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Dholpur: Rajni Devi, who had moved to Sewar village on the banks of the Chambal river in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district as a shy 18-year old bride on 21 April, 2007, was a happy mother of two girls and pregnant with her third child. When she developed labour pains on 23 September, 2013, there was no vehicle in the village to take her to the nearest hospital in Bari, about 40 kilometres away. The rains had swollen the waters of the Chambal river, so crossing over by boat to be taken to Kailaras town in Madhya Pradesh, just 20 kilometres from Sewar, was not an option. A tractor was finally arranged, but by then, it was too late for Rajni. She died on the way to the hospital.
This was a senseless tragedy that could have been averted had the Sewar-Pali bridge spanning the river not been lying half-completed for nearly 30 years. Nine Lok Sabha elections and seven Assembly elections have happened since the construction of the bridge began in 1988. But not one MP or MLA from the district, which is the home district of two-time former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, bothered to complete this bridge, which would have provided a lifeline to about one lakh people in over 60 villages in the region. It is also interesting to note that three-term MLA from the Bari Assembly seat, Girraj Singh Malinga is a resident of this Sewar village.
"If the bridge had been completed, perhaps my daughter-in-law would be alive today,” said Bhanwar Bai, 55, Rajni’s mother-in-law. Rajni's husband, Bhagwan Singh (33), pointed out, "If there had been a bridge, Rajni could have been admitted at a Kailaras hospital. Whenever a woman in the village has to undergo delivery, we have no other option but to take her to the hospital in a tractor or some other vehicle."
No major engineering feat was needed for this 682-metre-long, seven-metre wide bridge. Just 250 metres was completed before heavy rains and interdepartmental intrigues in the public works department stopped the bridge construction. What would have cost just Rs 4.5 crore in 1988 will now cost Rs 80 crore to complete.
Sewar-Pali village, 250 kilometres from Jaipur is just a few kilometres across the river from towns like Kailaras, Chinnoni and Sawalgarh in Madhya Pradesh, which are also the main markets for its produce. The bridge was approved in 1986 under the Dacoit Affected Area Scheme and Rajasthan State Bridge Construction Corporation (RSBCC) began construction in 1988. Out of 12 pillars provided in the plan, six were to be in Rajasthan, two in the Chambal river itself and four on the Madhya Pradesh side. Only the six pillars in Rajasthan could be completed in the next eight years. Subsequently, heavy floods in 1996 raised the water level by 3.3 metres above what the blueprints envisaged, forcing a halt to the construction work.
The engineers then decided to increase the distance between pillar number 9 and 10 from 105 meters as was planned earlier to 135 meters. This led to the state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau charging 15 officials and employees of the Public Works Department (PWD) with financial irregularities. The ACB seized all records pertaining to the bridge. The case is still pending, while nine of the 15 accused officials have died.
Work on the bridge, on which Rs 7.5 crore had already been spent, has languished since. Some efforts were made to resume work and new tenders were floated, but they found no takers. In July 2008, responsibility for completing the bridge was given to the Rajasthan State Road Development and Construction Corporation (RSRDC) who are yet restart the construction work, even though the PWD in 2018 decided that work can resume from the existing portion of the bridge.
Without the bridge, villagers have no option but to use boats to cross the river, which is at times turbulent. More than 15 boats have sunk and 30-40 people killed in the past 30 years, say villagers. Hundreds of people cross the river in boats every day, with each boat doing 50 round trips daily. The boats also ferry livestock like sheep and goats, besides two-wheelers. Given the condition of the boats, the danger of them capsizing is ever present. Going by road means a much longer trip of 150 kilometres.
"There is no vehicle in the village, and one has to travel to Madhya Pradesh to even get the daily ration,” said Anup Singh, a boat owner and operator. “Though the bridge is lying incomplete since 1996, both Vasundhara Raje and Ashok Gehlot have ignored the issue. If a sick person or pregnant woman has to go to Madhya Pradesh, the boat is the only option. No one pays heed to the problems of the poor." The village has no bus service either, so people are dependent on tractors or other private vehicles, for which they often have to pay a high price. No ambulance has ever visited the village.
The bridge will connect lakhs of people on both sides of the river, making it easy for the people in villages in Rajasthan like Budawali, Babupura, Pali, Kharer, Sone Ka Gurja, Badapura, Karua, Sewar, Sarmathura and others to interact more, economically and socially, with villages in Madhya Pradesh like Gunapura, Bijjgadhi, Husainpura, Chinnoni, Bared, Kailaras, Dhengipura, Rajoda and Morena.
“If the bridge gets built, Sewar village will have its own market and would see a lot of development,” explained Ramswaroop. Added Dharmendra, who runs a grocery shop village, “Now, it takes me about two hours of travel to get supplies for my shop. If the bridge is completed, it would only take me 5-10 minutes.”
And as the 2019 Lok Sabha election looms, the people of Sewar and neighbouring 60 villages are threatening to boycott the polls. They are demanding that the new government complete construction of the bridge. “Whichever party gets the bridge constructed, we will vote for them,” said Raghunath. “We hope that somebody will listen to us now,” added Kalawati and Kushma Devi of Sewar village.
It's a bitter deja vu for the residents. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the people of the panchayat took an oath during a meeting to not cast their vote to any political party, but in the afternoon, many administrative officials came to the village and took the votes after convicting the villagers.
The sarpanch of Sewar-Pali gram panchayat, Gudiya Gurjar (26), says, "Lok Sabha elections are a few months away, and people are again talking about their decision not to vote. But no decision has been taken at the panchayat level yet. If this matter is raised in the next panchayat meeting, a concrete decision will be taken."
“When the Congress was in power the last time, I myself brought the PWD minister here, and yet the work could not begin,” said Giriraj Singh Malinga, Congress MLA and three-time winner of the Bari Vidhan Sabha seat. “Just a few days ago, I gave a letter to chief minister Ashok Gehlot. Let's see what action is taken,” he added.
"If the department really wants, the bridge can be completed in three months,” said Lakhan Singh, PWD supervisor in Sewar in 1993, when initial construction work on the bridge was on. “There was a dispute over the design of the bridge's pillar number 10 and a case was registered by the Prevention of Corruption Bureau, which is still going on. Engineers have the right to alter the design if need be,” added Lakhan Singh, who retired in 2011.
A retired Assistant Engineer (AE) associated with the project in 1992 said on condition of anonymity, "The area where the bridge is to be constructed is very backward. People here are dependent on farming or are daily wage labourers. The bridge will cut the distance to Madhya Pradesh by at least 100 kilometres. But lack of political will has left the bridge incomplete for 30 years."
Manoj Rajoria, MP from Dholpur-Karauli Lok Sabha constituency, however, said "technical issues, not political, have stalled work. Both states some time back endorsed environmental NOCs, and tenders were issued for resuming construction. Financial approval from the finance department is awaited,” Rajoria added. “I hope that work starts soon.”
Chief engineer and additional secretary of the PWD ML Verma has said, “NOC has been received from Madhya Pradesh for the bridge. A Detailed Project Report (DPR) will be made and the bridge will be ready in the coming months.”
All this is of little consolation to Rajni Devi’s family and offers little hope to the villagers. “The administrative authorities are aware about the bridge. We’ve made written representations to the collectors, SDM many times and they have also visited here, but there is no benefit at all," Gudiya says. What they will receive in the coming weeks is more promises. But the bridge to nowhere will forever be a reminder of how hollow such promises are.
(The author is a Jaipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)