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Invasion Of The White Ants

Termites eat their way into houses in Hanumankoliwada village in Raigad district

Invasion Of The White Ants

HANUMANKOLIWADA could be a ghost village. Its structural frames emit a hollow, deathly rattle that stems from an unlikely scourge—termites. But the 130 koli households displaced in 1986 to accommodate the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) have learnt to live with this white plague. They have nowhere else to go.

Of all the dislodged villages in the 3,086 hectares acquired by the JNPT, Hanumankoliwada alone is marked by this cross of death. Ramesh Bhaskar Koli, a resident, attributes this to the unseemly haste with which the state government, in tandem with the Central government's need for land, used termite-infested earth from the surrounding mountainside for landfill. The marshy land, on which this 'termite earth' was dumped, was not even given the requisite six-month period to settle. "I was just a little boy. Nobody would listen when I showed them the soil crawling with these insects. Villagers were lured by the promise of government vehicles to shift the construction material from houses which they had torn down themselves. Monsoons were expected next month. We were rehabilitated at gunpoint," recalls Bhaskar.

The slugfest between the project-affected and the government turned nasty, with some protesters mowed down. The inhabitants of Sheva Koliwada left their bountiful sea-facing village meekly, rebuilding their lives on the government-allotted slushy hinterland which they decided to call Hanumankoliwada. Meanwhile the termites, slowly but inexorably, moved right into their homes, boring through door frames, window cases, support beams, false ceilings and the step-ladders leading into them. Insatiable, the pest shifted their attention to concrete, with cement slabs caving in dangerously as the voracious army filed through. Causing the 250 koli families to be displaced a second time.

Among the first to succumb was the Tukaram Koli home. A decade ago, the two-room house Tukaram built with his own hands, was a red-tiled shelter for his young bride Ahilya. Today, both heat and rain blow in through the gaping hole left by the fallen bug-weakened central beam. Fortunately, when the tiles showered down murderously, Tukaram's wife and three children were in the kitchen. Shards continue to litter the living room as the Tukaram family sits warily against the walls lined with calendar gods. Only the Tukarams' trust in divinities prop up their fragile walls. But even this faith faltered as the blustery monsoons buffeted the gossamer thick walls.

Some homes, with their yawning doorways, have surrendered completely to the blight. Weak attempts to contain the advancing pestilence by burning doorframes have clearly been in vain. Residents like Pandurang Koli have moved out, allowing the termites to build their hillock-nests right on the walls.

SOME, like Bhaskar, have had to tear down their original homes after the termite invasion. But the determined pests found their way even into the proud new structures. One of the largest houses here is deserted; the owners made a concerted attempt to ward off the pestilence—chewed up roof-beams were replaced with invincible iron. But four expensive beams later, the family gave up.

Most of the Krishnaram Janardhan Koli family uses the sliver of space on the balcony as sleeping room. But Janardhan, along with three families living in adjoining rooms, had to spend several thousand rupees to rebuild the balcony before it could be safely reused. The wooden supports had all but disappeared under the gluttonous attack. Says Bharti Jagdish Shivekar: "We can't even lock up our house to go visiting. When we return, the floor is completely taken over by these creatures." Adds a disgusted Bhaskar: "During mating season, entire colonies of these white ants fly out. They roll down in tight, disgusting bundles on our heads."

The Shivekar family, like others, needs the space created by mezzanine floors. But in most homes these have been completely abandoned. Prabhakar Koli points out how the ceiling rings hollow. The cheap wooden supports were the first to go, the concrete too has crumbled at the joints. It sags under the softest footstep. Even ladders, leading upto these, are being drilled into. K. Mahadev's hole-ridden door frames are mere skeletons. His neighbour is doing no better, with the main beam propping up his doorway and roof having practically subsided. Only till the ceiling almost hit the floor did the owner decide to buttress it with an iron rod, which he could ill-afford. Vasant Kashinath made a serious attempt to contain the damage in the kitchen with pieces of fresh, termite-free wood stuck on the worst-hit spots. But the insects began to bore into these too. A pest control agency points out that Hanumankoliwada is under attack by two termite types—the subterranean kind which thrive on moist soil (the village's messy drainage system creating the ideal environment), and the wood-eating ones. Though they don't live off concrete, these cut through cracks, and the weak spots in cement if it crosses their hungry paths, says Aslam Merchant, of another agency. "In India, the chemical Aldrin, which guaranteed 20-year safety, was used. But since its ban, an aqueous solution, now injected into infected structures can guarantee protection for five to seven years, needing treatment again."

Bhushan Patil, general secretary of the Nhava Sheva Bundar Kamgar Sanghatan and leader of 24 unions in Uran, says no villager can afford this. When shifting, each villager was given a loan of Rs 5,000 towards house construction and was made to mortgage his home-plot against repayment of this loan. "These fishermen lost their livelihood after shifting. Thirty families got jobs with JNPT; others ended up as labourers on fishing boats all over the state, living away for months, sending home a fraction of what they originally earned. How can they afford repairs or pesticide?" Patil asks.

Once the import of their problem struck them, the villagers hit back at government agencies. Local political groups pumped in support, while villagers resorted to fasts, rasta rokos, to underpin the urgency of their problems. JNPT is technically out of the picture. "But we want peace here. Though they are now the responsibility of the state government, we help villagers on humanitarian grounds," explains a JNPT official, seeking anonymity. Bhaskar, a JNPT employee, has been voicing the villagers' latest demand—return to Sheva koliwada, so they can revert to being self-sufficient fishermen. He feels the illiterate villagers were gypped, receiving a fraction of compensatory land and money. Appeals, posted to the prime minister among others, had no impact. Ditto complaints with the Lok Ayukta.

While ruling out the villagers' return to Sheva Koliwada, the JNPT official adds that they had, in fact, paid more in compensation. "While local agencies like CIDCO were charged Rs 7,000 per acre, we were charged Rs 30,000. Later, we commissioned IIT to survey the termite problem. We believe the villagers, who didn't accept our original proposal for an outside agency to build their homes, had used cheap, termite-infected wood. " The villagers wonder why the report, if it exonerated the government, was not being released.

In April, the state, with JNPT footing the bill, commissioned a pest control agency to treat Hanumankoliwada. "We'll spend Rs 15 lakh on the entire operation," the official reveals. Bhaskar is not placated. "After murdering our homes, they offer first aid," he snaps. Shrikant Deshpande, collector of Raigad district, explains JNPT has commissioned private construction agency L&T to survey the termite havoc. "If feasible", it may be be asked to reconstruct damaged structures. Adds Deshpande: "Eleven structures are listed as uninhabitable. They have been asked to shift temporarily, with JNPT paying their rents (ranging from Rs 400 to Rs 600). We had asked a zilla parishad initially to do the survey, but they suggested an impossible Rs 2 crore. But the reconstruction will be done in a phased manner."

An official source explains that though the L&T survey is now complete, the company has been asked to reassess the cost estimated. "L&T has assured us it will undertake this project as a social cause, with no profit incurred. But we've asked for reassessment since we find their estimation on the high side. Meanwhile, some local leaders, who obviously want to earn profit for themselves, are agitating that the reconstruction material be all bought locally. In that case, we'll be unable to control quality. After all, this time the houses have to be constructed to last a lifetime," says he.

And for the Tukarams caught up in this snafu and huddling in vain from the sun and the rain, this may be a long way off.

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