“Pul nahin, toh vote nahin (No bridge, no vote).” Read banners put up at Dumri village in Katra region of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district that has a population of nearly 5,000. In the absence of a concrete bridge over Lakhandai river, the villagers make do with a bridge made of bamboo, locally known as chachri pul, which they have erected themselves and with their own money. In fact, the chachri pul gets washed away almost every year in floods and has been rebuilt a number of times in the past two decades. Villagers said building a chachri pul costs them around Rs 1.5 lakh.
The story is the same in the entire region that has several chachri puls, many of them in a dangerously precarious condition, for the 2.5 lakh population spread over 22 panchayats.
Mohammed Taushiq Raza, 36, of Dumri village, said they have decided to boycott the Lok Sabha elections. “We will not vote this year at all. We have been electing our representatives for the betterment of the area but we have got only false promises from politicians. Our BDO (block development officer) is trying to convince us for voting. But we want to ask the government what is more important – the vote, or our life that is at risk owing to these chachri puls?”
“Our (BJP) MP Ajay Nishad had visited us on June 9 last year on an iftar party. He had assured us of building a bridge. We are dependent on chachri pul since Independence. Several letters have been written to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and other government officials,” Raza added.
Muzaffarpur goes to polls on May 6.
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About two years ago, the villagers said, an 18-year-old boy fell off the bridge, his body was recovered after four days. A boy with a fractured hand and another with an injured head in Dumri stand testimonies to the accidents that recently took place at the pul.
Relating how tough it gets when there is a medical emergency, especially during the night, Sadique Ali, another villager, said, “Kisi lady ko delivery ke liye raat birat peeda hoti hai toh bahaut pareshani hojati hai idhar se lejane mein. Muzaffarpur leke jaate hain jisme dedh se do ghante lagte hain. kayi mahilaayein mar chuki hain. (It gets difficult to take a woman in labour pain to hospitals in Muzaffarpur, where in many cases women have lost their lives).”
Schoolgoing children also use this bridge – a source of constant worry for the parents. “We are so scared to send our children to schools outside our villages. This is hampering their education,” added Sadique.
There are around 18-20 chachri puls in Katra for connecting villages like Dumri, Sunderkhauli, Sanhauli, Basghatta, Basua and Aurai.
About the decision to boycott voting by Dumri village, MP Ajay Nishad told indianexpress.com: “Yes they had called me recently. They are troubled because of the chachri puls. In my next tenure, I will pull down all the chachri puls of Katra.” He, however, said he has no time to visit Dumri to convince people to vote.
In the adjacent village named Basghatta, a concrete bridge that was built at an estimated cost of Rs 8.9 crore collapsed two days before it was to be inaugurated by then chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi in 2014. Now, a chachri pul stands over the broken concrete bridge.
The government has now started re-constructing another bridge next to chachri pul but the project has run into trouble owing to conflict with villagers over land acquisition.
The villages also doubt the government’s intentions. “The government started building the bridge five years after it collapsed and just before two months of the Lok Sabha polls. I doubt it will meet its deadline of two years. Most people in this village have decided to go for NOTA. I will also go for NOTA or will not vote at all,” said Ram Lobhit Thakur, 35.
The apathy on the part of the government has given many a chance to exploit the situation. After building a few chachri puls and one peepa pul in the area, connecting Muzaffarpur to Sitamarhi, Madhubani and Darbhanga and other adjoining villages of Katra, some villagers are extorting ‘toll tax’ from commuters. The charge ranges from Rs 5 to Rs 100, and those on feet are not spared either.
Dhananjay Mishra, one of the ‘operators of Peepa pul, said, “This bridge has helped people a lot during emergency situation. We take money just to meet the maintenance cost.”
Another villager Sudhir Sharma said our life comes to a standstill for four months during the floods.“Chachri pe tax lete hain, hum ghareeb aadmi kitna tax dein. Hamari jagah ka muawaja dein aur hum kahin aur jaake bas jaenge.”
Nishad told indianexpress.com: “The work on the bridge has started. It will take time.”
When asked why the construction of the bridge at Basghatta was resumed now, just before the election, he said, “What can I do? The department is also responsible for it. Several schemes have been stuck for more than 20 years. I did not get any direction from the central government to start it in the last five years.”
Talking about people’s complaint that he never visited the villages, he said: “Even if I meet them in the morning, in the evening they will deny meeting me. I do go there. But Muzaffarpur has 250 panchayats, every time I visit, I can’t be present everywhere.”
Muzaffarpur District Magistrate Alok Ranjan Ghosh said, “The thekedars are not allowed to collect taxes. I also got to know about it very late. We are looking for an alternative to it because somebody is collecting money for something which is partly on our land and partly on their land.
He said, “The land belongs to the government. so, there is a way—either we will build the infrastructure and hand it over or we will tell them to create infrastructure, you run it but you pay the government this much.”
Further, contradicting himself on the ‘taxes’ that contractors extort from people crossing the bridge, Ghosh said: “What is poor. Don’t you give toll tax? So, if a poor is going by a vehicle, they are also paying. What’s wrong with that.” When asked about ‘tax’ being paid by those crossing the bridge on foot, the DM did not comment.
Muzaffarpur journalist and social worker Santosh Kumar said, “The incumbent Nitish government has neither done nyay nor vikas for the people of Katra.”
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