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Monday, October 25, 2021

Know Your City: Bremen Chowk, the symbol of an unlikely friendship between two cities 6,000 km apart

At the core of the Pune-Bremen sisterhood is the idea to make the world a better place for future generations

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: September 27, 2021 11:40:33 am
Pune-Bremen Maitri Chowk. (Express)

In 1976, city-based paediatrician Dr Anand Pandit felt the country needed a diagnostics and management centre exclusively for children with special needs. He began to look for funding but nothing was forthcoming. Not many were aware of the rights of such children at the time. Even the government showed little interest.

“A friend Adi Patel, who was the chief of the India programme of international social work organisation Terre des Hommes (TDH), told me about Gunther Hilliges. Gunther was a member of the Bremen government (a city in northern Germany) as well as the Vice-President of the German chapter of TDH. He was visiting Pune and I decided to meet him,” says Pandit.

The meeting led to the government of Bremen, TDH and several German groups putting together a financial aid of about Rs 70 lakh (1.1 million Deutsche Mark, when DEM rate was Rs 7) to set up the TDH Rehabilitation Centre for Handicapped Children at KEM Hospital. It was inaugurated in 1979.

“Today, it is the oldest facility in India to provide diagnosis and therapy to children with all kinds of physical, mental and emotional challenges under one roof,” says Pandit, Head of Paediatrics at KEM Hospital.

The small port city of Bremen, located over 6,000 km from Pune, is famous for a Grimm Brothers fairy tale – the Town Musicians of Bremen – about a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster who set out to make their fortunes in the city. In Pune, however, Bremen is known for enabling a number of developmental projects. In 1998, the then city mayor Dattatreya Gaikwad announced that Bremen and Pune were sister cities. As a public symbol of the relationship, the junction on Aundh Road was christened Pune-Bremen Maitri Chowk.

Bremen’s Lord Mayor Dr Henning Scherf, who inaugurated the Chowk on November 13, 1997, gifted a plate with Marathi text. The installation includes references to the Town Musicians of Bremen as parables of solidarity and hope and a reminder that everyone can bring about change. Fittingly, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) built a traffic park for children at Bremen Chowk in February last year.

Gunther Hilliges (extreme right among seated) at the inauguration of TDH Centre in September 1979.

At the core of the Pune-Bremen sisterhood is the idea to make the world a better place for future generations. Hilliges first visited Pune in 1976, when Terre des Hommes (which means Earth for Humanity) was set up in the city. TDH Pune is a branch of TDH Germany.

From its office in Nana Peth, where it shifted to in 1990, TDH partnered with local NGOs that addressed the problems of women and children by running mobile creches, a skill training centre for Adivasi youth and a school for special-needs children, among others. Its present head is Ingrid Mendonca. In the partnership of the two cities, Hilliges, who would become the President of TDH Germany multiple times, saw an opportunity to make a difference.

“It was important to bring the two cities and their people together to achieve common goals, such as clean rivers, clean air, better education, efficient healthcare and equal rights for all, especially women,” Hilliges, now in his 80s, told The Indian Express in an email interview.

In 1980, he was instrumental in setting up the City Solidarity Forum: Bremen-Pune with support of the Senate of Bremen and the Legislative Assembly. Over 35 years, the organisation has been involved in various projects in Pune ranging from biogas to school books. In 1998 and 2004, agreements were signed between Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Bremen with a focus on sustainable development projects —regenerative energy supply, decentralised sewage and waste treatment and improvement of local transport, among others. Hilliges also managed to interest institutions such as the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce.

Gunther Hilliges, now in his 80s.

“There were meetings and exchanges that were, sometimes, supported by the Bremen state. In Bremen and the rest of Germany, there were stereotypes of India in terms of poverty and corruption. This had to be exposed. Programmes such as Bharatanatyam recitals were held to break these images. Efforts were made to go to people and inform them of the country’s culture. Pune even sent the national bird, a real peacock, to Bremen,” says George Chira, former coordinator of TDH.

One of the organisations part of the Bremen-Pune Solidarity Forum was Arbutus, founded by Dr Meera Bondre and Arwind Bondre. With its focus on educating children and young adults on the environment and sustainable development, Arbutus organised a painting competition for children in Pune and Bremen on their views on the world to come. The paintings were exchanged so that the children of each city could understand the cultural values of the other. Back in 1985, Meera Bondre was at the forefront of a battle to save a lake in Pune’s Model Colony area that had been leased by the PMC to a construction company to build a five-star hotel.

“The people of Pune came to know about the value of natural lakes and their well-balanced ecosystem. We presented this work in Bremen, where it was appreciated, as environmental degradation is a common problem,” she says. “Both cities learned from each other. More people are going to live in cities in future and so we have to learn from one another,” adds Arwind Bondre.

Hilliges last visited Pune in 2014. “After 50 visits, I had stopped counting,” he says. The Solidarity Forum was dissolved in 2015 “because it had matched so many partners that we were no longer needed to bring more together.”

“Luckily several partnership programmes are stable and continue its cooperation. Another reason was my health and age, and that I could not find a successor as president,” says Hilliges.

Though in need of post-pandemic weeding and repairs, Bremen Chowk remains a monument to the friendship, while in Bremen’s Town Hall there still stands a white marble bust of Mahatma Gandhi, gifted by the Government of India to mark three decades of solidarity between the two cities.

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