A Bridge Too Far

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Bare bones All that remains to be shown for the work of 16 years is just some pillars in the river, Photo: Javed Hussain
Bare bones All that remains to be shown for the work of 16 years is just some pillars in the river, Photo: Javed Hussain

Some 442 km away from capital Dispur, standing on the banks of the Brahmaputra, Sangeeta Sinha, 22, points to a few pillars on the river, “When I was in primary school, my father used to bring me here often. He told me that in a few years, a very big bridge would come up here, the biggest in the country. I thought what a nice thing that would be. Now, I can go to the other side in Dhemaji where my cousins live and even come back the same day. I am now working for a bank and every other month I come here to see the bridge, and every time I see the pillars.”

Sangeeta is at Bogibeel, the site where the Indian Railways is building a gigantic 4.94 km-long railroad bridge, joining the Dibrugarh district in the south bank of the Brahmaputra to Dhemaji in the north. This bridge is being built at a present-day cost of a whopping Rs 5,000 crore. The ambitious project has gone slow and has now turned into a classic example on how infrastructure projects in the Northeast is never on New Delhi’s priority list.

For coal- and tea-rich upper Assam, the demand for a bridge has been a longstanding one. Since Independence, three bridges have been built on the Brahmaputra: the Pandu-Saraighat Bridge near Guwahati, the Naranarayan Setu in lower Assam and the Koliabhumura Bridge near Tezpur. For the oil districts of upper Assam, the bridge at Tezpur is the nearest one, and that too is located almost 300 km downstream.

So, when the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 between the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Central government, construction of a railroad bridge across the Brahmaputra in upper Assam was one of the main projects of the pact.

Twelve years later, in 1997, the then prime minister HD Deve Gowda sanctioned the project, which was to be completed by the end of the Ninth Five-Year Plan. But construction on the project only began during the NDA regime, in 2002, when the then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee flew down to Dibrugarh to lay the foundation stone at Bogibeel.

The bridge was supposed to be completed in six years, but the cost of the project overshot the funds allocated to the railways and the work was stalled until 2007. In between, a series of railway ministers had come and gone, but Bogibeel continued to be a pipe dream.

In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, declared it a national project. This meant that the Union finance ministry would provide 75 percent funds and the rest 25 percent would be borne by the railway ministry. The new deadline was set for 2015 and the railways want it to be fully operational by 2016, a good 18 years after the project was first sanctioned.

The bridge is very important for the districts on either side of the Brahmaputra. With no other way around, for someone to cross over from, say, Silapathar in Dhemaji in the north bank to Dibrugarh in the south, he/she would have to take a risky two-hour ferry ride across the Brahmaputra.

“People living in these districts need to cross over to Dibrugarh for a variety of reasons,” says Ramesh Pegu, a schoolteacher from Silapathar. “We have to take a ferry, which becomes very dangerous during floods and monsoons. With a bridge, the distance will be covered in less than half-an-hour.”

While essential commodities are taken to Lakhimpur and Dhemaji from Dibrugarh by ferry, livestock, milk and vegetables come from the north bank. This makes commercial transportation limited, time-consuming and expensive, in all, an unviable method that has been pinching Assam’s economy for decades.

It is not only Assam that would benefit from this bridge. “The Bogibeel Bridge would add a new lease of life to the connectivity of far-flung areas of Arunachal Pradesh,” says Jogin Tamai, a state government employee from Tezu town in Arunachal Pradesh. “Today if I have to go from Tezu to state capital Itanagar, I travel the entire day to reach there because there is no bridge connecting Dibrugarh to Lakhimpur. A bridge will cut down the travel time by half.” One has to travel nearly 500 km to reach Itanagar via Tezpur, which is in central Assam. With the bridge, the state could be traversed in a straight line instead of going about it in a circuitous manner.

An engineering marvel in itself, there are admittedly real challenges facing the project on the ground.

“The Bogibeel Bridge is one of the major projects of the Indian Railways,” says DC Borah, pro of Northeast Frontier Railway (Construction Organisation). “It will be the first of its kind in India with a fully-welded superstructure. On completion, it will comprise a double-line railway track at the lower deck and three-lane roads on the upper deck. The launching of the superstructure is being done incrementally and the weight of each girder is approximately 2,000 metric tonnes.”

On 25 April, the first 125 metre-long fully-welded girder span was launched on the pillars by Subodh Kumar Jain, Member Engineering, Railway Board. However, this is too little work in too much time.

“We have faced many hurdles with Bogibeel,” says a highly placed railways official in New Delhi on condition of anonymity. “First, allocating funds and issuing tenders took time. Then there was the unavailability of raw material in Dibrugarh. Material had to be transported, many through waterways, and that took time. Then you have the issue with the weather and rains. It rains almost eight months a year in Dibrugarh, and work could happen in full-swing only between November and March.”

However, the official acknowledges that there has never been any pressure from political masters to complete the project. “I would agree there is neglect towards such projects in the Northeast,” he says.

It is perhaps Assam’s lot that the interim saw some powerful railway minister, including the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee, yet none of them had time to see if the Bogibeel project was on track.

The neglect is inexplicable, considering that the coming up of the bridge would also mean two important sections of the Northeast Frontier Railway getting connected. The Rangiya-Murkongselek section in the north bank will be linked to the main broad-gauge link in the south bank at Chaulkhowa in Dibrugarh district.

This will also mean an alternative link to upper Assam. Given the fact that transportation in the region has been hampered by regular bandhs and strikes, it would seem like a politically prudent decision to put it on the fast track. Besides, the bridge would also add strategic value in mobilising armed forces to the India-China border in Arunchal Pradesh.

“The foundation stone of the bridge was laid by former PM Vajpayee, but in the past 10 years, the UPA has given no importance to the project,” alleges Dibrugarh MLA and BJP leader Prasanta Phukan. “Why did Manmohan Singh shirk this responsibility, despite being an MP from Assam. Should it not have been a priority?”

In the General Election, Assam voted for the BJP; the saffron party won seven of the state’s 14 seats, including Dibrugarh. One of the promises on which it rode to power is completion of Bogibeel. Whether that translates into any action remains to be seen. For now, a first-time voter like Sangeeta can only hope to see the bridge of their dreams in their lifetime.

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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Special Correspondent

A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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