A tale of unity, initiative and public service has emerged from a small village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. Around 100 men and women came together to rebuild a damaged bridge across an irrigation canal with funds raised from the villagers themselves.
Kovilpathu is a village in Boothalur, along which a portion of the Ananda Cauvery canal passes. This canal is instrumental in supplying water from the Kallanai river to Boothalur for irrigation. People living on both the sides of the canal earn their livelihood working as agricultural labourers and also through the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme.
Villagers have to cross the bridge across the canal, which is 20 feet wide and 10-15 feet deep, to reach Boothalur and Thanjavur. The narrow bridge, which is used by around 2,000 villagers every day to reach their farm lands, had suffered structural damage six months ago, rendering it unusable.
“Because it was unusable, we were getting down into the canal to cross over to the other side. The canal is dry for a good part of the year and therefore it was easy till now for youngsters and middle-aged people to go on about our work,” says K Thangamani, a resident of Kovilpathu, who is one of the people who helped repair the bridge. In fact, the original bridge was also built in 2002 by the villagers, by pooling in funds from people living there who used the bridge.
As years went by, the bridge suffered wear and tear due to regular usage, which prompted the villagers to warn the Block Development Officer (BDO) about an impending breakdown of the structure. “We gave a petition in 2016 to the BDO saying that the bridge can collapse anytime and requesting the government to repair it. They said they didn’t have enough funds and left it at that,” says Thangamani.
Finally the bridge gave way around six months ago, leaving the villagers no other option but to get down into the canal to cross over to the other side.
“We were able to do it easily, but a couple of aged people slipped while getting down into the canal and broke their hips and legs. Then we realised that this will not work and started thinking about repairing the structure,” he says.
The villagers immediately rushed from pillar to post, meeting the MLA, the District Collector and the BDO bringing the issue to their notice and pleading them to intervene. However, as each of them passed the buck to another citing lack of funds, the villagers decided to take the matter into their own hands.
Kaliyaperumal, a senior citizen from Kovilpathu, says that they collected around Rs 20,000 from those who live in Kovilpathu and Boothalur to buy the materials needed to repair the bridge. “We wanted to finish the work at the earliest since we heard that water was being released from Mettur and it was a matter of days before it reached us. As the construction materials arrived at Kovilpathu, 100 villagers – both men and women – expressed their willingness to donate their time and labour to carry out the repair works.
“We decided to do it on Thursday and it took us around four hours to finish the work. The bridge is five feet wide and can be used by pedestrians and two-wheelers,” says Kaliyaperumal adding that he, as one among the villagers, is happy to have set an example of self-governance in the face of government apathy.