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In Focus

Snakes bite, kill on Elephanta Island

It was incredulous yet true! For years on end, Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site registering 20 lakh footfalls annually, received power for not more than two and half hours in the night through an MTDC generator; hadn’t a single doctor on the entire island; had no facility for formal education beyond Standard 10th and absolutely no crisis management process in place. And, the island was located barely 10 kms away from India’s financial capital…Mumbai!

Elephanta Island has no crisis management processes in place
Sometime back, on November 2nd 2018, a crowd converged at a house in Shetbunder Gaon on Elephanta Island, historically known as Gharapuri, near its courtyard where a Tulsi plant grew in a memorial in a ceremony undertaken religiously for the last 23 years on the very same day since 1995.

The villagers, comprising elderly women with moist eyes and sombre-looking young men, sit together to share a meal in memory of twelve-year-old Sarika Namdeo Bhagat with her family. Once again, like every annual occasion, nobody speaks a word of Sarika lest it remind the family of their loss.

Those who arrive for the first time are warned against even bringing mention. The family yet recalls with painful clarity the series of events that led to the disaster…till date!

Cut to November 2nd 1995: A twelve-year-old Sarika had accompanied her father to the Elephanta jetty to help deliver empty cold drink crates. Just then, as she was about to lift a crate, a snake coiled below sprung up and bit her!

As was the norm, the villagers picked her up and rushed her to the village where they initiated the ritual – performed regularly on snake-bite victims. A cut was inflicted near the bite spot that was forcibly inserted into the rectum of a young fowl. As the fowl yelped and screeched, the villagers hoped the venom would be ‘sucked out’ and leave the girl.

However, the fowl went on to die and the girl’s condition only worsened. Realising the futility of the situation, the locals knew they had to rush her to a hospital. But there was a hitch: There wasn’t a single hospital or health centre anywhere on the island.

So, a barely-conscious Sarika was rushed across the sea in a private fishing boat to Uran where after an hour’s journey, she was admitted. Through the night, her condition deteriorated and the next morning, she was rushed to Mumbai’s KEM hospital where she breathed her last. “I still remember young Sarika’s fully bloated torso that lay still with death,” recalls the-then sarpanch Rajendra Padte.

Till date, snake-bites form an integral risk to locals and tourists on this World Heritage Site frequented by more than two millions every year. Despite having received electricity through India’s longest undersea cable in 2018, the island yet lacks basic health facilities and bites from monkeys and snakes continue to rob humans of their basic Right to Life.

This report has been prepared for DraftCraft International’s Flagship Initiative, The Elephanta Island Project to research, analyse and determine the rights and liabilities of Islanders, local and foreign tourists vis-a-vis the responsibility of the State towards all stakeholders and natural resources while upholding the law of the land and ensuring the protection of environment that tops the list of priorities. The initiative examines laws and policies regarding islands, sea transport, privacy, women’s rights, health, protection of the environment and rights and liabilities of tourists guaranteed to all by the State in context of the Right To Equality, Freedoms, The Right to Life and Global Conventions to which India is a signatory.