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Dry village, lush water park: Public resources for private profit

By P Sainath

Women in water-starved Bazargaon village in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, walk 15 km a day to fetch water. There is just one public well in this village of 3,000, and that is mostly dry. But the nearby water park, with ice-skating and 18 different kinds of water slides and games, has more water than Bazargaon can dream of

Even when it’s 47 degrees in the rest of the region, it’s cool here. A little away from us is a patch that clocks in at minus 13 degrees. This is “India’s first Snowdome” -- in burning Vidarbha, Maharashtra. Keeping its ice rink firm costs Rs 4,000 a day in electricity charges alone.

Welcome to the Fun and Food Village Water and Amusement Park in Bazargaon gram panchayat of Nagpur (rural) district. A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi greets visitors in the office of the huge complex. And you’re assured daily disco, ice-skating, ice-sliding, and “a well-stocked bar with cocktails”. The 40-acre park itself offers 18 kinds of water slides and games. Also, services for events ranging from conferences to kitty parties.

The village of Bazargaon itself (population: 3,000) faces a huge water crisis. “Having to make many daily trips for water, women walk up to 15 km in a day to fetch it,” says sarpanch Yamunabai Uikey. “This whole village has just one sarkari (government) well. Sometimes, we get water once in four or five days. Sometimes, once in ten days.”

Bazargaon falls in a region declared scarcity-hit in 2004. It had never faced that fate before. The village also had its share of six-hour -- and worse -- power cuts till about May. These hit every aspect of daily life, including health, and devastated children appearing for exams. The summer heat, touching 47 degrees Celsius, made things worse.

All these iron laws of rural life do not apply within the Fun and Food Village. This private oasis has more water than Bazargaon can dream of. And never a moment’s break in power supply. “We pay on average,” says Jasjeet Singh, general manager of the park, “about Rs 400,000 a month in electricity bills.”
 
The park’s monthly power bill alone almost equals the yearly revenue of Yamunabai’s gram panchayat. Ironically, the village’s power crisis eased slightly because of the park. Both share the same sub-station. The park’s peak period begins in May. And so things have been a little better since then.

The park’s contribution to the gram panchayat’s revenue is Rs 50,000 a year: about half of what Fun and Food Village collects at the gate in a day from its 700 daily visitors. Barely a dozen of the park’s 110 workers are locals from Bazargaon.

Water-starved Vidarbha has a growing number of such water parks and amusement centres. In Shegaon, Buldhana, a religious trust runs a giant Meditation Centre and Entertainment Park. Efforts to maintain a 30-acre ‘artificial lake’ within it ran dry this summer. But not before untold amounts of water were wasted in the attempt. Here, the entry tickets are called “donations”. In Yavatmal, a private company runs a public lake as a tourist joint. Amravati has two or more such spots (dry just now). And there are others in and around Nagpur.

This, in a region where villages have sometimes got water once in 15 days. And where an ongoing farm crisis has seen the largest number of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. “No major project for either drinking water or irrigation has been completed in Vidarbha in decades,” says Nagpur-based journalist Jaideep Hardikar. He has covered the region for years.

Singh insists the Fun and Food Village conserves water. “We use sophisticated filter plants to re-use the same water.” But evaporation levels are very high in this heat. And water is not just used for sports. All the parks use massive amounts of it to maintain their gardens, on sanitation and for their clientele.
“It is a huge waste of water and money,” says Vinayak Gaikwad of Buldhana. He is a farmer and a kisan sabha leader in the district. That in the process, public resources are so often used to boost private profit angers Gaikwad. “They should instead be meeting people’s basic water needs.”

Back in Bazargaon, sarpanch Yamunabai Uikey isn’t impressed either. Not by the Fun and Food Village. Nor by other industries that have taken a lot but given very little. “What is there in all this for us,” she wants to know. To get a standard government water project for her village the panchayat has to bear 10% of its cost. That’s around Rs 450,000. “How can we afford that? What is our condition?” So it’s simply been handed over to a contractor. This could see the project built. But it will mean more costs in the long run and less control for a village of so many poor and landless people.

In the park, Gandhi’s portrait still smiles out of the office as we leave. Seemingly at the ‘Snowdome’ across the parking lot. An odd fate for the man who said: “Live simply, that others might simply live.”

(This article was first published in The Hindu, June 22, 2005)

(P Sainath is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He is Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005