12 differently-abled men to participate in river expedition

The 12 differently-abled young men will row in two bamboo rafts on the River Hooghly from Haldia to Kolkata and cover a distance of 108 KMs in an expedition to be flagged off on November 19.

"They are participating in the 'Beyond Belief' programme which is meant to prove that people with physical deficiencies are capable and differently able," Abhijit Dasgupta, who heads an NGO organising the expedition, said.

"The objective is to try and give them the dignity of life and provide them with succour to integrate them into the mainstream in general," Dasgupta told PTI.

"Even after 63 years of Independence, the differently able people of the country are not referred to with respect even though many have brought laurels for the country," Dasgupta, a former station director of Doordarshan and a multi award-winning documentary film maker, said.

The participants in this expedition are all from financially backward class and their disability ranges from 55 per cent to 95 per cent, he said.

Bholanath, with his left leg amputated from above knee, drives an autorickshaw in the evening at Shobabazar in north Kolkata to sustain his parents and two brothers, while he practises his swimming skills in the morning at a local pool.

"I lost my leg when a lorry hit me at the age of three," the 26-year old youth said.
"I won the gold medal in 100 mt freestyle and bronze in 50 mt fly at the Belgium Paralympics in 2004," Bholanath said while expressing his grit to complete the expedition.

Abdul Ali Laskar (22), a first year college student, was struck by polio in both legs, but the handicap has not been able to daunt him.

"I have been the national champion in freestyle and backstroke events for the disabled and also a Bengal champion in athletics in the category," Laskar, son of a landless labourer and one of six siblings, said.

They have undergone a rigorous training programme in survival tactics and physical capacity building by Rashtriya Life Saving Society for the expedition.

Das Gupta, who has made three 'Beyond Belief' documentaries, said, "In the series, physically challenged youths (without upper limbs, lower limbs, visually challenged, hearing and speech impaired) are pitted against rugged nature, in teams that complement each other."

This time the youths would be on two specially-built bamboo rafts made by experts at GRSE, rowing from Haldia to Kolkata, 108 km upstream.

He said the stretch from Haldia to Kolkata is tricky with cross currents and would it be a tough mission.

Used to making war ships, GRSE engineers were confronted with the task of replicating Kon-Tiki, the raft that was used by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition from South America to the Polynesian Islands, but they most enthusiastically converted a vision to reality, he said.

"The rafts are 20 ft x 10 ft in size. Not even a single piece of nail has been used to make the rafts, the two rafts are made of natural material only – bamboo, manila ropes, wood – including the canopy, seating stools, bollard, or the mast," Dasgupta said.

"We have been using social communication as a tool by capturing their feats on camera and screening the films on television, in film festivals and educational institutions to ensure that their achievements are highlighted and they are treated with respect,"' Das Gupta said.

The expedition will be flagged off on November 19 at Haldia and will reach Man-o-War jetty, Kolkata on November 22, he said.

The two rafts are named after the pet dolphins of cartoon character Phantom called 'Solomon' and 'Nefertiti'.

The reason for this is that the expedition will also highlight the fact that Gangetic river dolphins are becoming extinct and there is a need for their protection, he said.

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