Sinking island

It was a sight that left one stung, and disappointed. A few metres away from us, on a pleasantly crisp morning during our ascent to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Caves, two Frenchmen seemed oblivious to the fact that they were littering the pathway with empty plastic water bottles. Never mind the large dustbins in full view.

This seemed to be replayed all around us. Indian tourists, and even non-Indians an act, we suspect none of the above would be caught dead doing in their home countries, or when we, Indians travel on international holidays, let alone at sites of similar importance. Around us, was a litter fest that made for a permanent eyesore throughout this scenic island, blessed with abundant flora and fauna, the world-famous rock-cut caves.

On the island for a trail, we were aghast to witness the mindless dumping of garbage plastic bottles and bags strewn in an alarmingly careless manner (dustbins were silent spectators) near the cave site and around it. With no strict curbs and regulations on the use and sale of plastic, often very close to sensitive, natural important spots, the island has been reduced to a dump. We got a prelude to this as we stepped off our boat, when we spotted piles of garbage washed ashore near Elephanta’s treasured mangroves, home to vibrant avian life and other ecosystems.

Another surprise was when we spotted construction work of a stone pathway near the caves. We noted how the material used appeared aesthetically different, and in sharp contrast to the cave facades. No Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) official seemed to be in sight to monitor proceedings. There were several examples of such shoddy, distasteful restoration within the site.

A few months ago, while on a personal visit to Angkor Wat, we learnt how several sites within the humongous complex were restored in collaboration with a country. India had tied up to help restore the stunning Ta Prohm temple complex (Tomb Raider fans will recall watching Angelina Jolie strut her stuff here). Arguably, one of the most difficult to implement and execute, the revamp was a jaw-dropping endeavour, accomplished with admirable prowess and least damage to the original facades. Watching the slow degeneration and neglect of Elephanta pained us, as a flashback of that restoration came to the mind. Why such step-motherly treatment for our national treasures?

Each time we set foot on the island, this rampant disregard and neglect appears to worsen. Unless the ASI, our state and Union tourism ministry works closely with the local authorities, to create and implement an immediate action plan to save this island, we are headed to disaster. It will be a matter of time before the island becomes just another ugly public space for Sunday picnics, even as we gear for the reality of losing out on priceless historic and natural wonders right under our nose.

The writer is Features Editor of mid-day

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