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Link to the future


Girish Bharadwaj builds suspension bridges that connect isolated villages with opportunity.

Affordable and reliable: Bharadwaj on one of his constructions.

Mechanical Engineer, Ist class, 1973 batch, P.E.S. College of Engineering, Mandya, Karnataka. On father’s directive set up a workshop in Sullia to repair farm machinery. Did steel fabrication jobs, fixed automobiles. When rubber processing came to his area, added roof trusses, latex tanks and processing machinery to his “repair jobs” list. In a place with few qualified engineers, he was the “wise man”.

Girish Bharadwaj’s story would have ended there, if Forest Officer Narayan had not been transferred from Sullia to Kushalnagar. “Can you connect an island (Nisargadham) in Cauvery to mainland?” he asked GB one day. It was a 50 m span and there were big trees on both sides. With help from a friend who had seen the Lakshman Jhoola, GB arranged to hang a pathway of wooden slats from wire ropes with steel rods as suspenders. “There was no design,” he said. “Only trial and error.”

No going back

Villagers in his native Aletty village near Sullia saw no errors. They trooped in from the opposite bank of river Payaswini and demanded that he build a similar bridge at Arambur. “There are no big trees and the span is 87m. I don’t know design!” GB protested. His engineering degree had not prepared him for this. The delegation wouldn’t budge. He was the knight who would lead them out of isolation. “I asked for time, referred to books and decided on a suspension footbridge,” he said. “You know, I got my inspiration studying the Golden Gate!”

His blueprint had RC pylons, industrial steel suspension cables, steel verticals and wooden (now concrete) planks for decks, stayed against swaying. The villagers then marched to the PWD, Zilla Panchayat and the MLA’s office for funds. “Suspension bridge?” said the surprised officials. “The army constructs and dismantles them when it moves!”

Villagers in India are made of steely stuff. “Make it low-cost,” they said, and went house to house raising money. A moved Bharadwaj promised free fabrication. When he rolled his machinery to the site, 40 volunteers waited with building material. Wooden planks stood stacked. Women served snacks and tea. Two months later, in August 1989, GB’s first, self-designed suspension footbridge, three feet wide, stood inviting. He became the local hero.

Wasn’t easy, he chuckled. When the towers went up, an old man remarked, “Why tall pillars? The bridge could be at a lower level.” GB explained they were for the cables. The next day the same geezer watched the unconnected wires swinging and said, “This bridge is not safe for women, children and the old to cross.” Wait, said GB. The structure was completed and the man commented, “Fine, but that thin rope? When people move it will snap, and everyone will fall in the river.”

Bhardwaj couldn’t sleep that night. He had assured the elder that the steel cable was strong, but the words kept replaying in his head. At 2.30 am, he set off for his workshop five km away. He checked every inch of his design and found his calculations accurate.

The bridge was inaugurated. “It was jam-packed end to end,” he said. “A middle-aged woman fell at my feet. People greeted me with folded hands.” Local newspapers screamed the event. Govt. officials descended in hordes to ask him if the bridge was stable. An unruffled Bharadwaj told them, “The wooden flooring needs an annual coat of anti-corrosive paint. Otherwise the bridge should last longer than the old boat.”

Two years passed. Officials from Udupi and Madikeri came down. Would he build bridges at Shiroor and Amchur Peraje? His designs were sent to REC, Surathkal. “With some anchorage changes, they were approved. It gave me more confidence,” GB laughed. Since then his team has built about 65 such bridges over spans varying from 20m to 290m in Karnataka and Kerala, He has by-passed corrupt contract systems, built with local labour and used material. His bridges never collapse.

Addressing a need

“The bridges are not about me,” he says repeatedly. “I don’t go searching to do good. On request I go to the site, make a survey, prepare a design and estimate.” But he’s aware of the significance of linking inaccessible villages with opportunities. “Where the revenue is poor, governments don’t invest in big bridges. Villagers depend on boats and cannot move at night,” he pointed out. “There’s no boat service during floods. Children cannot go to school, employees will not go to work. Now doctors visit villages at all hours. Women get care for childbirth. Vets go across even in the rainy season.” A friend once joked, “All the village girls are married and the land value has gone up.”

Bharadwaj’s affordable, reliable bridges have brought “development” to rural Karnataka and Kerala — without SEZs, without mega projects, without felling trees, without damaging eco-systems. Communication through bridges, he calls it. “Visit Adoor in Kasargod. The village was transformed and a big bridge was built. The old one has been shifted 10 km downstream.” GB’s firm, Ayas Shilpa, “constantly attempts to reduce cost, improve shape and enhance stability. I want to build maintenance-free suspension footbridges. I want to create ‘connectivity’ to villages. It can become a revolution.”

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