TV (Bilgaon had 5 TVs).
  • since the villagers now had electricity, their “energy bills” (kerosene for lighting the lanterns) came down from around Rs150/family/month to around Rs 20-30.
  • lighting of the ashramshala, also meant that now children could study at night
  • besides lighting, during the day, the electricity also provided for drawing water for drinking and irrigation, for running a grinding and oil-extracting unit, and for recreation center.
  • the money collected for electricity went for operation and maintenance of the unit, which was done by employing the inhabitants of the village.
    Etc…What Bilgaon Project had also managed to prove was:
    that the development of people can be achieved by participation and ownership of people – and not through schemes which are framed miles away by those who have no stakes in their lives;
    that for a country, where large portion of populace is scattered across unreachable terrain, a localized model of development makes more sense — and not the large mega-projects which displace them;
    that development need not necessarily sacrifice people ‘for the larger good.’…So successful was the Bilgaon project that it became a benchmark for sustainable development. The villagers’ called it ‘People’s Power,’ the Rural Development Minister of Maharashtra, RR Patil, inaugurated it; in November that year, Maharashtra Govt’s Energy Development Association proposed to replicate it in five surrounding villages (though, of course, nothing happened;); it was widely quoted in media…

One could have almost presumed the last line to be …and they happily lived ever after….

The fairy-tale ends here!!!

…and the reality starts…

3-1/2 years later, The Bilgaon Project got hit by contemporary India’s development paradigm.

The August 10, 2006 issue of The Hindu, published its obituary:

BILGAON MICROHYDEL PROJECT WASHED AWAY

MUMBAI: The Bilgaon microhydel project in Nandurbar district, which inspired the Bollywood film Swades, has been washed away due to the backwater effect of the Sardar Sarovar dam… Incessant rains in the Narmada Valley and rising water levels have flooded many villages in Maharashtra along the Narmada.

…The micro-hydel power project was acknowledged as a model of decentralised development, initiated by the people, using natural resources…. The energy produced used to provide electricity for every house in the village as well as a boarding school or ashramshala (with 300 students).”

Bilgaon, after all, was just one of the 250 tribal villages, which are destined to get submerged… in the tides of history of modern resurgent India…