Guwahati: Assam’s long wait for the Bogibeel Bridge — the longest rail-cum-road bridge — will end when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates it on Tuesday.
The 4.9km-long bridge, which witnessed several protests and missed deadlines, will not only improve connectivity between the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, but also help the economic development of the region and strengthen the defence movement along the India-China frontiers.
The Bogibeel Bridge, an offshoot of the Assam Movement which culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, is also recognised as Asia’s second-longest bridge with three-lane roads on top and a double line rail below.
Speaking about the bridge, former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, said: “It has been a long-pending demand of the people of the region and I feel glad that it has become a reality now.”
Sanctioned on January 22, 1997, then prime minister HD Deve Gowda had laid the foundation stone for the bridge. However, the construction began only after former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated the work site on April 21, 2002. The inauguration ceremony of the bridge coincides with the 94th birth anniversary of Vajpayee, who passed away in August this year.
Remembering the struggle to include the Bogibeel Bridge project in the railway budget under the Deve Gowda-led government, Birendra Prasad Baishya, Lok Sabha MP from Asom Gana Parishad (1996–97), said: “The railway budget had no mention of the bridge initially. But we vehemently demanded it in the cabinet meeting ahead of placing the railway budget. Only then did the railway ministry agreed to our demands.”
Subsequently, the Bogibeel Bridge was granted a national project status in 2007. Expected to be completed by 2009, several deadlines were missed leading to a massive cost escalation of the project from approximately Rs 1,700 crore to almost Rs 5,000 crore.
Delighted with the completion of the bridge during his tenure, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said, “This bridge is a dream come true. It will not only connect Dhemaji and Dibrugarh districts, the north and south banks of Brahmaputra River, but will also play a major role in the economic growth of the region, strengthen security and boost connectivity for the people of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh.”
“This bridge is part of infrastructure projects to improve logistics along the border in Arunachal Pradesh. This includes the construction of a trans-Arunachal highway on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, and new road and rail links,” a defence official said. So far, troops moving between Dhemaji and Dibrugarh were travelling over 500km via the Kaliabhomora Bridge in Sonitpur to reach the other side.
Located just over 20km away from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, the Bogibeel Bridge will act as an alternative to the Kolia Bhomora Setu of Sonitpur district in providing connectivity to nearly five million people residing in Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Being built in prime location, the bridge also carries strategic importance to India by significantly enhancing its ability to transport troops and supplies to its border with Tibet in Arunachal Pradesh. India and China share a nearly 4,000 km-long border, with almost 75 per cent in Arunachal Pradesh.
On October 22, Union minister Piyush Goyal termed it a historic event for Indian Railways when the first trial train journey on the bridge was conducted from Dhamalgaon railway station in Dibrugarh to Tangani railway station of Dhemaji. The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) piloted the first freight train on December 2.
The NF Railway has announced to introduce two new Intercity Express trains connecting Tinsukia and Naharlagun via the new bridge. While one train will run five days in a week, another will run weekly. The trains will have stoppages at New Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Dhamalgaon, Dhemaji, Gogamukh, North Lakhimpur and Harmuti during the journey on both ways. The train will have one AC chair car and nine second class day coach with sitting accommodation.
Addressing the concern of a large convergence of people for the inauguration, NFR chief public relations officer PJ Sharma, said: “NF Railway has decided to run four special trains to and from Tangani. The trains will run from Gogamukh and Murkongselek.”
However, there are certain areas of concern regarding the bridge. For the hundreds of boatmen, who have been ferrying passengers and goods across Brahmaputra River over the years, the bridge is expected to hit their livelihood. Around 120 odd boatmen, besides 150 other small shopkeepers and people working in various modes of transport on both sides of the banks, now fear for their future.
Acknowledging the flip side of the story, Bishnu Pegu, a boatman at Bogibeel Ghat, said: “It’s a mixed feeling. Everyone needs the bridge but it will surely affect our livelihood. Many have already started to shift their business and others are following. We hope the government also keeps us in mind and compensates everyone whose lands and jobs have been affected by the project.”
On an average, around 28 boats, including two government ferries, were plying between the two banks every day. The bridge will reduce the commute time from around 90 minutes via water to less than 20 minutes by road.
Meanwhile, the bridge also faced a battle over its possible name. At least seven names were suggested by various groups of Assam. While the Sutia community leaders have been demanding that it be named after their dynasty queen Sati Sadhini, the Tai-Ahom community insisted that the bridge should be named after Chaolong Siu-ka-Pha who founded the Ahom kingdom in Assam in 1228.
Deori and Mising, the two indigenous tribal communities also pressed for naming the bridge after their leaders — Bhimbor Deuri and Swahid Kamala Miri. The name of British philanthropist John Berry White, who played a major role in medical facilities, rail and road communication in Assam almost a century ago, was also pitched. Further, the outfit of United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) too proposed to name it after Assam’s cultural icons such as Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.
Joining the race, BJP MLA from Dibrugarh Prashanta Phukan said the bridge should be called ‘Atal Setu’ as a dedication to Vajpayee.