Bhadrapur’s 66 years of wait for a bridge
Sujit Mainali / August 25, 2017
Where the decent are pushed aside
The wicked stride with pride
For a mere bridge
Thirty long years they wait
The bridge mentioned in the poem written some 35 years ago by poet Bhawani Ghimire of Jhapa, is the Mechi bridge. The bridge is all set to be ready within 2017, many years after this poem was penned.
Until a few years ago, Bhadrapur used to be a sleepy little town. The roads were ill-repaired and dusty. Abandoned factories turning into ruins lay here and there. The beautiful marble temple at the center of the town had few worshippers and visitors. The old houses had not been painted for years. The market area was bigger, but customer numbers were dwindling.
Now, Bhadrapur is changing. The ruins of the factories have been cleared and new houses are coming up on the land. The ageing houses are getting fresh coats of paint. The roads are being repaired. The bustle is gradually returning to the town.
In an essay, writer Krishna Dharabashi has said, “When I was a little child, Bhadrapur was big. But as I grew up Bhadrapur shrunk.” The long-cherished Mechi bridge that joins Bhadrapur with Galgalia village of Bihar, India with motorable road is about to be completed. This has raised hopes among Bhadrapur locals. As a result, Bhadrapur is on the way to regain its lost glory.
Bhadrapur developed into a town long ago during the Rana rule, as this place was well-positioned for trading between Bihar, West Bengal and East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) of the British India. Gradually rice mills, cigarette factories, tea factories, and garment factories came up. By the middle of the Panchayat period (1960-1990), Bhadrapur emerged as east Nepal’s second largest city after Biratnagar in terms of economic activities.
After the Rana regime was overthrown, people of Bhadrapur began to voice for the construction of a bridge over the Mechi River. But Bhadrapur’s boom was short-lived. Fifteen kilometers to the north of the town, a section of the East-West Highway was constructed and a bridge was also built over the Mechi River at Kakarbhitta. And gradually, Bhadrapur’s rice mills, factories and wholesalers moved to the area adjoining the highway.
During the Rana rule, people used to travel across the Mechi River through a bamboo bridge, except in the rainy season. After the advent of democracy in 1951, “Eastern Nepal Democratic Temporal Government” was formed with its headquarters in Bhadrapur. According to professor and social activist Chintamani Dahal, who is also a resident of Bhadrapur, the temporal government decided to construct a wooden bridge over the Mechi River and seek support from the central government for the construction of a concrete bridge. But the plans did not succeed.
In 1992, locals and businessmen from Bhadrapur raised Rs 260,000 [Indian currency] on their own for the construction of a pontoon bridge over the river. But upon sensing that the amount would not be enough to build the bridge, they instead deposited the money in the national treasury hoping that the government would help construct the bridge.
A publication commemorating the golden jubilee year of Bhadrapur Municipality published in 2002 has an article by Madhav Bidrohi, a journalist from Jhapa. In the article, Bidrohi has narrated a series of attempts made by the people of Bhadrapur to construct the bridge. According to the article, in 1954, a delegation led by a Bhadrapur-based businessman Surajmal Sarawagi had met with Prime Minister Matrika Prasad Koirala and requested him for government support to construct the bridge. The then transport minister Bhadrakali Mishra expressed a commitment in writing stating that the government would construct the bridge. But that commitment was never fulfilled.
Three years later when KI Singh was prime minister, Prachanda Lal Maskey, who worked for Singh’s Samyukta Prajatantra Party, led a delegation on July 17, 1957 and submitted a list of projects needed in Jhapa district to Singh. A bridge over the Mechi River was also on the list. Prime Minister Singh announced on Radio Nepal that the bridge construction work would be started after three months, after the Dashain festival. But after three months, Singh’s government was dissolved and the bridge construction plan lapsed.
According to Bidrohi’s article, Bhadrapur residents frustrated by repeated failures decided to construct a bridge on their own. To generate funds, they started collecting Re 1 from every sack of rice exported to India from the rice mills of Jhapa district.
A donation campaign was started in 1964. In the same year, the “Mills Merchants Public Economic Committee” was formed to facilitate the construction of the bridge. Most of the members of the committee were traders and businessmen. Nagar Panchayat [municipal council] officials were also on the committee. The committee in coordination with the Anchaladhish’s Office [office of the zonal chief] hired a Swiss firm to estimate the cost of the bridge. The firm’s estimate put the cost at Rs 8 million. A blueprint of the bridge was prepared and soil test was also done. And in 1965, zonal chief Manmohan Mishra laid the foundation for the bridge. But the construction work did not start.
On February 16, 1968, the locals formed a “Mechi Bridge and Integrated Development Financial Support Committee” to exert pressure for the construction of the bridge. The committee comprised people from various walks of life. The “Mills Merchants Public Economic Committee” was absorbed by the new committee.
In the first year, the committee raised around Rs 400,000-500,000. Stones worth Rs 200,000 was purchased from the money, and the rest was deposited in the bank account of the committee. The fund raising campaign continued. The biggest chunk of the fund was raised through the toll on imports and exports to and from India through the Mechi River.
The then crown prince Birendra visited Mechi zone in 1971. By then, Rs 3.3 million had been collected for the bridge. Of this sum, about one million rupees [half of which was spent on purchasing stones] had been spent at the local level. The committee handed over the remainder Rs 2.28 million to the crown prince requesting him to arrange the shortfall and construct the bridge.
Months passed but still there was no progress on the bridge construction work. Presuming that the funds they had handed over to the crown prince were embezzled, the locals launched protest. “Leaflets were distributed that said the funds collected by the people for the bridge should not be spent on anything else,” Bidrohi has stated in his article.
The government deployed police to suppress the protest. “We chanted slogans accusing the crown prince of pocketing the funds. I along with several others were put in jail,” recalled Nakul Kaji, a veteran journalist based in Bhadrapur. Dibya Bhurtal and Yama Bhandari were imprisoned for three years and Mohan Lal Agrawal was released after seven months. “Later we learnt that the funds handed over to the crown prince was provided to the hill development program in Ilam,” professor Dahal told South Asia Check.
When Kriti Nidhi Bista was prime minister, a delegation led by the Chief of Jhapa District Council (Jilla Sabhapati) Prakash Chandra Mukhiya met with the prime minister and appealed for the construction of the bridge. Bista assured the delegation that the bridge would be constructed at any cost. But this assurance also went unfulfilled.
During 1982, chief of Bhadrapur Nagar Panchayat [municipal council] Om Prakash Sarawagi got his proposal to build the bridge passed through the council. The council with support from various locally-formed committees put pressure on the government to provide funds for the bridge. The then prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, finally agreed to a proposal to construct the bridge through joint initiative of the government, Bhadrapur municipal council and Nepal Bank Limited.
And on May 30, 1984, Prime Minister Chand laid the foundation stone for the bridge. To facilitate the construction work, a committee led by the chief of Bhadrapur municipal council was formed as per the recommendation of the Ministry of Construction and Transport.
Journalist Bidrohi in his article writes that the cost of the bridge was estimated at Rs 60 million. And a trilateral agreement was signed whereby the government would provide construction materials worth Rs 20 million, the municipal council would provide Rs 10 million and the Nepal Bank Limited would provide a loan of Rs 30 million to the municipal council for the bridge. The government also agreed to include the project in its five-year-plan. The loan agreement was signed between Bhadrapur municipal council and Nepal Bank Limited on December 5, 1985 with the government standing as guarantor.
“As per the agreement, the bridge was to be completed within five years and the government would pay the interest on the loan [for five years] until the construction was complete. After that the municipal council was to repay the loan and interest by collecting toll tax,” said professor Dahal. But unfortunately, the bridge project was not included in the government’s five-year plan.
In the meantime, Marichman Singh Shrestha became new prime minister. Then they were told that the consent of the Indian government is also needed before starting any construction on the border. After this the bridge issue faded away.
Locals of Bhadrapur realized that sensitizing the Indians across the border and drawing attention of the government of Bihar, India about the benefits of a bridge over the Mechi River could be helpful in materializing their long-cherished dream. In 2001, chairman of the Jhapa unit of Nepal-India Friendship Association Om Prakash Sarawagi helped in opening a local unit of the India-Nepal Friendship Association in Thakurganj, India which lies across Bhadrapur. Since the Mechi bridge would be the “starting point” of the under-construction postal highway, the units of the friendship association on both sides of the border began exerting pressure on their respective governments for the construction of the bridge.
“Representatives of the association’s both the units jointly presented a memorandum to the transport minister of Bihar. The minister promised to forward the memorandum to the central government,” said Professor Dahal, who was information secretary of the Jhapa-based friendship association and was also present during the memorandum handover.
Around that time, when former Indian prime minister Chandra Shekhar visited Thakurganj to address a political rally, representatives of both the associations met with him and requested him to draw the attention of the Indian central government toward the bridge.
“He agreed to convey our request to the Indian prime minister. Also in his speech at Thakurganj, he said that a bridge over the river would benefit both the countries,” recalled professor Dahal. After this, the Indian government said it would have no objection if Nepal constructed the proposed bridge.
Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister after the success of the April 2006 movement. On the eve of Koirala’s state visit to India, some locals of Bhadrapur asked him to seek financial assistant from India for the bridge. “But he said it would not be appropriate to seek Indian help for such a small project. Instead, he instructed the ministry concerned to build the bridge,” said Professor Dahal.
When CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal became prime minister, Minister for Physical Planning and Work Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar in February 2010, laid the foundation stone for the bridge. This was the third time the foundation stone for the bridge was laid. But this time, the progress was remarkable. Construction contract was awarded through competitive bidding. Work started, and the bridge is now almost complete.
An engineer at Bhadrapur Municipality Yogendra Ranjitkar says, “Out of the 17 pillars of the bridge, 15 have already been built. The remaining two pillars are slightly tilted.” He said that work is underway to fix the problem and within a few months, the bridge will be ready.
A local Nepali Congress leader Ganesh Pokhrel said the bridge will enhance Nepal’s trade with India and Bangladesh. “There is railroad across the border in Galgalia. So trading with India and Bangladesh will be easier,” he said.
Nepal-Bangladesh trade is now being carried out through the [approximately] 56 km Kakarvitta-Fulbari corridor. When the Mechi bridge opens, Nepal will be connected to Bangladesh through the [approximately] 19-km Bhadrapur-Tetulia corridor, says Pokhrel.
Engineer Ranjitkar believes Bhadrapur will be totally transform in the coming few years. “The Mechi bridge is almost complete. And the postal highway is set to become a reality. The Mechi Highway that links Kechana and Charali is under construction. Bhadrapur airport is being upgraded to make even nighttime landings possible,” he said. In the fiscal year 2016/2017, the government allocated Rs 2 billion for Bhadrapur municipality. The amount is to be spent within four years. Ranjitkar said that contract for construction worth Rs 1 billion has already been awarded. “Road and drainage repair work is in progress. Also attempts are being made to to upgrade the Bhadrapur-based Mechi Zonal Hospital into an Academy of Health Sciences,” he said.
Kalyan Bhakta Mathema, a sociologist who is conducting research on social movement in Nepal including the local struggle for the bridge, says that the movement for Mechi bridge, which is entirely based on local resources could be one of the best examples of successful social movement in Nepal. “Social movement is not like a mass demonstration which disintegrates instantly. Social movement continues until it achieves its goal. The movement for Mechi bridge lasted for 66 years and eventually became successful without outside support. This has set a brilliant example,” Mathema said.
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