Bihar: 19 Years After Construction Began, Munger’s Road Bridge Across the Ganga Still Incomplete

With steamers going out of business, residents of the area must either cross the river in small, unsafe boats or walk along the tracks on the rail bridge to get to the other side.

Munger (Bihar): In an age when boats have become an obscure means of transport and distance is measured in the units of time taken to travel, a large population in the districts of Munger, Khagaria and Begusarai must still use boats because a bridge has remained incomplete for 19 years.

Munger Bridge, officially called Shri Krishna Setu after the first chief minister of Bihar, is a 3.7 km long rail and road bridge connecting the twin cities of Munger and Jamalpur with the districts of Begusarai, Khagaria and the rest of north Bihar. It is supposed to link National Highway 31 and National Highway 33 via National Highway 333B.

Its construction was started in 2002 by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The bridge was meant to be completely functional within a few years, but the rail portion was only inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016, while the road portion, even now in 2021, still lacks approach roads on both sides.

Picture taken of the bridge from a passenger boat in the middle of the river.

Without the bridge, people travelling to the southern districts of Munger, Lakshisarai or Jamui from north Bihar have to take long diversions. The nearest functional bridges are the Rajendra Setu at Mokama, which is 55 km downstream, and Vikramshila Setu in Bhagalpur, which is 68 km upstream from the Munger Bridge.

The under-construction approach roads that will be about nine km long on the Munger side and about five km long on the Khagaria side when functional, will connect the present-day Begusarai and Khagaria districts, once part of Munger district, to their divisional headquarters of Munger.

A man riding cycle on the side of railway track at Begusarai end of the bridge. The incomplete road part looms above.

Vivek Raj, a Delhi-based engineer who hails from Munger and has his family sweets shop business in Khagaria, said, “A bridge is meant to link two places, but for people like me, with half my family on one side of the river and the other half on the other side of the river, it also links families. I hope it is completed soon.”

Focus of politicians

Several politicians in the past made the construction of the bridge the focal point of their careers. Brahmanand Mandal, a former member of parliament from the Munger Lok Sabha Constituency, was one of these politicians.

“Brahmanand Mandal won his first election on a Communist Party of India ticket on the issue of the bridge. He later switched parties but regularly raised this issue on various platforms, including in parliament. He also wrote a book named Monghyr Ka Vikas aur Ganga Pul documenting the struggle for the bridge,” said Priyavrat Muni, an activist in Khagaria.

Parliamentary records suggest that Mandal, elected to parliament for the first time in 1991, raised this issue as his first question in the house. He and his supporters went on a hunger strike over the issue. After 14 days of the hunger strike, Pranab Mukherjee, the then minister of commerce and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, assured him that the bridge would be constructed. Budgetary allocation for the rail and road Ganga bridge in Munger can be found in the supplementary railway budget of the year 1997-98.

The incomplete road part at the Begusarai end.

Construction of the elevated part of the approach road on the Begusarai end.

Construction of the elevated part of the approach road on the Begusarai end.

According to several locals, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had assured them in 1953 that a bridge would be constructed over the river and later, in 1971, Indira Gandhi reiterated the assurance in an electoral campaign.

“Mr Speaker. Sir, through you, I would like to draw the attention of the Union Government towards Munger district of Bihar. It has become very necessary to build a bridge across River Ganges at Munger. Although both Pandit Nehru and Shrimati Indira Gandhi had given assurances in this regard in 1953 and 1971 respectively, the Central Government is yet to take any concrete action,” Mandal said in the question he raised in parliament in 1991.

Transport risks

Steamers were once the area’s lifeline, but over time their frequency reduced and now only small and medium-sized boats cater to the people. Before the Mahatma Gandhi Setu in Patna and the Rajendra Setu became operational, boat and steamer services run by private operators and the railways had been the main systems of transport across the river.

Now, since the construction of the approach roads to the bridge is yet to be completed, people either climb up to the bridge and walk on the railway tracks when no train is passing through or take overloaded local boats to cross the river. In both cases, they risk their lives.

An overcrowded boat full of people and motorcycles cross below the bridge.

There is a boat almost every half an hour on the ghats in the daytime. A ticket counter on each side ensures the hassle-free movement of passengers and boats. People also carry their motorcycles on the boats. Munna Kumar, a resident of nearby Kurha, has to travel to Munger regularly and ferries his motorcycle across the river on the boat.

“I travel with my motorcycle as there is no road bridge towards Munger and the fare is only Rs 50 for me and my motorcycle. Since the lockdown, the trains have reduced and the lack of transport means that my motorcycle is essential,” said Kumar.

A dust-filled under construction approach road making it risky for local passengers.

The opening of the road bridge is expected to boost the local economy and create more business opportunities. Ravi Kumar, a resident of Jamalpur, said, “Since the Jamalpur workshop has declined and the job opportunities in Munger have dried up, the start of this bridge is the last hope for the twin cities of Munger and Jamalpur.”

Firoz Yadav, a resident of Rahimpur panchayat in Khagaria district, added, “I have grown old hearing about this incomplete bridge. Now since my son, who used to work as a driver in a construction site in Noida, is at home and jobless after the lockdown, I hope the opening of the bridge will help him find a job at home itself.”

Residents of Munger will also be able to easily access emergency facilities when the road bridge opens. Ranjan, a resident of Munger, said, “There are no good private health clinics and doctors here. At the time of a medical emergency, we have to travel a long distance to Bhagalpur or Patna. If the bridge opens, we can also travel to nearby Begusarai where there are good doctors and clinics.”

Incomplete elevated portion of the approach road on the Munger end.

Tractors plying on the Begusarai end of the approach road.

Attempts to reach the Begusarai district administration have found no response as yet. A press release on the PIB website issued by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways in July 2020 states the new deadline for the completion of the approach roads as May 2021.

But Sumant Singh, a resident of Durgapur village, does not seem hopeful. He said, “We have lost hope that it will be completed. Since the last 25-30 years, we have heard pul banega, pul banega (the bridge will be built, the bridge will be built). Now the structure is there, but due to the lack of approach roads, it is not functional.”

He added, “Many deadlines have come and gone. The construction of the approach roads is very slow and it is unlikely that they will be finished by the deadline. There is no meaning to new deadlines for me. Now, unless I cross the bridge myself, I will not believe it is complete.”

Neel Madhav is an independent journalist, currently based in Khagaria, Bihar. He tweets as @NeelMadhav_.