Chattarpur district in Madhya Pradesh state of India is famous for the Khajuraho temples. About 40 kms from the district headquarters is large village called Chapran, which is surrounded by minor tributaries of the river Ganges and the backwaters from Lehsura dam, causing the village to become like a water-trapped island, particularly during the monsoon season.
A few years back, the only option available for the villagers was to walk along a railway bridge to cross the surrounding water. Unfortunately, a blind turn along the railway track made it impossible for a passer-by to see if a train was oncoming, until it was too late. To avoid disaster, they often had no option other than to jump off the 12 metre high bridge or risk losing a limb or their life by getting crushed under the train.
Laxmibai’s aged eyes crinkled with tears as she narrated the tragic story of her son-in-law to us: “Five years ago Raju, who was 25 years old, had come to our village on the eve of a festival. It was monsoon season and the village was surrounded by water.” Taking a deep breath, she continued, “On his return home, he was riding a bicycle along the railway track, to cross the water. Suddenly a train appeared around the blind turn … some laborers who were working in a nearby field later told us that he didn’t have time to even get off the bicycle. We had to collect his body in a sack, there were limbs all over. Had there been an overbridge or any other arrangement to safely cross the stream, this tragedy would not have happened.”
Villagers began calling it the ‘Bloody Stream’, especially during the monsoons when it would claim about 1-3 lives every year. Children were unable to attend school regularly, vegetable produce could not be transported in a timely manner to the nearby market and no emergency medical aid could be reached.
“It isn’t that we had been silent about our plight. We told the minister, we told government officials but no-one helped. Some years back, the Public Works Department estimated the cost for constructing a bridge to be about US$65,000 but nothing came of it,” said Laxmibai.
And then came Mr. Quereshi, District Project Manager of the Madhya Pradesh Poverty Initiatives Project (MPDPIP). Unlike any other government official, Mr. Quereshi actually asked the villagers what they needed. And, with his civil engineering background, he engaged with them to make their dream come true. He helped design a walkway across the stream, rather than a high-cost bridge. Based on flood statistics from 10 years, it was decided that the height of the walkway would be 3.5 feet, which helped considerably lower the construction cost to US$30,000.
The villagers contributed in cash and kind, with many elderly people giving used and torn currency notes, as everyone wanted to be a part of the great event. They worked until late at night and took turns to safeguard the cement bags that were bought. Women took turns to cook for the entire village and children neglected to go to school, preferring instead to help their parents during the construction.
Finally, there stood the village Chapran’s lifeline and a bridge across poverty.
When we were leaving, a large crowd on the walkway was posing an irritant for a tractor that was carting fresh vegetables. The impatient youth driving the tractor was blowing the horn continuously to clear the way. Laxmibai angrily shouted at him: “Until a year ago, you could not have thought of taking any vegetables beyond your head load. Wait patiently and stop honking.”
But, we stepped aside, out of his way; we did not want to obstruct his way to his progress…
(I first visited Chapran in 2009 to conduct a study on community based procurement and re confirmed the facts in another recent visit to Madhya Pradesh. I thankfully acknowledge the contributions of Uday Badolia from MPDPIP and Julian, Shweta, Siddarth and Payal, all part of the study team)