January 28th, 2016
Photographer: Mustaq Singh Bijral
“We were cut-off. People used to mock us saying we lived in a tapu (island)…corner of the world…world’s end!”- Jagdish Raj Brahmi, President, Vishwasthali, an NGO Basholi.
At the world’s end! Isolated! Disconnected! Unreachable! Cut-off! Shut-in from the world! Such had been the state of the townspeople of Basholi who recently had their landlocked region open up to the world outside. After 50 years of public agitation and petitions demanding the construction of a bridge, the people of Basholi welcomed with open arms the bridge ‘Atal Setu’. Not only has it in one full swing connected the town to other states but also has provided an outlet for the skilled painters of Basholi to share their work and receive recognition of their till now lost art and culture.
Could a bridge accomplish all these goals of human development and sustenance- Yes!
Made possible before time by Project Sampark under Brig B Bhattacharyya, Chief Engineer and his team comprising of 69 Road Construction Company under 13 Border Roads Task Force.
Named ‘Atal Setu’ the bridge has brought a revolutionary era ensuring that the people are no more isolated and barred from the progress of the nation as a whole. The bridge has:
1. Connected people living in one region/state to another. Otherwise the residents were cut-off from the neighbouring states and from the country at large.
2. Provided Security to the people and the army who otherwise had to take the risky routes closer to Line of Control. (LOC)
3. Promoted a Renaissance of Arts. It has ensured that people from outside can easily arrive to this region and purchase, appreciate, and recognize the magnificent glory of Basholi paintings, pashmina shawls, and music.
It was inspiring to witness an era of transformation happening in Basholi. The upbeat people. The fervour. Sense of safety. The high spirited youth. The Basholi region and its project has been covered in the media, but the issues which are close to the residents of Basholi need to be highlighted so that the revolutionary importance of Atal Setu can be recognized. In the spirit of The Logical Indian team, I spoke to the people first-hand to find out how this project under Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has become a life-line for the masses. I met with the officials and the residents who kindly and most willingly responded to my questions to highlight the essence of Basholi and its very own Atal Setu.
This project will serve as a wake-up call for the authorities to ensure that this change is also repeated in other backward and forgotten areas of the country.
Atal Setu: Revival of The Rich Culture of Basholi
Basholi owes its recognition to the social and cultural organization Vishwasthali, an NGO whose President, Jagdish Raj Brahmi, has been instrumental in the demand for the bridge. The NGO not only had championed the public demand for a bridge but also promotes the culture and rich heritage of the region. Mr. Brahmi calls the bridge as our jeevan-rekha – our life-line. They had been otherwise totally secluded, relegated and marginalised.
According to him, for the last 50 years, the village had been struggling and demanding for the bridge. The kids also went on a hunger strike. He recalled one incident, when Former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee once visited this area for a rally in Hiranagar, the people felicitated him with a shawl. The former Prime Minster in a humorous vein said by giving me this shawl, you will take a 200 crores bridge, right? The people owe their gratitude to Vajpayee and as such the name of the bridge is a tribute to him – Atal Setu. He further stated that Rajiv Gandhi also had decided upon it, but due his tragic assassination, the plan was held up. 22 years passed in this way, and finally Sonia Gandhi laid the foundation stone on May 2011 while it was inaugurated by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar as he was accompanied by Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh, Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag and Lt Gen RM Mittal, DGBR..
In speaking about the landlocked situation of the area, Mr. Brahmi said, “We were cut-off. People used to mock us saying we lived in a tapu (island)…corner of the world…world’s end…if we wish to marry someone, who would come here. Life is better. Even people in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab are also happy”.
Atal Setu: How People welcomed it With Open Arms
Rajesh Sharma, Dy. Excise Commissioner, Toll Post Lakhanpur established a toll post in Basholi on 25th December just a day after the bridge was thrown open for the public. When the toll post was installed in the area, the residents were so excited and optimistic that they welcomed the officers and helped in the arrangements. Mr. Rajesh found it strange as taxmen are generally not welcome yet the people were ecstatic and were cooperating with them to make the arrangements. There was a lot of festive feeling. They were upbeat and linked the opening of toll post with their own prosperity. Mr. Rajesh commented, “In this era of global village, the region had no connections. And, Basholi was just a bridge apart from the world. They are rightly to be upbeat. I truly wish their desires are fulfilled.”
As per the excise records, there was a toll post earlier as well called Basholi ropeway prior to building of Ranjit Sagar Dam. Once the water level rose, that ropeway got submerged. The village had to be immediately evacuated for the safety of the masses. Due to submersion, vehicles and pedestrians had to take longer distance and vehicles from Punjab could not enter. But with the bridge, the region got connected with Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.
Mr. Rajesh further discussed the projects which are in process in the area. The Hon’ble minster who recently passed away, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had been laying a lot of thrust on tourism of this region. During his recent trip to Basholi, he had announced a formation of a Vishvathali Development Authority. According to Mr. Rajesh, sole purpose of this project is to develop the area from tourism angle. Tourist circuit will also be developed. Water games are expected to come up.
Atal Setu: An Architectural and Engineering Marvel of Basholi
The bridge was Conceived and executed by Project Sampark under BRO and contract was awarded to M/S IRCON-SPSCPL (U.J.V.). It is an architectural feat and a marvellous engineering work. Atal Setu is the first cable-stayed bridge in North India while the other three are Hooghly Bridge in Kolkata, Naini Bridge in Allahabad and Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link in Mumbai. Lot of tourists throng the area to see the bridge from Jammu and Kashmir and also Punjab. With the ongoing projects, commuters to Basholi will increase while purchasing of the Basholi Paintings will enhance its recognition.
Atal Setu: Security of the Whole Region and the Army
The bridge provides strategically important alternate defence route for the army. The other two routes were very close to Line of Control (LOC), so this route serves for security reasons not only for the mobility of the army but the public as well
In speaking with Col Durlabh Singh (Dir Planning, BRO Sampark), he emphasised how the bridge is an asset for the army. He stated, “The bridge lies on important waterbody on additional axis to Srinagar from Pathankot and is strategically very important for quick induction of armed forces in the hour of need.” Earlier, NH-44 served as the only important highway between Pathankot and Srinagar that connected Kashmir valley with the rest of the country. Considering the need for alternate routes of connectivity, it was proposed by Ministry of Defence (MOD) to develop the road Pathankot – Dhar – Dunera – Basohli – Bani – Bhaderwah – Doda – Anantnag to NH double lane specification in the year 1998 as an alternate axis to Kashmir valley. With the construction of the bridge it is good to know that these significant issues of connectivity and security have been effectively solved.
Atal Setu: The Future of Basholi
In meeting with the young students of the region, one in particular Amit Sharma, 12th class student declared how happy and safe they feel with the construction of the bridge, “No more long distances and travel…no more isolation. We can share our paintings with the rest of the country”. His friend, Nikhil Kumar and Shivakshi Sharma, also expressed their joy at being connected and brought close to the world.
New avenues, opportunities and their dreams have been encouraged due to the project. Aesthetical. Much-needed Utility. And to top it Security. Lets hope this project is also repeated in other marginalised areas of the country. No one should be left-out from the strides of our nation’s development. Atal Setu is a reminder of it.
Kudos to Project Sampark under BRO for undertaking this daunting feat and completing it before time.