By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The development of strategic infrastructure in northeastern India has gained momentum in recent months. On May 26, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge to boost connectivity, trade and development and facilitate movement of troops and military logistics in Assam and neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The 9.15 km-long S-shaped bridge, built over the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributary, Lohit, is the longest in India. The three-lane bridge is also earthquake-proof. The bridge has been dedicated to Assam’s legendary singer Bhupen Hazarika, who was born in Sadiya.
The construction of the bridge started in 2011 under the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The project was implemented through a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and a Visakhapatnam-based private construction firm Navayuga Engineering Company. The current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government expedited construction work after coming to power in May 2014 and, in the process, appropriated the strategically important infrastructure project politically.
The Dhola-Sadiya Bridge, built at a cost of Rs 2,056 crore, is an engineering marvel. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments both at the Centre and Assam have attached top priority to Northeast’s vital infrastructure requirements and are trying to make the region a hub of trade, transit and connectivity. While inaugurating the bridge, Prime Minister Modi said it placed Assam at the centre of India’s efforts to expand trade links with Southeast Asia under the “Act East” policy.
The bridge will be a game=changer for the region in terms of connectivity. It connects Dhola on the south bank of the Brahmaputra to Sadiya on the north. The ferry ride between Dhola and Sadiya would earlier take over two hours. After the bridge opened, the travel time has been reduced to 30 minutes. The bridge will connect the remotest parts of Assam’s Tinsukia and Arunachal’s Lohit, Lower Dibang Valley and Upper Dibang Valley districts. Opening the bridge assumes significance as all the three districts of Arunachal Pradesh share a border with China, with which India has longstanding territorial disputes.
The operationalisation of the bridge is also important from the perspective of development of India’s isolated Northeast. Establishing road connectivity with inaccessible and backward areas, the bridge is set to galvanise all-round development in Upper Assam and eastern Arunachal. The bridge will immensely benefit the people of Arunachal in many areas, including healthcare and education. Also, by reducing travel time between Assam and Arunachal, the bridge saves fuel worth Rs 10 lakh per day.
The bridge is also a boon for several hydro-electric projects coming up in the region. It will make transportation of heavy machinery for the power projects cheaper and faster. Among Indian states, Arunachal has the highest hydro-power generation potential. The state’s major river systems—Kameng, Subansiri, Dibang, Siang, Lohit and others are considered ideal for hydro-power generation by the experts. Reports say the state’s hydro-power potential is estimated to be 60,000 MW. A number of large private and public sector firms are keen to tap Arunachal’s vast natural resources. A major factor behind the government’s approval of the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge Project was its potential to boost the power sector of the Northeast, particularly Arunachal.
The bridge will also help promote tourism in the region, especially Arunachal’s inaccessible areas like Mayodia, Bismaknagar and Dong. Assam’s Dibru-Saikia National Park, which is a rare biosphere reserve situated on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, will receive a fresh lease of life because of its proximity to the bridge. During the opening of the bridge, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said the state government had decided to set up a “Samanay Khetra” (Assimilation Centre) to showcase the rich and unique art and culture of North East India before domestic global tourists. The Assam government believes establishment of a cultural integration centre will add impetus to the state’s tourism industry.
The bridge will additionally provide strategic advantage to India and logistical support to the Indian Army in the border regions, where China has already developed state-of-art infrastructure. Security experts have noted that the bridge will facilitate quick mobilisation and movement of troops and heavy military equipment to the forward areas. Reports suggest that the bridge can withstand India’s main battle tanks (MBT) Arjun I and Arjun II, which weigh between 62 tonnes and 68.6 tonnes. Without the bridge, troops had to undergo a stressful 10-hour journey by boat to reach eastern Arunachal.
The bridge will fortify Arunachal’s far flung areas bordering China by facilitating smooth movement of troops and logistics. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded the Walong-Kibithu sector in Lohit district near the India-China-Myanmar trijunction during the border conflict of 1962. However, the bridge could be vulnerable to air or missile strikes from China during war time since it is an “undefended static target”. China could pose a serious threat to India’s key civil and military installations as the aerial distance between the bridge and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is less than 100 km. China asked India to be “cautious” and exercise “restraint” over building infrastructure in Arunachal, two days after Modi opened the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge. There are now four bridges over the Brahmaputra, but the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge is closest to the LAC.
India lags far behind China in its military build up and border infrastructure development. The DS bridge is only a step forward in meeting India’s total security needs. The present NDA government has been pushing infrastructure projects in the region, realising that a security-centric approach to the development of this inaccessible area will not augur well for India’s long-term interests.
Like the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge, the 4.94 km-long Bogibeel Bridge across the Brahmaputra is also a strategic infrastructure project and an engineering feat. The bridge is expected to be operational by December 2018. In addition to providing connectivity between Assam’s Dibrugarh on the south bank of the Brahmaputra and Dhemaji on the north, the bridge will provide logistical support to the Indian Army positioned in Arunachal’s forward areas.
Assam is anxiously waiting for another milestone. According to reports, the proposed Dhubri-Phulbari Bridge, nearly 18 km long, will surpass the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge once operational. The project was sanctioned by the UPA government. Feasibility studies and preparation of a detailed project report have been completed under the NDA government. Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said in May that construction of the bridge would begin soon.
New Delhi has also stepped up efforts to improve overall infrastructure in Arunachal where China claims 90,000 sq km, calling it “Southern Tibet”. India’s lingering border dispute with China, its expansionist designs and upgradation of border infrastructure in Tibet continue to worry New Delhi’s policy and security establishment. To remove infrastructural bottlenecks, the government has assured more rail, road, inland waterway and air connectivity to the region. China is fiercely resisting India’s efforts to strengthen border infrastructure and is currently engaged in a face off in the Sikkim sector of the LAC.
The building of necessary infrastructure, especially in the border region, is becoming a challenging task in the face of growing Chinese threats. It remains to be seen how the challenge will be overcome.
*The author is an independent analyst on India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]