Bogibeel, the longest rail-road bridge of India, spanning nearly five-km across the Brahmaputra, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 25. It will link Dibrugarh with North Lakhimpur district of Assam and parts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The event, marked with much fanfare, was hailed by many as a historic milestone in the development of the Northeastern region.
One could wonder, what is so special about a bridge that has taken 16 years to complete? Should we really be rejoicing over the completion of an infrastructure project, which has missed its timelines several times? The brouhaha over a bridge may even invite disdain in the drawing rooms of Lutyens Delhi. But for thousands of poor people, living in eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, this is truly a momentous occasion.
Sixty eight years after being ravaged by a devastating earthquake and the ensuing floods, Dibrugarh is reclaiming its lost glory. It used to be a thriving centre of the plantation industry during the colonial times. For the people of the region, it remains a hub of higher education and medical treatment. However, for decades, the only recourse for people to cross the Brahmaputra would be to chug along for over an hour, in a diesel propelled ferry, which would also carry their vehicles and goods, even cattle. Crossing the river could be a costlier proposition than flying between Mumbai and Goa. All this is set to change. Commissioning the bridge has reduced the journey time across the river to less than five minutes, bringing relief to people living in these remote parts.
The single biggest factor which has shackled the development of the Northeast region is the absence of robust connectivity. A maze of river systems across Arunachal Pradesh, with their confluence in the Brahmaputra, have posed an enormous challenge. The commissioning of Bogibeel, therefore, is a harbinger of hope. The bridge’s significance goes well beyond the succour to local residents. It has the potential to infuse economic dynamism in the region and provide opportunities for the expansion of tourism, industrial development and trade.
Bogibeel must be viewed alongside other infrastructure developments in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The iconic Bhupen Hazarika bridge over the Lohit river was commissioned recently by the prime minister. A 7.5 km long bridge over the Dibang river was dedicated to the nation a few days ago. The Trans Arunachal Highway, has seen considerable progress, especially in the eastern part of the state. An airport has been commissioned at Pasighat, barely two hours away from Dibrugarh. One of the most pristine parts of Arunachal Pradesh has now become accessible to the rest of the world. This could give a fillip to tourism, given that the region has abundant wildlife and is ideal for river rafting and angling. However, an imaginative roadmap of tourism development, promotion and branding needs to be crafted, centred around the region’s tribal ethos.
Dibrugarh lies at the heart of a crucial oil and gas axis in Assam, given its proximity to Digboi and Duliajan oilfields. Further east lie the Kharsang gas fields and Kumchai oilfields of Arunachal Pradesh. The district also has significant coal deposits. There are more than 200 tea factories in Dibrugarh. Commissioning of the bridge has raised the prospects of industrial development and opportunities of productive employment for the youth, especially in the mining and plantation sectors.
Bogibeel is the gateway to the historic Stilwell Road, which connects Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China, passing through Myanmar’s Kachin state, via Arunachal Pradesh. The 1,800 km long route was used for transporting arms to the Chinese by the Americans during World War II. Its revival for trade is well within grasp now. The route could well become the centrepiece of the ambitious Act East Policy. It would follow the Asian Highway (AH )14 and reach Kunming along AH3. The Chinese stretch has a six-lane highway, while the Indian side in Arunachal Pradesh has a two-lane highway. Infrastructure in Myanmar, of course, would need to be strengthened and the land customs station at Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh revived. Trade could revitalise economic activity, in what is otherwise one of the most backward parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
From a strategic standpoint, movement of troops has become a much quicker, efficient and reliable proposition. The road beyond Dibrugarh leads to the frontier parts of Arunachal Pradesh, with a fully functional advanced landing ground of Air Force at Walong, barely 100 km from the Chinese border. This was a theatre of armed incursion in 1962. Now access to one of the remotest border outposts in Anjaw has been made much easier.
Bogibeel is poised to usher winds of change in this part of the world. However, the advantage of connectivity must be accompanied by an imaginative blueprint of economic development, drawing upon the region’s advantages. The symbolism of Bogibeel goes well beyond the Brahmaputra.
The author is an IAS officer currently working with Government of Mizoram. Views are personal