How Centre Is Helping Northeast To Finally Unlock The Potential Of Its Waterways

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 13, 2022 10:01 AM +05:30 IST
How Centre Is Helping Northeast To Finally Unlock The Potential Of Its Waterways Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (Twitter)
Snapshot
  • The idea is to develop a compact network of waterways involving the three neighbouring countries and North East India to unlock the development potential of this region.

The past eight years have seen a number of road infrastructure and connectivity projects being initiated in the North East in keeping with the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy. Some of the projects have been completed, and the rest are nearing completion, mostly at a pace that has surprised people of the region who had gotten used to apathy and neglect from successive governments at the Centre.

All these projects are aimed at effectively dispelling the false notion —perpetrated by successive Union governments — that the North East, being a land-locked region, is destined to a development deficit. But what is now adding muscle to the exercise is the Modi government’s challenge to the very concept that the North East is a land-locked region.

“The entire region is blessed with many rivers that flow to Bangladesh and then on to the Bay of Bengal. Prime Minister Modi has enunciated this revolutionary concept of converting these rivers into waterways for movement of freight and passengers within the region and also between the North East and the rest of the country through Bangladesh,” Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal told Swarajya.

Sonowal, who is in Dibrugarh (Upper Assam) to attend a two-day-long multi-nation Waterways Conclave that commenced on 11 April said: “This conclave will explore ways for optimum utilisation of waterways and will set the ball rolling for a master plan in this regard. We’re also looking at a technical tie-up with the Netherlands, which has sent delegates to this conference, on river water management."

The Union government has already designated the long stretch of the Brahmaputra from Sadiya in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district to Dhubri (where the Brahmaputra leaves India to flow in Bangladesh) as National Waterway 2. India has signed a protocol with Bangladesh under which the latter allows vessels to transit through four river routes within that country.

In early February this year, Sonowal flagged off a cargo ship from Patna that passed through Bengal, entered Bangladesh and then Assam to finally dock at Guwahati’s Pandu river port. Cargo vessels have already started sailing down the Ganges from Prayagraj (Uttar Pradesh) to Haldia (Bengal) — this route has been designated as national waterway 1 — and then through the rivers of Bangladesh to enter Assam.

Santanu Thakur, the Minister of State in the Union Shipping and Waterways Ministry, who is also attending the conclave in Dibrugarh told Swarajya that representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar are also attending the meet.

“The idea is to develop a compact network of waterways involving all the three countries and North East India to unlock the development potential of this region. This network is an integral part of Prime Minister Modi’s Gati Shakti National Masterplan,” said Thakur.

The two-day conclave is being attended by policy planners, senior government officers, domestic and international investors, sector experts, river vessel owners and operators, professionals from the cruise tourism sector and representatives of ports in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. “A roadmap with fixed timelines to frame a comprehensive plan for development of waterways in all the four countries of Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Myanmar will be charted out at the conclave,” said Thakur.

Top officers of the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) are also attending the conclave. “The involvement of the MoRTH is crucial for providing overland road linkages to river ports so that a comprehensive hybrid transport masterplan involving waterways and highways is framed soon,” explained Sonowal.

Sonowal said that transporting goods and passengers within the region and outside through an integrated network of waterways and highways will usher in a new era of fast-paced development and economic progress for not only North East India, but also Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This integrated network, he added, will extend to Southeast Asia through the Asian Highways.

“The possibilities are immense and exciting. The development deficit that the North East has long laboured under will soon be a thing of the past. We are now on the threshold of a remarkable era of progress and prosperity,” said Sonowal.

Along with the waterways, the Union government has also taken concrete steps to make former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral dream come true. The East-West Corridor (read more about it here connecting Porbandar in Gujarat to Silchar in Assam that is an integral part of the quadrilateral has not yet been completed due to three problematic stretches in Assam.

Frequent landslides and other natural causes, as well as insurgency, had disrupted construction of this corridor in the three stretches in southern Assam’s Dima Hasao district. But all issues, including insurgency, have been resolved and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has recently sanctioned Rs 1,674 crore for the construction of the remaining portions of this corridor.

Work on construction of the remaining two portions of this corridor totalling 49.23 kilometres in the Dima Hasao will commence very soon using Japanese technology to overcome the threats of landslides and sinking zones. Work on the third stretch of 25.15 kilometres that falls in both Dima Hasao and the neighbouring Cachar district has already started.

Silchar Lok Sabha MP Rajdeep Roy told Swarajya that these three stretches will be completed by March 2023 and the entire 3,300-kilometre-long Silchar-Porbandar corridor will then be ready. The foundation stone for the ambitious project was jointly laid by then Union surface transport minister B C Khanduri and then finance minister Jaswant Singh in 2004.

But construction continued at a snail’s pace, and was stalled in many sections, during the 10 years of Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) rule till 2014. It was only after Narendra Modi came to power that construction was resumed at a fast pace.

Top MoRTH officials told Swarajya that a number of other highway projects criss-crossing the entire North East, especially the hill states of the region, will be announced soon.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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