The bridge to a better life

The bridge to a better life

TeChnology for a Cause

The bridge to a better life
We could not afford to fall ill during the monsoons until the bridge was built,” recalls Gopal Bhat of Shivapura village in Uttara Kannada. The district has many such villages that are surrounded by rivers or backwaters and thus cut-off from the mainland. For example, though Shivapura is in Joida taluk, reaching the taluk centre was difficult for the villagers as one had to cover a distance of 40 km on non-motorable roads crossing hills and forests in the Kali Tiger Reserve. While Yellapur town is just 20 km away with good road connectivity, the backwaters of Kodsalli Dam blocked the access throughout the year. Barge was the only means of transport and people always lived in a state of readiness to manage the situations. Circumstances have changed for the better after a suspension footbridge (SFB) was constructed across the backwaters two years ago. Shivapura Bridge has not only connected two taluks, but also improved the lives of people and boosted tourism in the region.

“Shivapura has become a tourist destination after the construction of the bridge. A movie was also shot here recently,” says Raghavendra Doddamani, assistant engineer, PWD subdivision, Joida. The 234-metre bridge has laid a foundation for the development of the region. Likewise, SFBs have created better opportunities for several remote villages in the State that were hitherto isolated from the mainland. The credit for such a positive development goes to Girish Bharadwaj (67), a native of Sullia in Dakshina Kannada, popularly known as the ‘bridge man’ of Karnataka.

In the last three decades, Girish Bharadwaj and his team have constructed 129 bridges in Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. While rivers no more scare these villagers now, luckily for them, two wheelers are allowed on many of these footbridges.

Creating better opportunities

“Before the construction of Mandekolu-Parappa SFB, there were only three two- wheelers in our village. In the last eight years, the number has increased to 50,” says Gopalakrishna Acharya, a resident of Mandekolu village in Dakshina Kannada. He recalls the nerve-racking incidents that hit the villagers quite often, particularly during the monsoons. “Many other problems were also linked to this issue. Be it education or employment, the villagers lacked opportunities. We had to cover 14 km in the forest to reach the main road. Now the distance has reduced to one km,” narrates Gopalakrishna.

Though the villagers approached the administration, nothing worked for them. Being a border village, it also faced institutional apathy. When they learnt about the usefulness of SFBs, they approached Girish Bharadwaj, who readily agreed to help. “But it was not an easy task to get required funds. It was Girish who guided us through to approach various administrative channels. Over 6,000 people are benefited from this bridge,” says Gopalakrishna. Adds Bhaskar Bhat of Morse village in Uttara Kannada, “We were living a life of exclusion and neglect as one had to cross two lifelines of the district, Bennehole and Aghanashini rivers, in boats to reach our village. Girish constructed two SFBs, and in the process, showed us how kind and benevolent a person could be.”

There are occasions when Girish Bharadwaj had to play the role of a guide and mentor to get the work done. “In some places, we had to halt the work due to the lack of funds. In such cases, I would utilise my contacts and connect the people to potential resources.” In some instances like the Bennehole Bridge, when nothing worked, the team would provide the required materials and work on a voluntary basis. The team is known to develop a strong bond with the community wherever it worked. “Normally, we get a warm welcome. In some places it takes some time to break the ice. But, we make it a point to involve local people and ensure that they take the ownership of the project,” Girish explains. “After all, we want to bridge people and their dreams.”

A mechanical engineer, Girish feels that he was destined to do the job of a civil engineer for a social cause. He had to face many hurdles like apathy from government departments, social resistance and technical difficulties at different phases of his work. While most of the bridges are constructed with funds from government schemes, the initiative is generally taken by the community. “Cable supported bridges are not new to the country. But it is the purpose that makes these bridges unique. The team’s social commitment and quality of work are exceptional,” says Ramakrishna Gowda, project manager, Nirmithi Kendra, Chikkamagaluru. In this district, this State-government initiative has collaborated with Girish to construct 35 bridges over a period of 20 years. A committed professional that he is, Girish doesn’t work on two projects simultaneously.

Team effort

His team comprises 30 people and they are all experts in SFB construction. “Words can’t explain the satisfaction we get when we see people walking joyously across the bridge,” says N Vittala, who has been a part of Girish’s team for the last 18 years. He joined as a helper, gradually learnt the techniques of construction, and now proudly declares himself as an all-rounder. “I have studied only till Class 7. Fortunately, Sir identified my strengths and trained me accordingly,” he says. One quality of Girish that both team members and community people mention without fail is his humbleness — be it staying in the tents with workers during the construction period or interacting with local communities.

Girish feels one can’t compare SFBs with conventional ones as SFBs are built in areas where the construction of conventional bridges is not possible or feasible. While the period of construction and cost vary based on various factors, the team, on an average, can construct three 100-metre bridges in a year. According to Girish, design, infrastructure and skilled manpower are important for the sustenance of a bridge. The quality of materials has improved over the years, making bridges more safe and economical. Accordingly, the estimated lifespan of the bridges has increased from 15 years to 100 years. “While the basic purpose is to connect people and places, people are now seeing it as a catalyst for tourism development as well,” Girish reveals.

More than technology or skill, it is the aim to bring a change in the lives of people that drives the team’s work. “We haven’t met even 10% of the requirement. Youngsters should come forward and employ their technical expertise to restore hope in the people of isolated areas,” he says. Girish’s son has joined hands with him to continue the legacy.

Recently, the central government honoured Girish’s social commitment by conferring Padma Shri on him. While people across the State are revelling in the moment, Girish is quietly working on another project in a remote village in Belagavi district.