In Bengal's Sundarbans, a Road Built With Voluntary Labour

NEW DELHI:  Deep in West Bengal's Sundarbans, villagers have taken destiny into their own hands. Brick by brick, literally, they are building roads connecting their remote villages to the rest of the world -- with a little help from an NGO, World Vision India. The NGO is supplying the bricks. But the labour is voluntary, a labour of love.

Scores of women have volunteered at Hiranmoy village -- all of them fed up with non-existent roads.
"We realised that if we didn't participate, nothing will happen. We have to build our own road," said Bonyamoni Mondol, who has been working on brick-lining the mud road for a week now.

Among the most motivated is 26-year-old Madhavi Mondal, who went into labour last monsoon but couldn't reach the hospital as the mud road had been washed away. She delivered her son Shubham in the house. "I suffered a lot. I'm working to build this road so other mothers don't suffer."

Also working in the scorching sun are men. Like 36-year-old Gour Tarafdar, who quit his job in the Andamans to come back to his village and work for the road. His reason? His 7-year-old daughter Anwesha.

"She had a heart defect and needed to be rushed to hospital often," said Tarafdar. "It was a nightmare. There was no road, no transport and I had to carry her over a mud lane. When I heard a road was being built in my village, I came back to do my bit."

A sense of ownership, that's what World Vision India wanted to tap into when it started working in the Basanti block of Sunderbans six years ago.

"Initially, the villagers offered money but could raise only Rs. 20,000," said Apam Shatsang of World Vision India. "Then we motivated them and they said, ok, we don't have money for bricks but we can give free labour."

That's what set it off. Over the last four years, villagers have built 12 km of brick roads. The local panchayats have been supportive of this unique experiment, helping with permissions and other logistics. "The government can't do everything," said Shefali Mondal, panchayat member.