ON THE face of it, a bridge built by activists with funds and protection from police to bring development to remote villages in a region affected by Maoist violence should come as a heartening story of change. But in Maharashtra, a second such bridge by an “unregistered voluntary organisation” in six months has led to more question marks.
Last December, Nagpur-based Bhumkal Sanghatan completed a bridge over a culvert at Juvi in the Naxal heartland of Bhamragad in Gadchiroli district within 17 days. They have now started work on a bridge at Yeramnar in Aheri taluk of the district.
The Sanghatan, started by anti-Naxal activists in 2014, says they took the help of an unidentified Nagpur architect to design these bridges but acknowledge that the first one they built is not “technically perfect” and cannot accommodate vehicles carrying tendu leaves, which is crucial to the local economy.
Questions have also risen over the role of the state government, or lack of it, in what is a public works project. In January, the first bridge was inaugurated by Gadchiroli police without members of the Sanghatan — the activists later held a function of their own.
Says Arvind Sovani, the Sanghagtan convener, “There is no guarantee of quality but someone should take responsibility. Tenders were issued for this bridge twice but no contractor came forward. It may not be a technically perfect project but can serve the traffic in these parts for three-four years to connect the local population to the tehsil headquarters in Aheri.”
Senior police officers are enthusiastic about the project. “We are providing material for the work, which is coming up at a low cost of about Rs 18-20 lakh. The bridge will serve about 4,500 people in 15 villages that are cut off for months. We intend to take up more such projects in future,” says Gadchiroli SP Abhinav Deshmukh.
But officials have raised the red flag citing safety issues. “There will be issues of accountability if anything goes wrong. We can take up such requirements, if any, with the district collector and execute the projects needed,” says PWD Chief Engineer at Nagpur V P Debadwar.
The state government, meanwhile, has struck a cautious, middle path. Says PWD Minister Chandrakant Patil, “If some organisation is doing this work, it is worth complimenting. But for projects like bridges, we must have technically qualified persons since it concerns public safety.”
According to C P Joshi, PWD Secretary for Roads and Bridges, the department is “not averse to voluntary groups undertaking such projects”. “We issued a resolution in April, removing the condition that only registered contractors can execute public work. But it should be according to government drawings and rules. They should get the drawing vetted by our Superintending Engineer. They should have a technically qualified person to oversee the work since public safety is paramount,” he says.
Sovani, however, claims the group stepped in because the “government is not taking up public work in difficult areas citing the Naxal threat but it actually wants to do only contractor-friendly projects”.
The Yeramnar bridge, 150-ft long and 6-ft wide, is being “executed” by Sovani and four others Sanghatan members with 50 workers from Medappalli village nearby and 10 more from Chandrapur. About 30 commandos of the elite C-60 group guarded the site in the first leg of construction this month. “We will do the remaining work after the rainy season,” says Sovani.