July 12, 2008

Villagers Struggling in the Shadow of Ajanta Caves

By Syed Rizwanullah

AJANTA (AURANGABAD): They have a world heritage monument in their backyards. But a population around 2,000 people in four tiny villages - Sawarkheda, Juna (old) Swarkheda, Lenapur and Duttwadi, just one or two kilometres above the famous Ajanta caves, do not rejoice. Because, the proximity to the monument puts a lot of restrictions on them.

People here are not allowed to burst crackers to celebrate Diwali or other festivals. They don't have a permanent source of drinking water. The villagers live in the western side of the caves; have also been barred from digging wells, or building a dam.

"To reach these villages one has to climb up the caves and walk on a centuries-old pathway to cross another mountain," said Tejrao Patilba Zond, a Sawarkheda elder who heads the proposed 'Apla Pani Prakalp' (own your water supply project) scheme of the Aurnagabad zilla parishad.

The situation improved a little five-six years ago, following an agitation. The authorities had constructed a single lane road and started an MSRTC bus, which used to make a night halt. However, this service has been stopped for the last three months on account of road work, progressing at a snail's pace.

"Presently, the Sawarkheda villagers have to travel at least 25 km on foot, bullock carts or on motorcycles, which a few of them could afford," Zond said.

The villagers are descendants of the settlers, who were brought to work for a feudal lord from Parbhani, Madhukar Kisanrao Pinglikar, in 1825 - the caves were re-discovered by the modern world in 1819.

"Over a period of time our tenancy rights were established on some of the properties, owing to various laws including the Land Ceiling Act," said Zond.

"All of us are dryland farmers, since we are not allowed to take up any irrigation project or dig well, as these works would require blasting of rocks. We cannot construct water storage tanks also as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) fears it might lead to seepage into the second century BC caves. The villagers depend heavily on six common wells, which were being filled by lifting water, about three-four km, from a 1974 storage tank. Water is not potable, but still we are using it," said Prakash Pawar, another Sawarkheda resident.

"The Maharashtra State Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) has acquired hundreds of acres of land for protecting the monument, but they chose to ignore these villages," Zond said.

"The MTDC stole our bread and butter. We used to supply milk produce and other materials to the staff canteen or the nearby Fardapur, using the shortest route through the monument. But the MTDC introduced the green buses and removed everything on the foothills of the monument to set up a shopping plaza, four km away. The MTDC made the MSRTC issue us passes, charging Rs 4 per trip," Zond added.

Aurangabad divisional commissioner Dilip Band told TOI: "I will have to examine the whole thing. If there is a big problem, we can think about shifting the villagers. We can use other means to dig wells."

However, deputy superintending archaeologist V.M. Badiger said: "We cannot do any activity that creates vibrations within five kilometers of the monument."

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