THEY are the cowboys who come to town alone. Specially when Mother Nature is red in fang and claw. They are also India's unsung heroes. But, last month, they completed a task that shouldn't be allowed to drip, without a few ripples, into fickle civilian memory.
In just 20 days in June, the 107th Engineering regiment of the Army constructed the longest Bailey suspension bridge in the world across the river Sutlej in Wangtu, a small hamlet in Himachal Pradesh's Kinn-aur district. The 400-ft bridge, connecting the valleys of Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti to the rest of India, was swept away in August, last year, following flash floods after a big cloudburst. Such had been the ferocity of the cloudburst that it split a mountain, with thousands of tonnes of debris damming the Sutlej and creating a 1.1 km long lake. The breach, in a couple of hours, swept away two bridges, each measuring 250 ft. Says Major M.J. Kumar of the 107th, the officer who oversaw the construction of the new bridge: "There wasn't even a single nut or bolt left of one of the bridges. It was a 500 tonne RCC bridge. The other had just a five-foot girder left."
Pressed into service after a distress call by the state government, the 107th constructed a temporary raft bridge on the river. Says S. Sharma, an apple orchard owner in Kinnaur: "The temporary bridge saved me from utter ruin. My apple crop was due and I had six trucks full which would have rotted but for the temporary ferry." In all, the army ferried 57,000 people (nearly the entire affected population of the two districts), 2,200 tonnes of essential commodities, 3.23 lakh cases of apples and 950 vehicles between September and May, this year.
The new bridge is noteworthy on four counts. Says Kumar: "It's the longest possible at 400 ft. It has the highest towers at 55 ft. And, to get a little technical, it's been constructed with only 6.9 to 7.1 m of backspace against the requirement of 40 m sidespace. On two of the four sides, only 2 to 3 m were available. No vehicle-bearing bridge has ever been built with such constraints. We are applying to the Guinness Book of World Records."
But it's not just technical expertise that the Army should get kudos for. Constructed by a team of 150 jawans, the soldiers were constantly affected by dangerous landslides and had to battle a turbulent Sutlej. Says Kumar: "We had rocks the size of footballs going between our legs." Adds Colonel C.J. Rai of the 107th: "What was commendable was the way officers did all the dangerous work first before passing on the task to the jawans. Specially Kumar."
There were casualties too—sepoy Kamal Singh and a superintendent engineer from the neighbouring Naptha-Jhakri Power Corporation. Singh, a nursing assistant, was inside an ambulance when a landslide occurred because of torrential rains. Rocks crushed the roof with him inside. Says Sepoy B. Upadhay, the driver of the ill-fated ambulance: "I was sitting in the driver's seat of the ambulance with naik Habib Ahmad. As soon as I heard rocks falling, I called for sepoy Singh to get out. In a hurry to jump out of the driver's cabin, I fell and slipped down 10 ft from the road's edge towards the river. It was a horrendous experience. Singh died immediately."
The superintendent engineer, on the other hand, took a direct hit. The landslide also nearly washed away the communication network set up by a signals unit and crushed a huge crane, worth Rs 1.5 crore, quite beyond repair.
Fixing the anchor ropes and wind guys to provide lateral stability for the bridge was another major hindrance. The jawans had to belay on vertical cliff-sides to fix the wind guys. And there was a final hiccup a week before completion, when one of the trawhella grabs joining the main cable to the anchorage snapped and Kumar, along with a few jawans, had to make his way to the snapped cable and replace the grab.
The regiment had to take a four-week training capsule before starting work. Says Kumar: "A similar training regimen in 1991 at a height of just 30 ft, had claimed the life of an officer."
Needless to say, the army heroics went largely unnoticed in the national media. And the unit has yet to receive even an award from the Himachal state government.