Page last updated at 05:59 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 06:59 UK

The bridge that took 55 years to build

By Amitabha Bhattasali
BBC News, Calcutta

The new bridge
Three companies worked on the bridge (Photos: Sharadindu Dhar)

Driving along India's eastern National Highway 31 got easier last week when a bridge was opened across the Torsha river near the Ghoksadanga-Pundibari area.

There were celebrations at its inauguration in the state of West Bengal.

But not many people were aware that it had taken 55 years for the 454-metre long bridge project to be realised.

The delay has been blamed on red tape, litigation and natural disasters.

A junior engineer, Kripasindhu Rakshit, made the first survey of the area for the bridge in 1953.

"The survey for the bridge over Torsha and the approach road was my first assignment as a junior engineer in the Development (Roads) Directorate - after the year I joined service in 1952," Mr Rakshit recently wrote.

Apparently nothing more happened until the 1980s when "the central government asked us to go for another set of survey, soil testing, design and give a cost estimate".

To his surprise he discovered that another team had prepared a fresh design and estimate for the bridge about 10 years back.

Unwanted record

Mr Rakshit then retired in 1984 with no sign of work starting on the bridge.

Inauguration of the bridge
Inauguration at last - the project ran five times over budget

Mr Rakshit thinks the new bridge has created something of an unwanted record in taking so long to be built.

The previous record, he believes, was held by the Wuhan bridge in China over the River Yangtse, reported to have been started in 1913 and finished in 1957.

It gave rise to a Chinese folk song, according to author Mao-Yi-Sheng.

"The Yellow River flood,

The Yangtse River Bridge

One can never be controlled

The Other never built."

The Chinese bridge is an engineering marvel and a famous tourist spot.

Legal arguments

Indian engineers and government authorities say they are not aware of the original 1953 survey for the Highway 31 bridge.

"I don't have the record to confirm when the first survey for the bridge was carried out. My records indicate that initial plan for the bridge was prepared in mid-80s and we got the approval in 1988," says senior highway engineer Nirmal Mandal.

Mr Mandal oversaw the construction of the new bridge. He said building work started in 1992 and was due to be completed in 1995.

"A devastating flood in 1993 necessitated a change in plan. The government firm which was carrying out the construction asked for a hike, which the department refused to pay. It went on to litigation," Mr Mandal said.

The problems continued.

A second firm took over the work and it too got involved in litigation that resulted in all construction work stopping in 2001.

"Finally, a private contractor was hired in 2006, which completed the bridge, though two months behind schedule," Mr Mandal said.

"Even if it took 16-17 years for the actual construction, that's abnormal. But there were reasons, you will have to take that into account too," commented Monohar Tirkey, West Bengal's junior public works minister.

In the meantime, the budget for the bridge ran five times over estimate.

Local Congress Party legislator DP Roy took a personal initiative to get the additional money sanctioned.

Thus came inauguration day on 16 July 2008, a day that Kripasindhu Rakshit and his colleagues had waited for for more than half a century.

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