Where: state of Bihar, India

August 19, 2007: It’s the kind of superhuman deed that seems so hard to believe because it is true. One man hacked away at a rocky hill for 22 years to create a three-km-long road linking his village to the outside world, armed with nothing more than a hammer and a chisel. What drove the frail man on was a resolve much higher than the hill facing him.

His name: Dasrath Manjhi.

Dasrath Manjhi was from village Gehlour in Gaya District, one of the poorest districts of the western Indian state of Bihar. Poor and illiterate, he worked as farm labour on fields that lay on the other side of the hill, as did many other villagers. The villagers had to scrabble up the hill with its narrow and difficult pass to buy even the smallest thing; skirting it took hours.

One day, Manjhi’s wife, Faguni Devi, slipped on the hill and broke her ankle as she was bringing him lunch. Enraged, Manjhi decided to cut the hill down to size. He sold off his goats to buy a hammer, chisel and rope. He even shifted his hut closer to the hill so that he could work day and night. People called Manjhi a madman but he did not care. He was unstoppable; even hunger could not win over him.

Taming the mountain

Manjhi started his work more than 40 years ago. As time passed, the villagers noticed that the hill was a bit more climber-friendly. It was no longer so steep – Manjhi’s hammer and chisel had seen to it that a flat stretch had made its appearance. Those who had called Manjhi a madman fell silent. A few even joined him.

By the early 1980s, a three-kilometre road had been hewn out of the rock. It was wide enough for even vehicles to pass through. A 50-km journey to the nearest block headquarters of Wazirganj had now shrunk to a 10 km journey! (Several villages and small towns comes under one block. All the important government departments looking after the affairs of the block are located in the town which functions as block headquarters.)

Sadly, the woman who had inspired Manjhi to take on the hill could not live to see the fruit of his labour. Manjhi’s wife had died of illness some years ago. Reason: it took a long time to skirt the hill and reach the hospital in time.

Outcaste who became a hero

Manjhi was not stung by a spider that bestowed him with superhuman powers; nor was he born of a super race on some other planet. If anything, he was stung by poverty all his life. The Musahar community he belonged to is among the poorest of the poor in Bihar. It is considered the lowliest among the “untouchables”, a practice that continues in free India despite a law banning it.

Manjhi’s people: living sub-human lives

The Musahars are forced to live some distance away from the village. Nobody wants any contact with them. They are poor, illiterate and have no land. Some work as scavengers; others work as farm labour but are paid much less than the other workers. Often for months together they do not find work. Hunger stalks them at all times. Their occupation at one time was trapping and killing rats. To this day they are looked down upon as the people who live by gathering grains from the hideouts of rats in the fields, who even eat rats. The one Musahar child out of 100 children, who may want to go to school, finds that nobody wants to sit close by. That is their life to this day.

Yet, it took a Musahar called Dasrath Manjhi to do what no one else could, or wanted to do.

Manjhi lived in poverty and died in poverty on August 17, 2007, two days after India celebrated its 60th year of independence. He was over 70.

In his lifetime Manjhi had become a legend – the man who moved mountains; the man who worked tirelessly to instill some of his self pride among members of his community; the man who tried to cure his community of its addiction to liquor.

Blind and deaf government

Yet, for almost 25 years this legend was unable to convince politicians and officials of his state to make the hill road a metalled road and to link it with the larger road network in the state of Bihar.

A report in The Times of India early this year exposed the fact that Manjhi’s road is perhaps the only concrete progress achieved in the village. Tubewells were installed at one time but are dry; there are electric poles but no cables. A plot was given to Dasrath who insisted that a hospital be made on it. That land is still lying barren.

A gesture at last, but too late

Last year, there was a change of government in Bihar. The new chief minister promised Manjhi that all his dreams would be fulfilled. He made Manjhi sit on the chief minister’s chair for a few minutes to honour him and even had him flown to Delhi for treatment. On Manjhi’s death, he announced a state funeral for him. A state funeral is a public ceremony conducted by governments for heads of state (e.g, the President and Prime Minister of India, or ministers) or people of national significance.

That is one gesture to honour a man who rose from his humble origins to touch the skies. The real gesture from the government and from society will come when the Musahars are seen as equals and given opportunities for a life of dignity.

That would be a fitting gesture to honour Dasrath Manjhi.