In Darjeeling, a bulldozer connected people, an assumed symbol of benevolence

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Illustrations by Satwik Gade

An impassable road can be as precarious as the space between life and death. This was recently learned by residents of Naya Basti, a forest village in the Himalayan district of Darjeeling in West Bengal.

A remote hamlet on top of a hill — it would take a person about two hours to reach the main road. But all that changed when a bulldozer was brought in to clear a 3 kilometer path through woods and dense forests, connecting the village to the outside world; reducing travel time from 2 hours to 20 minutes.

Still unpaved, the most significant impact of this 3 kilometer road has been the reduction in the death rate of the village. Previously, patients had to be carried manually on stretchers down the hill on footpaths to access the main road from where cars could be used to get to the hospital. Lives have been lost along the way. With the new development, ambulances can now directly reach the village, giving patients a better chance of survival.

Previously, patients had to be carried manually on stretchers down the hill on footpaths to access the main road from where cars could be used to get to the hospital. Lives have been lost along the way.

We live in a time when a utility JCB bulldozer has acquired its own identity. He is nonetheless a petty machine, given his recent inauspicious acts, propelled by power. Months ago, an anti-encroachment campaign by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) was averted in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, when residents intervened. This is where the anti-CAA protests took place two years ago. A day later, it was New Friends Colony and also Mangolpuri by North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), who witnessed his threat.

Far from the heat and dust of the capital, the same heavy machine was used for altruistic purposes. The bulldozer used to clear the way for the people of Darjeeling belongs to Ajoy Edwards, owner of Glenary Bakery and chairman of the Darjeeling branch of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).

Although bulldozers are commonly associated with destruction, contractors and corruption, this one has become an icon of humanitarian work. It is expensive to hire one, but his services are provided free of charge as part of the many philanthropic activities carried out by the Edwards Foundation, a charity run by Edwards’ wife, Namrata.

The bulldozer’s services are provided free of charge by the Edwards Foundation, a philanthropic organization led by Ajoy and Namrata Edwards.

Save lives

In addition to digging, the bulldozer has been used extensively to clear roads and assist in rescue efforts during monsoon-triggered landslides. The natural disaster causes roads to collapse or become buried under the rubble, thus blocking communications and making certain areas inaccessible.

“Whenever a village or a road was blocked, the bulldozer was sent, even to remote areas around Darjeeling and Kalimpong,” Edwards said. Bulldozer operator Wangdi said he had cleared more than 30 landslides and dug roads in nearly 100 villages in the past year.

Although he was first deployed for landslide relief work, villagers gradually began to request his services for the construction of roads connecting their villages to main roads, as some approved roads were incomplete or missing. did not reach the villages. In some villages, like Samthar Kavi in ​​Kalimpong, a completely new track had to be made through the forest.

The villagers requested the services of the bulldozer to connect their villages to the main roads, as some approved roads were incomplete or did not reach the villages.

The bulldozer has been used extensively to clear roads and assist in rescue efforts during monsoon-triggered landslides.

Reduce the burden

In addition to making these villages accessible, communication has improved and rations are arriving directly. Previously, villagers had to carry heavy piles of sand and cement on their heads uphill for construction purposes. Now cars do the same job, saving them effort.

“For farmers, transporting their produce costs around Rs 100-150. Now they can only avail transport for Rs 15,” said Arun Chhetri from Lopchu Peshok, Darjeeling. This area, famous for its tea gardens, has seen six roads built by the bulldozer.

In addition to making these villages accessible, communication has improved and rations are arriving directly.

It takes about a week or more to dig a road, depending on the terrain and existing paths. Meanwhile, Wangdi lives in this village. “The Foundation provides me with the diesel costs for about 4-5 days. The rest is covered by the villagers who also help me dig the road,” he said.

The bulldozer was also used to make playgrounds. “The area of ​​our small playground has been extended to become a brand new football pitch. The Foundation has provided footballs and shirts for 60 to 70 children in the village and funds to renovate and paint our community hall. She also took care of the treatment of a boy who had to undergo neurosurgery,” said Pramod Tamang from Simkuna 3rd Mile, a village about 14 km from Darjeeling city.

The bulldozer was also used to make playgrounds.

Philanthropic channels

The Foundation has worked tirelessly during the pandemic to help people too. It covered rent and paid for cooking gas in urban areas and offered monetary grants to 1,800 migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country, so that they could return to their villages. It has also distributed gloves and face masks to 80 tea gardens in Darjeeling, as well as hundreds of taxi drivers.

During the monsoon, when the houses of the poor leaked, tarpaulins, food parcels and essential medicines were distributed in rural areas. Glenary’s provided a daily breakfast to around 30 daily workers for four months during the first lockdown and distributed bread and baked goods to orphanages, nursing homes and rehabilitation centres. This is only a fraction of Edwards’ benevolence; he has been working there for two decades with private funding.

Buddha Tamang, a farmer and GNLF member who oversaw the work of the bulldozer in Kalimpong, blames political corruption for the despicable situation in rural areas. “The government receives funds for development work, none of which reaches the local level, so we try to help the villages by building roads,” he said.

The bulldozer has been on site cleaning up more than 30 landslides and digging roads in nearly 100 remote and inaccessible villages over the past year in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.

Even if the roads dug by the bulldozer are not complete, they are usable. Villages are no longer cut off from civilization. Vikas Pradhan, the owner of the Revolver Hotel in Darjeeling summed it up succinctly: “The bulldozer remains on standby for any clearing and rescue effort required. Having it during times of crisis is not just a novelty but a real lifesaver. It has become a beacon of hope for many so far.”

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