Apathy on the part of government officials is something many Indians deal with on a daily basis. While most adjust to the prevailing circumstances, there are some who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
This is precisely what happened when the villagers of Dihamlai area in south Assam’s Dima Hasao district decided to rebuild a bridge without any assistance from the government.
It is monsoon season in Assam, and the resultant heavy downpour brings its share of misery. Remote villages are cut off from the rest of civilization with bridges and roads washed away. “After torrential rains last month in our district, five hanging bridges were washed away. Villagers approached the government, but since no timely response was forthcoming they approached me,” says Aching Zeme, a social activist, also known as the “road-man” of Dima Hasao, to The Better India.
The bridge over Robi Nala river is a critical piece of infrastructure, which links four villages with Haflong town, the district headquarters. “The bridge is the lifeline of four villages as it connects us with the rest of the world. We are delighted that it has been reconstructed within a short time, restoring communication,” Pehiagang Jeme, headman of Hokai Hindu village, told The Telegraph.
Speaking to Better India, Aching describes the process through which the villagers rebuild the makeshift bridge. “My friends (some of them working in government agencies) contributed some construction material, while villagers provided raw materials like wood and bamboo. Also reusing some old iron cables, nearly 62 villagers gathered on June 20 to rebuild the hanging bridge. The entire process took just eight hours,” says Aching.
Excluding construction material, the cost of building the bridge was just Rs 8,000.
Unwilling to take much credit for the endeavour, Aching says, “I almost did nothing but provide some construction material and prepare lunch for all. But the most important aspect of the whole endeavour was motivating them and taking help from my friends.”
Belonging to Haflong town, the 39-year-old Guwahati University graduate was heavily involved in student politics and worked with student-driven organisations on various education-related awareness campaigns before he got into full-time social work.
“During my tenure as a student leader for these education campaigns I had visited many interior villagers in the district which were deprived of basic facilities like roads, electricity and proper education facilities, among others,” he says, adding, “I wanted to do something about it.”
To sustain himself financially, Aching takes up small government contracts, which include among other things, road repairing and construction of homes. His wife, meanwhile, is a government employee, while his father has just retired from service.
This isn’t his first rodeo with infrastructure projects. In 2016, Aching was in the news for helping local villagers construct a 7 km pucca road from Boro Rabi village to Inchaikang village via Raotilla in the same Dihamlai area without any assistance from the Assam government. “For that project, villagers collected some amount by themselves, and some of my school friends contributed as well,” says Aching.
At the cost of Rs 1.5 lakh, using earth cutting equipment, he helped villagers build that road. The government rate for earth cutting was reportedly Rs 3-4 lakh per kilometre at the time.
“Till date I’ve built three roads, amounting to approximately 14 km with the help of villagers. One road, however, from Boloson to Ndunglo via Ramchiram village remains incomplete as it needs a major bridge to cross the river,” says Aching. He wants to build more roads, bridges, and houses while bringing better road connectivity and education facilities to locals.
What about the other five hanging bridges that were washed away the torrential rains. “If the state government or the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council do not take steps to reconstruct the bridges within the first week of July, I, with the help of villagers, will reconstruct all of them,” Aching tells The Telegraph. The constituency consists of 32 villages with a population of nearly 5,000.
Watch the video below of how villagers constructed the hanging bridge:
However, speaking to The Better India, Aching says that government assistance is required to construct permanent and robust infrastructure. “What we are doing right now may endure only for few years, but I strongly believe that we should not depend on the government all the time. All we need is strong willpower and determination,” he says.
This example of courage and self-help certainly offers hope for the millions of Indians who remain helpless in the face of government apathy.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)