Politics

Tell-Tale Bridges Spanning The Brahmaputra: A Story Of Congress Apathy For The North-East

A view of the Bogibeel bridge.
Snapshot
  • The BJP-led governments did twice as much work in Assam than the Congress in just half the time!

    The bridges spanning the Brahmaputra are a testimony to Congress apathy.

Actions, it is said, speak louder than words. And the bridges over the Brahmaputra in Assam provide a telling attestation of this adage.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi kicked off his party’s Lok Sabha campaign in Assam with a public rally in state capital Guwahati on 26 February. There, he claimed that his party had always had the best interests of the North-East at heart and had prioritised the development of the region. Under the Congress, he claimed, the region had experienced a lot of infrastructure development and prosperity.

However, the Brahmaputra provides a stinging rebuttal to that claim. The first bridge over the mighty river, which originates in Chinese-occupied Tibet, came up 15 long years after Independence. The Saraighat bridge, whose construction started in 1958, was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. It was the first to connect the south bank of the Brahmaputra, and also a major chunk of the North-East, to the rest of the country. The 1.4 kilometre-long bridge took Rs 10.2 crore to build.

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But after this, the Congress, which ruled both at the Centre and in Assam as well as the rest of the North-East region, did nothing for the next quarter of a century! It was only in 1987, a full 40 years after Independence and 25 years since the Saraighat bridge was inaugurated by Nehru, that his grandson Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Kolia Bhomora bridge. This bridge, connecting Tezpur to Kaliabor (see this map), was sanctioned in 1975. But as was typical during Congress regimes, construction started only six years later in 1981 and it took another six years to complete. That too because of protracted agitations in Assam demanding the early construction of the bridge.

While inaugurating the Kolia Bhomora bridge in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi promised the people of the North-East that another bridge spanning the mighty Brahmaputra connecting the Bongaigaon and Goalpara districts in lower Assam had already been sanctioned. He said that the bridge would be ready in five years. But again, adequate resources were not sanctioned for the project. Construction of the Naranarayan Setu, a 2.28-kilometre long double decker rail-cum-road bridge, started only in 1991, a full five years after Rajiv Gandhi had said that the bridge had been sanctioned. The pace of construction, again, was very slow. To be fair, it was only during the fag end of Narasimha Rao’s tenure (1991-1996) that the pace picked up and the bridge was ready in 1998. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in April 1998. Thanks to time overruns, the bridge cost Rs 301 crore to make.

Vajpayee, however, was not content with merely inaugurating the Naranarayan Setu (see this map). He held extensive discussions with various stakeholders and many civil society leaders in Assam who impressed upon him the need to construct a few more bridges over the Brahmaputra. Vajpayee, in 1999, sanctioned the construction of a new bridge at Saraighat parallel to the old one that Nehru inaugurated. Vajpayee also sanctioned the construction of a new bridge in Upper Assam (the Dhola-Sadiya bridge).

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He discovered that though Rajiv Gandhi had promised construction of a mega bridge in Upper Assam under the Assam Accord (which he signed in 1985), little had been done in the 15 years since then. Vajpayee initiated work on this bridge (Bogibeel Bridge) too in 1999, nearly 15 years after Rajiv Gandhi had promised the bridge to the people of Assam!

While work on all these three bridges progressed on a trot over the next few years, they came to a grinding halt when the Congress-led coalition came to power in 2004. Over the next 10 years, these three half-finished bridges provided a strong testimony to the Congress’ neglect of the North-East and its failures to achieve targets. “Adequate funds were not sanctioned for these bridges and even the little that was sanctioned was not spent. This resulted in huge time and cost overruns,” said Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Immediately after coming to power in May 2014, the Narendra Modi government carried out an audit of all infrastructure projects in the region. “The completion of the three half-finished bridges was taken up on a priority basis. Officials and the construction agencies were told to complete the projects and warned against any more delays. The required funds were sanctioned,” said Minister Sarma. The New Saraighat Bridge was ready in three years and inaugurated by Road Transport & Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari in January 2017. It finally took Rs 475 crore to construct this bridge. Had construction progressed at the pace set by the Vajpayee government in 2002 (when actual construction started), it would have been completed by 2006 at about Rs 300 crore at the most. The additional 11 years and Rs 175 crore that it took to build this bridge was an abject failure of the Manmohan Singh regime. And ironically, Singh has been a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam since the early 1990s.

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The next bridge to be completed was the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, named the Bhupen Hazarika Setu (see this map). This vital 9.15-km bridge, the longest in the country, is the first permanent road connection between northern Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Though the Vajpayee government had completed the feasibility study for this bridge and approved its construction in 1998, nothing was done till 2009 when the Manmohan Singh government sanctioned the first tranche of funds for its construction.

But nothing happened for the next two years and actual construction only started in November 2011. Little progress was visible for the next 2.5 years and it was only after the Modi government took over that things started moving at a very fast pace. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in May 2017. But had the Manmohan Singh government taken up the project earnestly as the Modi government did, the bridge would have been completed by 2013 at a cost of Rs 700 crore, much less than the Rs 1,000 crore it ultimately cost to construct this bridge.

The story of the Bogibeel bridge is even more shocking. While this bridge was promised to the people of Assam by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, it was forgotten even before the ink dried on the Assam Accord. Nothing was heard about this bridge for more than a decade after its sanction. When Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda was told about it, he hurriedly laid the foundation stone of the bridge in January 1997. Unsurprisingly, not a rupee was spent on any work related to the proposed bridge after this and it was left to the Vajpayee regime to start fulfilling Rajiv Gandhi’s promise. Vajpayee inaugurated the construction of the bridge in 2002 and the technicalities like preparing the detailed project report were completed over the next two years.

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However, for inexplicable reasons, the Manmohan Singh government put the project in cold storage in 2004 and revived it only in 2007. Construction started, but continued at a snail’s pace. It was accorded a ‘project of national importance’ tag the same year, but the tag meant little since work on the bridge barely registered any progress for the next few years. After many agitations and memoranda to the Union government, including a black flag demonstration during a visit by Manmohan Singh to Guwahati, the pace of work picked up a bit more in 2012.

However, by the time Singh left office in 2014, just 30 per cent of the construction of the bridge had been completed. The Modi government set a strict deadline for completing the construction of the bridge by end-2018. This target was achieved and the bridge was ultimately inaugurated by Modi on 25 December 2018. This bridge (see this map), besides being a lifeline for the area, is also of immense strategic interest (read this). The initial cost of the bridge was pegged at Rs 1,800 crore, but it ultimately cost nearly Rs 6,000 crore, thanks to the multiple failures of the Manmohan Singh government.

In end-2017, the Modi government green-lighted the proposal for the construction of the Dhubri-Phulbari bridge over the Brahmaputra. This bridge will be India’s longest at 19.282 km and will span the Brahmaputra just before it enters Bangladesh. It is crucial because it will connect Assam to the western and backward part of Meghalaya. The detailed project report (DPR) for the bridge, which will cost about Rs 5,000 crore, has been submitted. The bridge will reduce the travel time between Dhubri and Phulbari by six hours. This bridge is expected to be ready by 2026.

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Another bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting Guwahati to North Guwahati, has been sanctioned recently. The proposal for this bridge was submitted 20 years ago and though an earlier Congress government gave in-principle approval for the project 14 years ago, it has remained on paper only. Construction work is on at a frenetic pace and is expected to be completed by 2022.

A new bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting Tezpur to Bhomoraguri parallel to the existing Kolia-Bhomora bridge has also been sanctioned. Work on the proposed road-cum-rail Gohpur-Numaligarh bridge over the Brahmaputra has commenced, while the foundation stone of a bridge over Brahmaputra connecting Jorhat to Lakhimpur was laid by Nitin Gadkari in February 2016. This bridge, which will also pass through Majuli, the world’s largest river island, will be ready by 2024. Yet another bridge over the Brahmaputra connecting Disangmukh in Upper Assam’s Sibsagar district to Tekeliphuta in Lakhimpur district has been sanctioned and work will start soon. The construction of this bridge is also scheduled to be completed by 2024.

Thus, while just two bridges spanning the Brahmaputra could be constructed by the Congress in 40 years, four bridges – and all of them much longer – were constructed by the Vajpayee and Modi regimes in just 20 years. In other words, the BJP-led governments did twice as much work in Assam than the Congress in just half the time! And if the five more bridges that are underway are considered, the Congress’ performance comes across as more pathetic.

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