/ Kolkata

Lalchand – The Bridge Man

There’s a bridge across the river
to the other side,
and all those who cross over there
have nothing to hide.
Whatever they all go there for
and seeking to find
would not be any of those things
they have left behind.

The hopeful words of George Krokos jog my memory of watching a Bengali film called “Ek Nodir Galpo” (Tale of a River) which hops around the special relationship of a father and daughter. A tragedy drowns the girl in Keleghai river. Consequently the father got determined to rename the river in memory of his loving daughter. This film was adapted from short stories of Sunil Ganguly. What I am going to tell is not a fiction though it sounds like one. Boatman Sheikh Lalchand, 43, from a bitsy village in West Bengal has the Lalchand Bridge named after him. This man has built a bamboo bridge over River Mudeswari, courageously solving the accessibility problems of his own village and others nearby.

Sheikh Lalchand lives in Kulia, a remote village in Howrah district, around 80 kilometers from the state capital. Kulia is included in the Ghoraberia-Chitnan gram panchayat which neighbours the Bhatora gram panchayat. The two panchayats form an island encompassed by three rivers – Mundeswari, Damador and Rupanarayan. On the other side of the Mundeswari river is Kashmuli gram panchayat. Lalchand has connected more than one lakh villagers of the three gram panchayats through this bridge.

Due to the siltation near the riverbank it is now almost impossible to operate a boat. High tide fetches its own problems however people suffered the most during low tide as they were compelled to cross the river in knee-deep drivel and mud. The worst preys were the students and pregnant women. Being unable to reach the hospital on time many pregnant women died as well. Nirmal Hazra, a villager, says that the erstwhile Left Government laid the foundation stone of the bridge thrice during its tenure, but the work never began.

“Days before the Assembly polls in 2006 and 2011,” he says, “political leaders visited our village and laid the foundation stone, but did nothing after they assumed power.”

The celebrated Gandhian quote, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” has been practiced in this case too. Everybody laughed at his idea of building the bridge when he shared it in September 2014. The villagers wondered on the fact that a man who earned a mere Rs 400 on a good day, wanted to build a bridge governments hadn’t! Lalchand recalls, “They declared that I needed an immediate mental check-up. Still, I swallowed their criticism with a smile.”

A lot of blandishment earn him the permission from the panchayat to build the bridge in his own cost. He sold his wife’s jewellery for 3 lakh rupees, and borrowed another 4 lakh from his friends. He further added his savings to the fundraising jiffy. Lalchand then brought people skilled in making bamboo bridges from Midnapore.

The work finally began in November 2014. The construction of the 600m-long and 2.20m wide bridge, using 3,000 logs riveted with nuts and bolts, and secured with ropes, was completed in a record 22 days by 20 workers working day and night.In order to make the structure sturdy, bamboos were inserted 10 feet down the riverbed. The bridge was finally opened to public in January 2015.

Lalchand took the bridge on lease from the gram pachayat at an annual payment of Rs 1.5 lakh in order to recover the Rs 7.5 lakh rupees that he incurred to have it constructed. A signboard displays the rate chart: Rs 2 for those on foot or on a cycle; Rs 5 for two-wheelers; Rs 50 for Magic IRIS Tata vehicles; and Rs 100 for a Maruti van. Students and senior citizens need to pay only half the fee. Farmers are charged Rs 50 monthly.

Everyday more than 2000 people use the bridge now; ambulances can ply the route assuring the safety of lives. It has made the weddings easier. Better connectivity has also surged land prices. It has reduced travel time to Kolkata.
Four surveillance cameras are there to monitor the movement of vehicles. Lalchand induces a heavy spend to uphold the bridge and pay his employees, “The bridge has broken down twice in the last year, once during monsoon and then when it was hit by a boat,” he clarifies. However Lalchand still wishes a permanent and more effective bridge from the government replacing his bamboo structure.

Heroes are close to us and we need to keep our EYEZON to get such inspirations around. What Lalchand “Starts up”, out of a social cause, is a potential learning experience for us.