Roads that cut down distances for movement of men and material by half; roads that make it possible for Indian troops to deploy resources seamlessly to the China border; and bridges and waterways that help bring the untapped natural resources within the reach of the Indian economy — the NDA government is banking heavily on connectivity projects to integrate Northeast into the mainstream of its larger vikas narrative.
The recently inaugurated Dhola Sadiya (Bhupen Hazarika) bridge connecting Assam with Arunachal Pradesh is just one of the collection of dots of around 80 projects that, when joined together, weave a network of access within the seven sister states and beyond evolving, finally, from the connectivity imprints created by the British some 100 years ago in the region.
For instance, a small 1.8 km bridge on river Feni in southern Tripura will finally connect the region with the Chittagong port, the largest sea port in Bangladesh, giving the entire region the benefits of port-connectivity for the first time. As per plans, by this time in 2019, the bridge will be a reality. Its tender for Rs 128 crore was awarded in March. After the Dhola Sadiya bridge, this is pegged as the next big landmark for Northeast connectivity.
Then there is the new four-laning of highway project between Nagaon in Assam to Holongi in Arunachal Pradesh for an estimated Rs 4,500 crore. When done, the 166-km four-lane highway will turn the current 12-hour grueling ride into a five-hour journey on a national-highway-standard road, as per the proposed USP of the link. Divided as usual into several packets of contracts, the project is expected to complete by 2019-20. Officials say accounting for the more-or-less two-year gestation period, projects in these areas have to overcome issues of land, geology and alignment challenges, hence progress is slow in the beginning.
Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, has said the government will execute works worth Rs 1 lakh crore for connectivity projects in the Northeast in five years. Pushing the Northeast projects on priority, Gadkari takes stock of the items connected to Northeast on a weekly basis, reviewing progress vis-a-vis milestones, officials said.
High on his agenda are the four strategic road projects along the China border in Northern, Eastern and Southern parts of Arunachal Pradesh with a combined road length of 568 km at a total cost of around Rs 7,500 crore.
Among them, an 184 km two-lane new National Highway-313 between Roing, Hunli and Anini at a cost of Rs 3,007 crore is going to be the next showpiece achievement for the government’s Northeast connectivity plan, officials said. In the, the 100-km stretch between Hunli and Anini to the China border, work has been awarded for the entire stretch in six parts since late last year and early this year.
One stretch of 11.9 km in the end has run into a hurdle of alignment apart from the market remaining unresponsive to the tender of Rs 145 crore. Five times the tender was floated without any participation. The sixth time could not be floated as the local district office has not sorted the issue of the alignment for the past eight months. Sources said there are discussions in the ministry that the stretch could be bypassed if the logjam hurts the overall project’s timeline.
“There are a huge number of projects, big and small. If taken together, the worth of our projects in Northeast may exceed even Rs 1 lakh crore. They ultimately aim to establish connectivity the kind which the Northeast states have never got in the past. Even a relatively small road project has great local impact there,” said Sanjay Jaju of National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL), the state-owned dedicated company under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, entrusted with delivering these projects.
The four strategic projects in Arunachal Pradesh near the China border and another one, the 60-km Tirap-Changlang Khonsa link at Rs 610 crore near the Mayanmar Border, together also serve as access to remote districts of the state to ultimately tap 24 hydel power projects.
As road projects take shape, Gadkari’s other ministry, Shipping, is also gearing up to activate what is called the National Waterway-2 on the Brahmhaputra in Assam to revive the 891 km age-old navigable route for all-year commercial movement. The government has earmarked Rs 1100 crore for the year 2017-20, and Rs 1600 crore for 2020-27 for development of National Waterway-2. Of the 106 new National Waterways declared under the National Waterways Act, 2016, 19 are in the North East, spread all over the seven states.
The current aim is to create dedicated channels in the river, before other installations like providing markers to clearly demarcate routes for vessels are done. By December 2018, major work on the link between West Bengal and Assam on NH-2 will be ready, officials said.
The NW-2 connects North East with Kolkata through the Indo- Bangladesh Protocol route. The IBP route offers a seamless connectivity between NW-1 (Allahabad – Haldia) to ports in Bangladesh via NW-2 (Pandu, Assam). “Right now there is some movement of ships off and on. But what the waterways project will provide is perennial commercial navigation, including night navigation, saving time and providing a viable alternative route to the Northeast,” Shashi Bhushan Shukla, Secretary, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), told The Indian Express.