After 11 yrs and 2 PMs laying foundations, an N-E bridge to nowhere

After 11 yrs and 2 PMs laying foundations, an N-E bridge to nowhere

New Delhi: Two prime ministers have laid two foundation stones on both sides of the bridge, the first in 1997 and then again in 2002.

Yet, in a classic case of how red tape can hobble strategically important projects and open the Union government for criticism that it is ignoring the north-east, the railway ministry is only now gearing up to approve a tender for a crucial bridge in the region, across the Brahmaputra, and helping citizens in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

The proposed Bogibeel Bridge would become a lifeline for people in eastern Arunachal Pradesh — where India is fending off China’s claim on territory — and two districts of Assam. The people of Pasighat, Alang and Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, and Lakhimpur and Dhemaji in Assam now have to take ferries to go across the ferocious river to get treatment or attend colleges in Dibrugarh in Assam.

The bridge was first “inaugurated" by prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda in 1997. Subsequently, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also “inaugurated" the project from the opposite bank in 2002.

Despite the involvement of the two prime ministers, and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh technically representing Assam in the Parliament, the bridge has gone nowhere so far.

A tender for the sub-structure of the project was awarded in 2007, but was cancelled — twice — on account of differences of opinion between the Railway Board and the company that was awarded the project, said one official associated with the project who didn’t want to be named.

The company wanted the cost estimate to be revised on account of a hike in steel and cement prices, which the board turned down.

Now, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) has again forwarded the tender for approval from the Railway Board. Chairman of the board K.C. Jena and member (engineering) S.K. Vij could not be reached for comment.

“This time, everything will be on schedule," claims an official with NFR, promising that the project would now be completed in 2012.

All through 60 years of India’s independence, people from these parts of Arunachal Pradesh have had to cross the Brahmaputra in ferries or take a circuitous rail route to travel to Dibrugarh, for instance, to deal with medical emergencies.

“To get to Dibrugarh, people have to cross the Brahmaputra in ferries and, on days when the water looks threatening, we have to take a U-shaped rail route touching Tezpur and then turning back towards Dibrugarh. Either way — road or ferry — it takes over a day to get to Dibrugarh," says Tuhin Hazarika, a resident of North Lakhimpur.

The Bogibeel Bridge can reduce the transit time to three hours, say railway experts associated with the project.

Parliamentarians from Arunachal Pradesh, Tapir Gao and Kiren Rijiju, say they have been pushing for the project for many years now. “It is high time that the government paid attention to the project as it is vital for our state," says Rijiju.

The Member of Parliament from Lakhimpur in Assam, Arun Kumar Sarma, says he can never forget where he was at midnight on 31 December in 2000.

Sarma, his wife and two children were forced to spend more than 12 hours on a ferry, which could not find it’s way to the other bank of the river.

“My children slept on my lap in the back of the car and I dared not to move because if they were to get up, they would ask for food or water and we did not have both," he recalls.

News of the new tender comes even as the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, and the ruling Congress party argue and point fingers at each other about which party has done more for the north-east.