Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the much awaited Bogibeel bridge across the Brahmaputra near Dibrugarh in Assam on December 25, 2018. He also flagged off the Tinsukia-Nahalagun train service, a new rail route through the bridge linking the southern bank of the Brahmaputra with the northern one. Dedicating the bridge, Modi said development of the country was dependent on development of the Northeast.
Like the 9.15 km-long Dhola-Sadiya bridge over the Lohit, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, the Bogibeel bridge is also a strategic infrastructure project and an engineering feat. The 4.94 km-long bridge is the longest road-cum-rail bridge in India and only second in Asia. The Bogibeel, located 32 meters above the river’s water level, has a three-lane road on top and a double-lane rail track below. The central government spent Rs 5,920 crore to build this state-of-the-art bridge. It is designed like the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Finland across the Oresund Strait.
It was a difficult mission to complete this project given the unpredictable nature of the Brahmaputra and constant soil erosion along its banks. It took 16 years to finish the project, missing several deadlines. The H D Deve Gowda-led government approved the project in 1996, but construction work was initiated by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government in 2002.
The implementation process slowed even though the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government declared it a national project. The National Democratic Alliance government headed by Modi expedited the project.
The Bogibeel is the second major bridge made operational in Upper Assam in the past 19 months. The bridge will significantly contribute towards improving connectivity between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and enhance India’s defence capabilities. In its efforts to upgrade connectivity in Northeast in general and along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in particular, the central government has undertaken numerous strategic infrastructure projects including building a Trans-Arunachal Highway on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra and bridges over its tributaries like the Lohit, the Dibang, the Noadihing, the Subansiri and the Kameng. The Bogibeel is a vital component of the several mega infrastructure development programmes initiated by the union government over past two decades.
Establishing seamless connectivity between the northern and southern banks of the Brahmaputra has always been an arduous task. But India has finally broken that jinx and is now in a better position to address the twin challenges facing the Northeast and especially Assam and Arunachal Pradesh—development and security. Arunachal is now connected by road through four bridges - the Jogighopa, the Saraighat, the Kolia-Bhomora and the Dhola-Sadiya.
The Bogibeel bridge connects Dibrugarh on the south bank of the Brahmaputra to Silapathar in Dhemaji district on the Assam-Arunachal border, both by road and by rail. It now takes just 40 minutes to reach Dhemaji from Dibrugarh by train and 90 minutes by road. The bridge links two existing national highways—NH 37 on the south bank and NH 52 on the north bank. With the opening of the bridge, the road distance from Dibrugarh to Itanagar has been reduced by 150 km and the rail distance by 705 km.
Previously, it used to take 12 hours for cargo from Dibrugarh to reach Itanagar via the Kolia-Bhomora Bridge. The other alternative was crossing by ferry. But that is difficult for large, heavy cargo. Besides, in Northeast, the monsoon lasts for six months (May-October) and ferry services often remain disrupted.
Operationalisation of the Bogibeel bridge will be a game-changer in terms of expanding railway connectivity especially in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra and Arunachal Pradesh. It provides much needed connectivity between the two existing railway networks in the southern and northern banks. The bridge has established links between Dibrugarh and the Rongiya-Murkongselek section on the north bank. Earlier, on October 22, 2018, a rail engine with 15 coaches crossed the bridge as part of a trial run carried out by the Northeast Frontier Railway.
Before the Bogibeel Bridge opened, it took one and a half hours to cross the river by ferry. Now the travel time has been reduced to a few minutes. Moreover, it will facilitate transportation of goods by train on a larger scale. The bridge has reduced the train journey from Dibrugarh to Naharlagun (near Itanagar) to less than 100 km. It has also offered alternate and shorter rail routes from Dibrugarh to New Delhi and Kolkata via Rangiya.
The Bogibeel is set to galvanise economic development of the isolated and backward regions of eastern Assam and Arunachal. Reports suggest that the bridge will benefit about five million people in the two Northeastern states in sectors like trade, agriculture and tourism. The Modi government, due to face general elections soon, has highlighted the historic bridge as a symbol of development in the Northeast and as forward movement towards India’s defence preparedness vis-à-vis China.
The Indian Army has long demanded early completion of this bridge, which is strategic from the perspective of the country’s defence. A number of factors, like the military debacle of 1962, inhospitable terrain of the Northeast and absence of proper infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC, have compelled New Delhi’s policy makers to take upgradation of transport connectivity across the Northeast on an emergency basis, to facilitate supplies to troops and ensure timely re-enforcements in a crisis situation.
The idea of a road-cum-rail bridge over the Brahmaputra near Dibrugarh was first conceived in 1965. Some major bridges had been constructed in Assam since the early 1960s, including the Saraighat Bridge near Guwahati in 1963 and Kolia-Bhomora Bridge in 1998 in Nagaon district. However, despite such efforts, large parts of Upper Assam lacked connectivity between the southern and northern banks of the Brahmaputra. Operationalisation of the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge on May 26, 2017 and the recently-opened Bogibeel Bridge will address the issue of the Northeast’s infrastructure bottlenecks to an extent.
The Bogibeel will boost the Northeast’s connectivity with the rest of the country and help India to counter China’s massive infrastructure projects on the other side of the LAC. The bridge will resolve logistical challenges of the Indian armed forces stationed along the LAC in Arunachal, which shares 1080 km-long border with China. It has been a strategic move to address the long-standing transportation problem facing the Indian Army to get supplies from its Dibrugarh and Tezpur bases to the LAC.
The Bogibeel bridge is strong enough to ensure movement of heavy military equipment including tanks. It is unclear how China will react to this bridge. Opening of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge had perhaps unnerved China, which is fiercely resisting India’s efforts to strengthen infrastructure in the border areas. The improvement of necessary infrastructure, especially along the LAC, is becoming a challenge, particularly in the face of growing Chinese threats.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Arunachal University of Studies, Namsai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)