Fractured connections

September 6, 2020

In Bahwalpur, rural communities on the banks of Sutlej use a shaky, wooden bridge made out of boats to cross the river

Thousands of people living on the bank of Sutlej River in Mangwani village in Bahawalpur district are facing serious challenges in crossing the river. Since 1998, they have been crossing the river via a bridge made by joining 12 to 15 boats provided by locals and placing flat wooden sheers on top. The bridge connects two major regions — Bahawalpur and Kehror Pakka – and is the shortest route for a number of destinations and a large number of commuters use it.

“But, at a risk to their lives”, says, Muhammad Asif, a resident of Mari Qasim Shah village near the river.

The bridge has no railings and those not used to the movement can be very uncomfortable as they cross it on foot or on bikes. Locals say they have relatives, agricultural lands, and jobs on the other side of the Sutlej River and crossing over is an integral part of their daily lives.

“Many people have drowned in the river. We don’t have any other way to get to Bahawalpur for work,” he says.

“Young girls and boys cross over the river to attend schools or colleges in Bahawalpur and return home using the same boat bridge”, says 25-year-old Muhammad Nasir, a farmer living in Mangwani.

“Some women, children and the elderly are terrified while using the bridge”, he adds.

The villages on the bank are densely populated. A majority of the people living in the Mangwani area are daily wage workers in the agricultural sector. Mangwani is the oldest village on the left bank of the Sutlej River. Mehars, Arain, Rajputs, Chawans and Utteras have been settled here for decades, he says. Asif says that most of the people from nearby villages, going to Bahawalpur city in search of jobs are labourers. “We don’t have some of the very basic facilities. A permanent bridge over the river is needed”, he says.

This bridge, seen by many a villager as a blessing poses an unacceptable risk to life, he claims, adding that neither the elected politicians from Bahawalpur nor the provincial or federal governments have taken any notice of this.

This, he says, is in spite of the fact that elected MNAs and MPAs from this area have assured that would construct a proper bridge on the river.

“But, they forget their promises after elections”, he tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

Malik Sajid Chawan, a 50-year-old man say that the provincial government had once given the contract for the maintenance of the boat bridge to a local businessman, Shah Alam Niazi who charged a toll from the people crossing the river using this bridge. At one side of the river, the contractor is still collecting the toll but doing nothing for improvement or maintenance.

“A pedestrian is charged Rs 20, a person crossing on a motorbike or bicycle has to pay Rs 50”, says Malik Sajid. He says the charge is exploitative and the poor people of Mangwani consider it a great and unfair burden.

He recalls that when there was a funeral on the right bank of the river and the body had to be brought to the left bank for burial, the toll collectors allowed the procession to cross with the body only after collecting the levy.

Sajid says that three months ago a boy, a resident of Chak 7 near Bahawalpur was crossing the river on his bike when it slipped and he drowned in the river. He says no help was available at the toll post. The body was found near Bahawalpur four days later. No action was taken against the caretaker of the bridge, he says. He says the bridge is in a deplorable state of disrepair.

A 15-year-old boy minding the toll collection, Farhan Ali Waris, tells The News on Sunday that the government had given the toll contract for the first time in 2019.

He tells TNS that people had previously been paying 80 to 120 kg wheat annually as charges for using the bridge. “We provide relief to close relatives and friends and do not take any toll tax from them,” says Waris.

This area is under the administration of Bahawalpur city and “we are bound to follow the government orders. We are only collecting a sanctioned toll,” he added.

Malik Noor-ul-Hasan Chawan, a former chairman of Union Council No, 6 Jhangi Wala tells TNS that Malik Muhammad Iqbal Channar, a Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) leader and former MPA from Bahawalpur, had obtained approval for a steel bridge to replace the boat bridge.

“A Rs 50 million grant was approved for construction of the bridge. The tenders were approved in 2017, but unfortunately the project wasn’t completed”, he says.

The local administration does not seem to be interested in building the bridge, he says adding that people are still waiting for a metal bridge on this part of river. “I don’t know when or how soon a proper bridge would be constructed by the government or if we will be using this bridge for the rest of my life,” says Noor-ul-Hasan.

Muhammad Farooq Azam Malik, the sitting MNA from PTI (NA-170 Bahawalpur) tells TNS that the construction of the is not included in the government’s five years plan.

“A huge amount of money is needed for construction of a bridge in Wangwani area. There are several hurdles and they are not easy to overcome,” he says

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

Fractured connections