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Bhupen Hazarika Bridge an infrastructural marvel, but what about rehabilitation of people?

India's longest bridge over a water body, the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge, was inaugurated on Friday with much fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And rightfully so — you don't build such engineering marvels and not thump your own chest with pride. Given how ferocious the Brahmaputra is, and given the size and location of the structure, even the time overrun has been negligible.

Having said that, however, media reports have spoken of unpleasant fall-outs of the bridge, like 2,000 people in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh being rendered jobless, chiefly boatmen who won't get to ferry passengers across the river. The last boat has done the last trip; people have already walked on the bride to connect.

 Bhupen Hazarika Bridge an infrastructural marvel, but what about rehabilitation of people?

PM Modi inaugurating the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge. Courtesy: Twitter/@ANI_News

While this is not to be a sourpuss response to what is admittedly and admirably a major infrastructural project in the remote but often neglected region of the country, it is meant to highlight how the country goes about building projects as part of its development process. This bridge's adverse impact may fall on a small number of people, but to each of those affected, it can be a crushing blow.

"I don't know what I will do now. In fact, nobody among us knows," Lalit Kachari, a boat owner at Sadiya, was quoted as saying in The Economic Times report.

Assam chief minister Sarabananda Sonowal was quoted as saying that he would be "initiating" some kind of rehabilitation. But boat owners have only heard about this, not seen anything yet. That's the snag.

It cannot be that details of rehabilitation following a big-ticket project, six years in the making, are still unknown to the victims of the infrastructure development. This only underlines how people in India can be — and often are — treated as a mere statistic.

Imagine the joblessness or loss of businesses in remote regions where mere migration to a city nearby may not be a solution. The economy of the Northeast isn't thriving enough for it to absorb 2,000 job losses in one go. The government's project planners had ample time to have rehabilitated them.

It's not just in this case, but practically every other project in India, that project-affected people are seen as a hurdle, meant to be treated casually. The Narmada river project had perhaps seen the most carefully designed relief and rehabilitation effort, but  the victims had to depend on Medha Patkar to secure a better deal for themselves. Try imagining their fate if they had had no champion.

For securing the Srisailam project's submersion area from populations living in the zone, all of 100 villages in Kurnool and Mahbubnagar districts, one in AP and the other in Telangana were bulldozed and people shifted over almost overnight in the early 1980s. The sedate hurry to build a project did not show adequate concern or speed in dealing with the issues of the affected communities.

This litany can be long, but the substantive point is that longer the time taken by a big-ticket project, the longer the authorities have to deal with the project affected people. We often hear the government speaking about the benefits of a project, but never about the people who had to give it up to make it possible.

Isn't it an irony that the people losing out on everything they own is hardly a matter of concern when potential benefits are being talked about? The tiny size of PAPs of the the Bhupen Hazarika Setu should have been the initial, not the incidental, concern. There was enough time, but it was wasted. Sadly.

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Updated Date: May 27, 2017 13:45:50 IST

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