Narrow bridges

Canal bridges, rural recovery

Lately, almost every social activist seems to be obsessed with the task of saving the country’s dying rivers. Given the scale of the wanton destruction of rivers, few tasks could be more urgent. A disturbing aspect of the frantic efforts to keep the rivers free from the clutches of invaders is that the canals are left hanging. But they are also caught. Many have already disappeared. As the activism to save the rivers gains momentum, the canals are put on the backburner. Few seem to have attempted to realize the critical role of canals in agricultural production and many other aspects of rural life. Water communication linking different parts of a rural strip and linking outlying points of rural importance mainly depends on canals. Most activists prefer to remain completely unaware of these centuries-old streams, which are narrower than existing rivers.

However, there are compelling reasons. River savers are the least interested in saving the canals. Some channels are always bustling due to their depth and location. But they hardly offer the prospect of earnings from underwater sand beds. A small number of canals in the country generate profits by allowing river grabbers to collect muddy earth mixed with sand. It is a cost-effective material used in the manufacture of many concrete structures. The highest gain from hundreds of channels nationwide is the catch of fish. In this country there are fishermen who have been fishing for centuries in canals. Due to their dependence on small and medium-sized canal water fish, this craft could be called ancestral. They hardly make their forays into the larger rivers.

Although mechanized fishing boats or trawlers normally ply the rivers, many of them can be found harvesting fish at the large canalside wholesale markets. The myth that fish caught in the canals are tastier may contain elements of truth. Many locals from nearby small towns who throng to the “bazaars” along the canal are proof of this. However, these are presumed facts. Yet, in river-filled Bangladesh, the importance of canals can by no means be underestimated. This is because they generally branch out from larger rivers. Some flow into another river that crosses a large mass of rural land. Some villages have several small and large canals. These rural habitats hardly suffer from the shortage of irrigation water. The women of the village also use the water from the canal for various domestic purposes.

Amidst the commendable initiatives taken by the concerned ministry and other authorities related to the construction of roads and bridges, the canals have a pitiful place. Few bridges built over canals have sparked a fanfare and festivity like those that accompany the openings of river bridges. For the authorities, the canals and the concrete bridges that cross them are perhaps of little importance in terms of the communication network and the economy. But this is hardly the case. Much to the chagrin of a large percentage of villagers, few are able to see the full workings of a canal bridge in their lifetime. Instead of canals, what they encounter is a semblance of a bridge — half-done with no access roads, or bridge users, in cases, navigating field boats while crossing the middle part of the canals. Bamboo access walkways or the disrepair of a bridge over its entire length are common sights across the country.

Although being the only means of communication in the countryside, the canal bridges continue to experience short-lived phases. Through the ages, from British colonial times into the 21st century, fully functional rural bridges have remained an unfulfilled dream. Economists working on various aspects of rural life have long emphasized the role of modern infrastructure such as bridges and roads in bringing rural development to fruition. But they emphasize smooth communication without channels.

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