A lone crusader has been able to build four bridges across rivers in a district in Uttar Pradesh that has been victim of official apathy.
By Salman Sultan in Azamgarh
Passion moved Farhad, the stonecutter from Kurdistan, to carve out a 40 miles long canal in the rocks to win the love of Shirin, the princess. One does not know how credible is the Persian legend of Shirin and Farhad. But here in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, a passionate man has been able to create three bridges across the local rivers.
The man, Sakeel Ahmad of village Tonwa, is today a local hero, popularly referred as ‘Pul Babu’ (the bridge-maker) in the entire district. But for his passionate pursuit of a dream that woke him from sleep rudely while working in Saudi Arabia way back in 1982, the villagers in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh would still be crossing the rivers by boats.
Shakeel was extremely pained to receive the news that a student from Madrasatul Islah died while crossing the river Kunwar following a boat tragedy on July 16, 1982. Luckily, 11 others in the boat were rescued. It was six months later that Shakeel heard a voice telling him, “Wake up! Shakeel, you must take up construction of a bridge on river Kunwar.”
Shakeel quit his job, returned to his village Tonwa and began collecting trolley loads of bricks from kilns around. Much like Farhad, people wouldn’t believe him and began to ridicule him for taking up a cause which even successive governments had shunned, ignoring the pleas from the hapless villagers. Undeterred, Shakeel went ahead with the mission with undiminished zeal. He even began collecting donations, small though, which began pouring into his kitty. Looking at his passion, a local engineer Sanjay Srivastava prepared the design of the bridge without charging him any fee. Shakeel’s elder brother pleaded him to give up the ‘futile exercise’ for some time and evicted him from his house after failing to convince him. Some people even dubbed him crazy. Yet nothing of these would shake Shakeel’s Himalayan determination.
Fund collection drive took him to Delhi, Mumbai, Ludhiana, Gujarat and even Dubai. A businessman and philanthropist hailing from Azamgarh, Israrul Haq, in Vapi (Gujarat) offered him a donation cheque of Rs. 3 lakh on being invited to lay the foundation stone for the bridge. Though he initially refused the ceremonial invitation, but was prevailed upon and joined the effort with Shakeel. He even stealthily conducted a reality check and found Shakeel’s credential genuine before he arrived for the foundation laying in 2000. Shakeel realized his dream in 2002 when the 42 feet long, 15 feet wide bridge on River Kunwar was commissioned. It was a feat, unparalleled in the history of the district.
Shakeel and Israrul Haq’s camaraderie has progressed from strength to strength since then and has been instrumental in spanning two more rivers in the district during the last ten years. Second bridge came up on the river Tons in Serajpur in the Azamgarh district in 2010. River Tons splits off Tal river in Faizabad district and merges with Ganga in Ballia district, east of Azamgarh. Work on this bridge had begun in 2006. However, the approach of the bridge was swept away in floods and pleas with the block and district administration to repair the same have gone unheeded. The foundation for the third bridge in the series was laid in February 2011 on river Majhul which is a tributary to the Tons and merges with it at Durvasa Dham, a pilgrim town. It became operational in the November 2013. Not merely this, Shakeel and Israr even constructed a bathing ghat for pilgrims at Durvasa for which village pradhan Sudarshan Yadav is all praise.
Shakeel is currently engaged in overseeing the completion of a fourth bridge in village Bidawanpur, downstream on river Kunwar. He informed this scribe that it will become operational prior to rains in 2014. The 40 feet long bridge standing on five pillars will provide direct access to Saraimeer village, which is the main market in the region. He says the bridges can take loaded vehicles weighing 40-42 tons and can allow passage of buses, lorries, tractors and other vehicles.
While the individual zeal of a single person has seen completion of three bridges in the district, the lone government proposed bridge on River Tons on Muslimpatti-Rewra Ghat- Mirzapur road is yet to see start of construction. It would serve as a key link between State Highway no. 27 and 30. Several applications to the local PWD, Rahul Gandhi and Digvijay Singh have elicited no positive response. Local MLA Alam Badi indicates that the work may start in 2014. While the official apathy is shameful, the Azamgarh folk are proud of the individuals like Shakeel and Israrul Haq whose passion and philanthropy have combined to network the district in an unprecedented way.
The two activists can be contacted on cell 09559374892 (Shakeel) and 09099290018 (Israrul Haq).