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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Lok Sabha polls: In Northeast, bridges over ‘troubled’ waters

From Assam to Arunachal, the projects help the ruling BJP showcase development, water down Bill anger.

Written by Abhishek Saha | Dibrugarh/ Tinsukia (assam), Likabali/roing (arunachal) | Updated: April 9, 2019 6:04:25 am
 Assam elections, Arunachal pradesh elections, northeast elections, Bogibeel Bridge, lok sabha elections 2019, lok sabha polls 2019, elections news, india news, indian express The 4.94-km Bogibeel Bridge, India’s longest rail-road bridge, over the Brahmaputra. It connects Assam’s Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts. (Courtesy Hindustan Construction)

TWO bridges and another on the table are helping the BJP across a wide swathe from Upper Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.

While the 4.94-km Bogibeel Bridge over the Brahmaputra, India’s longest rail-road bridge, connects Assam’s Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts, the country’s longest road bridge now runs 9.15 km over the river from Dhola to Sadiya in Assam’s Tinsukia district.

Electorally, the two bridges directly benefit people in only two Lok Sabha constituencies of Assam — Dibrugarh on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra and Lakhimpur on the northern, both of which vote on April 11 — and parts of Arunachal East Lok Sabha constituency. But by taking hours of travel time off for people in Arunachal Pradesh and other less-accessible parts of the Northeast, the bridges have helped the BJP bolster its development pitch across the region — deflecting some attention away from the Centre’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill that faced opposition from across the region.

In Arunachal, along with the two Assam bridges, rapid work on road networks and bridges has added to the BJP’s development narrative. The two Lok Sabha seats of Arunachal Pradesh go to polls on April 11, along with its 60-member Assembly.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah consistently mention the two bridges in their speeches. The NDA government has also announced that the longest bridge of the country will also come up in Assam — a 19.28-km expanse from Dhubri in Assam to Phulbari in Meghalaya.

The foundation stone of the Rs 5,690-crore Bogibeel Bridge was laid back in 2002, construction began in 2002, and it was declared a national project by the Congress-led UPA government in 2007 (expediting completion). Construction on the Rs 2,056-crore Dhola-Sadiya Bridge too began much before Modi’s time, in 2011. However, with the bridges only becoming functional under the NDA government, Modi is getting all the credit.

Similar is the case with the over 1,800-km Trans-Arunachal Highway which began under the Congress.

Inaugurating the Bogibeel Bridge, Modi had said that while only three bridges had been built over the Brahmaputra in 60-70 years, three had been completed in the last four-and-a-half years of his government.

Says Siddhartha Gogoi, the owner of a restaurant on the link road to the Sadiya bridge, “It is the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government which put the necessary pressure to get the projects completed.”

Majha Pegu runs an eatery in Dhemaji district on the link road to the Bogibeel Bridge. Echoing Gogoi, he says the bridges have fostered a whole new set of economic activities. “Under Congress, everything kept hanging. Modiji gets work done fata-fat (fast).”

For several Arunachal Pradesh towns, the bridges mean even more. Down a scenic highway from the Sadiya bridge lie Roing and Tezu, while through Bogibeel one can reach Likabali or Pasighat. Apart from the public, the bridges are also useful for the movement of defence troops and equipment to the border.

Sitting MLA of Roing constituency and leader of the National People’s Party (NPP), Mutchu Mithi, who is contesting again in the Assembly elections, says the benefits of the bridges will only multiply. “Currently the impact is contained to people travelling, especially for medical purposes.” One of the major health centres of the region is Assam Medical College in Dibrugarh.

However, not all are as convinced. Driving over the Boghibeel Bridge, Inzamam Rehman, a taxi driver from Assam’s Dibrugarh town, says, “Earlier, to cross this river you had to take your car on a ferry. Dibrugarh has benefited, no doubt. But why is the BJP taking all the credit? Major portions of the work were done in Congress time.”

Samar Gohain, an AASU leader, claims not all have forgotten the Citizenship Amendment Bill either. “Development is our right. The need to protect our identity cannot be compromised for development.”

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