On a summer evening in 1957, the entire Gundegaon village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra assembled in the Bhapkar household. Rajaram Bhapkar, the local village boy who had become a zilla parishad school teacher, had an announcement to make.
“Enough is enough. I have decided I won’t wait any longer for the government to listen to our pleas to build a road connecting our village. I will make the first road from Gundegaon to Kolgaon myself,” said Bhapkar. Pin-drop silence. While the villagers were proud of their boy—who had studied against all odds, walked all the way to Ahmednagar to complete his teacher’s training and who had turned around the local school—this was a bit too much. “How will you cut through the hills, clear the forests and make a road through the streams? Who will pay for this?” asked his own father, rather angrily. Bhapkar, however, was determined. The next morning, he stood there bare-chested with a few volunteers and workers ready to carve out a road. He is Maharashtra's Dashrath Manjhi, the man who carved a path through a hillock in Bihar. Manjhi's life was made into a movie, which released this August.
While Manjhi did it out of love for his wife, Bhapkar did it for his village. Bhapkar knew roads would eventually lead to development. Surrounded by hills and thick forests, Gundegaon, just 30km from Ahmednagar, remained isolated and underdeveloped for years. A trip to the nearest health care centre in Kolgaon meant putting the patient on a horse or a bullock cart and riding for hours on an uneven terrain. Many died on the way. Walking to Ahmednagar took more than seven hours. Pleas to the local administrators to build roads never elicited a response. That’s when Bhapkar decided to take things into his own hands.
The mission to build roads continued for more than 50 years. Bhapkar went on to build seven more roads of more than 40km, cutting through seven hills and connecting over 40 villages across the region. Now it takes less than 40 minutes to reach his village from Ahmednagar city; his village has an English medium school and junior college, too. Dressed in a white kurta, pyjama and a Gandhi topi, the 84-year-old ‘Bhapkar Guruji’, as he is addressed by villagers, takes me through the roads he has built across the village. A slight stoop and a walking stick do not deter him, though he gets a little breathless on the slope. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he commands us to drive farther and farther till the ghat ends—something our driver in his new car is reluctant to do on a kuchcha road.
“When I started, they called me crazy,” said Bhapkar. “Villagers asked me, 'what can one person do?' With my efforts of more than 57 years, I have shown what difference a single person can make.” The first road—the 10km stretch between Gundegaon and Kolgaon—took Bhapkar and his small band of workers about two decades to build, for which they had to dig through the 700m-high Santosha hill. Bhapkar, who was a zilla parishad teacher from 1957 to 1991, worked before and after school, during vacations and sometimes even under moonlight, unafraid of the wild animals he encountered. The construction work never stopped, despite Bhapkar's transfers to other villages. And, he never asked for donations; the money came from his salary and later his pension.
When shovel and spade didn’t suffice, Bhapkar hired excavators and JCBs. Sometimes when brawn and even modern technology failed, he got creative. On a particularly challenging downhill road from Khandoba mandir, Bhapkar asked a few engineers for help. When they refused, he turned to two donkeys. He filled two bags with gravel and pierced holes in them, tied them to the donkeys and sent them downhill. He then constructed the road on the trail left by the gravel. “Now, structural engineers visit and tell me it is a marvel and ask who is the engineer behind it. I point to the donkeys,” said Bhapkar, with a laugh.
A stubborn streak, a never-say-die attitude, is what makes Bhapkar an extraordinary man. Youngest of seven children, he was encouraged to study further by his mother. After class seven, he completed his teacher training course and worked as a voluntary teacher for three years before joining a zilla parishad school. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, Bhapkar had long decided to devote his life to the well-being of others—one reason why he married a physically challenged woman. “I did my work without expecting any rewards. People did say it was foolhardy but I believe nothing can be achieved without sacrifice and determination,” he said. A few years ago, the local administration tarred the kuchcha roads built by Bhapkar; only a few of the dirt roads remain as they fall under the forest department.
Bhapkar's work has been acknowledged by various social organisations and institutes. He recently received an award from a Marathi channel, presented by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. But his children—three sons and a daughter—do not appreciate his work, and are unhappy that he spends all his money on social work. But the man who brought development and prosperity to his village has no complaints and leads a simple life. He stays in a small corridor-like space in the courtyard of his son’s house. Covered by half a tin roof that leaks during monsoon, his home has a bed, a table, his clothes and books, loads of them.
The last road Bhapkar built was ready in 2010, but he is not ready to hang up his boots yet. His days are packed, meeting visitors and giving motivational speeches on various platforms. Bhapkar has many plans for his village, among them a library for students in the office a donor has built for him. He has been spearheading the cleanliness, anti-alcohol and anti open defecation movements in his village. “There is so much to do,” said the indefatigable man. When the challenge of cutting through hills couldn’t stop him, how can old age!