How to steal an iron bridge

In early April, the residents of Amiyawar village in Bihar were stunned to learn that a bridge that they thought the government had dismantled and carted away had in fact been stolen in front of their eyes. Amarnath Tewary reports on the astonishing heist that has grabbed headlines across the world

May 07, 2022 03:37 am | Updated 09:17 am IST

The area from where the iron bridge was stolen. Now there are only three small iron pillars standing.

The area from where the iron bridge was stolen. Now there are only three small iron pillars standing. | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

Chura liya hai tumne jo pul ko, nahar nahi churana sanam (Now that you have stolen the bridge, please do not steal the canal)’. Ever since news broke on April 6 that an iron bridge in Bihar had been stolen, leaving everyone bemused, this play on the famous Hindi film song, Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko, from the 1970s has been widely shared on social media. The most bewildered, however, are not the readers and viewers but the residents of Amiyawar village in Bihar’s Rohtas district where this astonishing heist was pulled off.

The residents of Amiyawar did not suddenly wake up one fine morning to find the bridge missing, as was the picture painted by some sections of the media. Over three days — April 2, 3 and 4 — the villagers happily watched the bridge being dismantled and carted off. They counted their blessings, as they had finally got rid of a defunct eyesore. Only later were they informed that what they had witnessed was, in fact, a crime taking place in broad daylight. The villagers were stunned to learn that what they had assumed to be officially sanctioned work had been an elaborate subterfuge which thrust the village, and Bihar, into the spotlight of the national and international media.

A defunct bridge

The 60-ft-long iron bridge was located on the bank of the river Sone in Amiyawar village, which is about 180 km south of Patna, the capital of Bihar. Amiyawar is nearly 40 km from the Rohtas district headquarters, Sasaram, famous for the magnificent tomb of Sher Shah Suri. Starting from Indrapuri barrage in the district, the Sone river flows about 110 km till Ara in Bhojpur. The place from where the bridge was stolen is nearly 29 km from Indrapuri barrage. The stolen bridge was built on the Ara-Sone canal and came under the Sone canal division of the Irrigation Department.

The iron bridge was built more than four decades ago, between 1972 and ’75. The villagers say the Ara-Sone canal was built by the British to provide proper irrigation in their agricultural fields. In 2002, the villagers stopped using the bridge when a new concrete bridge was constructed, parallel to and just a few feet away from the iron bridge. Since the concrete bridge was smooth and new, the villagers stopped using the iron bridge and urged the village head and department officials to remove it.

Rohtas is known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Bihar, and the economic profile of Amiyawar village is immediately obvious to the visitor. A majority of the villagers are agriculturists and farm owners, while some of them, mostly belonging to the backward castes, are farm labourers. Over 80% of the villagers have agricultural land on the northern side of the bridge where they get a good yield of wheat and rice crop every year.

“About 300 men from the village are in government service in different parts of the country as well. The villagers here are not very poor as the agricultural land in this region is quite fertile,” says Munshi Prasad, a villager.

In 2014, the village of 15,000 people was declared an ‘adarsh gram’ (ideal village) by the then Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Upendra Kushwaha. Most of the houses in the village have concrete structures. Amiyawar has both government and private schools and hospitals. “We have everything we require on a daily basis in the village, but this stolen bridge incident has really brought us shame, both nationally and internationally,” says Jitendra Singh, a resident.

Khusru Pravej, a resident of Amiyawar village, who claims to have broken the bridge story in the daily he works for, agrees. “The moment I came to know from the villagers that thieves stole the bridge, I knew it was a big story. I called up the local police and officials of the Irrigation Department, who confirmed the incident,” Pravej says.

The demolition

It is April 15, a scorching summer day. There are only wild grass bushes near the area where the old bridge was located. The smell of cattle and human excreta fills the air. Far away, a thick cloud of smoke can be seen rising up to the sky: someone has burned stubble in dry wheat farmland. Tractors in the distance look like centipedes and villagers are rushing to save their bundled wheat crop from the raging fire. Not many are interested in talking about the stolen iron bridge. “It is not a big issue for us as it is for the media,” one villager sporting a towel bandana says before riding across the concrete bridge.

But Singh, who lives just 200 metres away from the stolen bridge in his newly constructed pucca house, is happy to talk. Singh and a group of villagers have been taking a stroll by the side of the bridge on a levee every morning for the past several years. On April 2, at 6 a.m., Singh was on his routine morning stroll with the group. The men spotted two SUVs, a JCB machine (earth excavator), gas cutting torches and cylinders. A pick-up van was parked on the northern side of the iron bridge. The sight pleased them. On the request of the villagers earlier, the village head or mukhia, Ram Dulari Devi, had petitioned the government for the removal of the bridge, but no action had been taken. The villagers were exasperated: during the monsoon, dead bodies of humans and cattle floated in the canal from upstream and got stuck between the iron pillars of the bridge. The stench was unbearable. They wanted the bridge to go.

Singh and his friends assumed that the local Irrigation Department was finally taking action on the petition. They did not think of questioning the six-seven people who were working on bringing down the bridge as they also spotted the local “Meth” (the person who looks after canal maintenance at the local level and who is paid on a contract basis) of the Irrigation Department, Arvind Kumar, with them. “As we saw heavy machines like JCBs, gas cutting cylinders, torches and the pick-up van, none of us doubted their credentials or their action. We paused briefly at the spot, watched them and moved on. They continued their work,” says Singh.

Singh says there was no reason to doubt the credentials of the workers, for who steals a bridge? He has a point. This is a rare occurrence not just in India but across the world. In October 2011, a 50-ft-long bridge was stolen in New Castel of Pennsylvania in the U.S. In Ohio in November 2021, thieves disassembled a 58-ft-long iron bridge and took it away. “We found these facts when we googled ‘stolen bridges’ after our village bridge got stolen,” Singh laughs.

On April 3, the morning walkers and the workers waved at each other. One-third of the bridge had been dismantled by then. One villager who did not want to be named says he noticed while returning from his farmland for lunch from the southern side of the bridge that the people dismantling the bridge were eating lunch but the vehicles had disappeared. He speculates that they were daily-wage workers who had been hired to dismantle the bridge while the main thieves had gone to have lunch elsewhere in their vehicle. He says no one seemed to be in any hurry. By 6 p.m., more than half the bridge had been dismantled. Only the northern part remained intact. At dusk, the villagers recall seeing the SUVs move on the levee, leaving behind a thick haze of dust.

On April 4, the residents of the village say everyone was in a tearing hurry. More workers had been brought in and were seen chipping at the remains of the bridge, cutting the iron bars and pillars with gas torches, and using the JCB machine to loosen the earth. The pick-up van, owned by a villager, Chandan Kumar, was moving back and forth with scraps. “Even then none of us suspected that this was a heist,” says Rajnikant, a local resident. By 4 p.m., everything was gone except three iron pillars of a few feet high that seemed to go deep into the ground and were probably hard to remove. The villagers say they were thankful to the department officials for honouring their petition for its removal. “We were happy that we would no longer have to bear the stench of rotting carcasses during the rainy season. But the next day we woke up to a phone call from a resident of a neighbouring village, which startled us. He told us that the bridge had not been removed by the government; it had been stolen,” Singh says.

Pawan Kumar, who lives in a neighbouring village, Nasriganj Dhus, came to know that day that the rusty old bridge had been removed by some people claiming to be Irrigation Department officials and scrap dealers. Kumar first tried to phone the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of the department, Radhe Shyam Singh, but when the SDO did not answer his call, he rang up another official. He asked why the department had not followed the procedure of issuing a tender for dismantling the bridge. For any defunct public infrastructure to be removed, the villagers have to first petition the mukhia, who then writes to the local office of the concerned department with the request. The local officials, in turn, request their district in-charge, who finally seeks permission from the department headquarters to act on the villagers’ request. In this case too, the residents of the village had requested Devi for the removal of the abandoned bridge. She had petitioned the local office of the Irrigation Department at Nasriganj, which comes under the State Water Resources Department, which is responsible for maintaining river canals and bridges.

Nasriganj Police Station, the station closest to the area where the bridge was stolen.

Nasriganj Police Station, the station closest to the area where the bridge was stolen. | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

The official was amazed. He said the department was unaware that the bridge had been dismantled and taken away. On April 6, some officials of the department visited the bridge site and, in the evening, they lodged a complaint with the Nasriganj police station. A case was lodged against unknown persons under Section 379 of the Indian Penal Code (theft with imprisonment of up to three years). A Special Investigative Team of the police under a Deputy Superintendent of Police was formed to crack the case and nab the thieves.

“It was unbelievable, just unheard of. How could a whole iron bridge be stolen before our eyes? We didn’t smell anything foul. The sheer audacity of the thieves and the negligence on our part not only surprised us but left us quite ashamed,” a villager says.

The investigation

Acting on the inputs of the villagers, the investigative team of the police first picked up the ‘Meth’, Arvind Kumar. He promptly spilled the beans and said the ‘workers’ had been working at the behest of the department SDO, Radhe Shyam Singh, who is to retire from service next year. Interestingly, it was Radhe Shyam Singh who had directed his junior official to lodge a police complaint in the theft case. Even after arrest, Radhe Shyam Singh seemed aloof and imperious, the Nasriganj police say. “He was not at all transparent,” they say. “During the three days of our intense investigation and raids, we arrested eight people involved in the bridge theft case, including the SDO, and sent them to jail,” says Nasriganj police station officer-in-charge Subhas Kumar. The others who were arrested are Chandan Kumar (a resident of the village), Shivkalyan Bhardwaj (a local politician), Manish Kumar (a scrap dealer), and Sacchidanand Singh, Gopal Kumar and Chandan Kumar of Chand Bigha village. “Two-three persons are still absconding and will soon be arrested and more sections of the IPC will probably be slapped on them,” Kumar says.

The villagers think Radhe Shyam Singh had hoped to get away with his elaborate plan before retiring this year. He has now been suspended from service.

Activity in the canal near the stolen bridge.

Activity in the canal near the stolen bridge. | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

‘Anything is possible’

It is 45°C and even stray dogs, cattle and crows seem to be looking for shade. Subhas Kumar orders a chilled soft-drink. Sipping it, he says, “This one case has got me phone calls from the national and even international media which I have not received in my career of 13 years of policing.”

Less than a kilometre away, the Irrigation Department local office is locked from the outside. “It has been locked ever since the head of the office was arrested,” says Pravej. After the story made headlines, the State Water Resources Department, the parent body of the Irrigation Department, suspended two engineers, Radhe Shyam Singh and Arshal Kamal Shamsi, for dereliction of duty, and served show cause notice to the chief and the superintending engineers. The department has also asked all district chiefs to identify old and abandoned bridges so that they can be dismantled.

For all the attention and surprise the incident has caused, a question that many are asking is: how much was this bridge actually worth? Kumar says it is in fact not worth as much as claimed or calculated by some in the media. Scrap iron sells at ₹40-50 per kg these days. “The bridge weighed 5 tonnes. Sections of the media reported that the bridge weighed 500 tonnes. I don’t know where they got this figure from,” the police officer says. The police, he says, have seized 245 kg of iron scrap of the stolen bridge from an arrested scrap dealer.

In Pravej’s view, the incident has proved that anything is possible. “One day we might even wake up to hear that Sher Shah Suri’s tomb in Sasaram has been stolen,” he says laughing. “You see, anything can happen in Bihar.”

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