NERE – The boy is in his sixth year of school when his stomach hurts in a new way. This pain is always there, even though it comes and goes. It draws his parents’ attention casually first; they remember the old remedies. Invincible only in memory, and of no help with this pain. Then a fear lowers gently on the family, a fog that quietly turns them inside out. His parents reach out to the realms of science and faith: they try doctors close by, doctors further away, hospitals, healers, animal sacrifice and, somewhere along the way, turn up under the flag of another religion.
Just like that, Sachin’s illness goes away. Why it came is still unknown. No one knows how it went. Faith has melded with logic by now, making placebos real.
He returns to school not only fixed, but broader and stronger. This is a welcome development at home. Still, he is, all said, a giant in the sixth grade. Children have a talent for noticing a thing not in order. Sachin shrinks under the unceasing teasing in class. The world is a bad place, he thinks. There are no friends. There is only family. He leaves school and does not return.
It is a wet Saturday in June. Sachin’s feet grip the ground hard as he descends the rough muddy path beside his home. Long sleeves, white shorts. Amulets on his arms, a cross dangling from his neck. He jumps over the riverbed’s pools of still water, each with its own surprising chemical composition: green or bubbly or brown or a crimson spill that spreads like oil. Startled frogs skip in and vanish. Calm surfaces erupt into ripples, a hundred creatures peeking from below and submerging. In this quiet, dry leaves carried by the wind feign sharp footsteps. A glinting metal tube fading in the sky sends sonic echoes of a different life, of different people. He parts the green foliage on the other side. It bends back, hiding a boy foraging for his lunch.
His father can see him go from the house, a structure made of what is necessary. Walls of bamboo patted with dung halfway up. Replaceable tiles on the roof. A tall tree trunk, stripped of its bark, is now a pillar. A stack of chopped wood lies on the concrete porch outside. He dresses in the darkness, but there is a guest at home, and he calls for light. The filament of a naked white bulb sparks – illuminating an old brown wall unit, a bed, a cathode ray relic – and then dies. Again and again this happens. He shouts, “slowly, slowly,” in his adivasi tongue, and the light is tamed. Like finding a frequency. He reaches for his cigarettes, coughing as he moves.
“Tell me,” he says, finally.
I tell him about the road. It is 120 metres wide. They say it’s the widest one in the state. Not just cars will pass by. Trains too. Everything will likely happen without him.
He stops. “Nobody told us.” But he knew. He knew in that way that one does when greater forces are at work. A door opens, a glimpse of something, and then gone. Now he knows where it will come from, where it will end, who it will ride over. It will come through the foliage where Sachin is. It will sweep over the river. It will grow big on his house. Under its shadow, he clutches at a phone and calls someone he knows.
The corridor of uncertainty
The transportation corridor runs through the Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area (NAINA), but it belongs to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. Spread over 126 kilometres, it will connect the bustling far northern town of Virar with Alibag, a coastal town on the mainland, east of the city. The population of Virar has grown to four times what it was in 1991. Near Alibag is the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, whose income has risen by a third in the last two years. NAINA, a planned city, will be built near the port, as will the airport.
Twelve kilometres of the transportation corridor will lie under the first phase of NAINA, which will affect 23 officially-defined villages at first, and eventually over 270 of them. Seen from the god’s eye of the ‘interim development plan’, an urban plan, the road is a thick white strip snaking through residential areas, growth centres, forests, and urban villages. It starts innocuously from the north east, and bends gently until it reaches the halfway point of the plan. There it starts to move away from its destination. This is no casual meander. It is a draftsman’s hand jerked mid-way. Then it resumes south and turns west to Alibag.
I decided to follow this road when landholders affected by acquisition in different parts of Navi Mumbai said that the houses and lands of powerful people seemed to be left untouched. Farmers from Pargaon, Koli, Nere, and Kon claimed this, pointing to plots that had missed being consumed by roads that looked like hiccups on a map. What spoke louder, though, was the conviction that they had been singled out for some kind of punishment. It was a foregone conclusion in their minds. In following the road’s trace, I would see who it truly affected, and whether small landholders had reason to feel done in.
Sachin’s father is the sarpanch of Nere, but the role is ceremonious. A Nere villager who constructed a building said to me, “Adivasi hai. Kuch samajh nahi hai.” He does not live in the main village, but a waadi, an outpost that takes twenty minutes to reach on foot. “The bastards don’t listen,” he says. “If we stood together, we could do something, but nobody listens.” Even the panchayat’s administrators said I was better off speaking with someone else.
The sarpanch shows me a yellow notation painted on the road outside the waadi. A diagonal yellow stripe, and an identification: ‘CH 51554’. “They came here, made markings, and left. Nobody told us anything.”
I walk around the waadi, asking people if they know about the road. Some of them think the road has been scrapped. Others know it will be built, but can’t say when. Some believe it will pass by without touching the waadi.
All the sarpanch knows is that they will be relocated elsewhere. “We went to the meeting about NAINA two months ago. We wanted to get 22.5 per cent [of the land we were giving up to NAINA authorities]. They say they will give it, but when will they give it. Thirty years have passed since people were to get [what they were due], but they still haven’t.”
I ask the sarpanch if he has seen the map of NAINA. “I’m not educated,” he says. “How would I know?”
The sarpanch spends his time doing physical work. A truckload of good sand from the riverbed fetches 5000 rupees. He fishes and farms for far less. “It gives me 150 rupees a day, but what can you do with that little? Everything is so expensive. And you get work for three or four days. Then there’s nothing for the next ten days.
“The treatment for Sachin ruined me. This doctor, that doctor, people saying, ‘bring a chicken, bring a goat’. I took money from here and there, telling them I would work for them. That’s how we saved him. He got better.” He doesn’t know where they will go if they have to move. “They should tell us. They have to give us water and electricity. They have to do this first.”
Sachin returns, smiling like sunshine. A clump of vegetables fastened in a tight red rag lie outside. I look at the slim bundle, long and white – vegetables I haven’t seen before. This took him a long time, I say. “Not just me. There were two others who helped.”
“How much would this fetch in a market?”
His father bends down to clutch a third of them. “For this much,” he says, “ten rupees.”