The media is going gaga over the Dhola-Sadiya bridge inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi this morning (May 26). The most common line taken by the national media is that this bridge will be useful for the Indian Army to move its tanks to “beat China”. Oh please!
My hunch is that this bridge will benefit the corporates and non-Arunachalis more than the Army and people at the northern end.
As a person who has been travelling to Arunachal Pradesh – including to the area where this bridge is located – since 1997, I can assertively say that the significance of the bridge is being overhyped. It is important to consider the whole picture and put things in perspective. The bridge is, of course, going to improve connectivity to a small population residing at places such as Sadiya, Chapakhowa in Assam and Roing and Anini and other villages in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh.
But the claims by the media that this bridge will bring Assam and Arunachal closer et al – clearly parroting the governing line – is only the half truth. In the 1962 war with China, the Indian Army did face problems due to connectivity. But crossing the Brahmaputra was least of them.
By the way, the Dhola-Sadiya bridge is on Lohit river and not on Brahmaputra. Few kilometres down the site of this bridge is a point where Lohit is met by two other equally big rivers, Dibang and Siang, this is the Yarlung Tsangpo that comes from Tibet, and the three together then are called Brahmaputra, a nad (a male river).
Few kilometres down the site of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge is a point where Lohit is met by two other equally big rivers, Dibang and Siang, this is the Yarlung Tsangpo that comes from Tibet, and the three together then are called Brahmaputra.
But, first things first. Is this the only bridge to take people and vehicles (read tanks) across Lohit and/Brahmaputra?
A clear no.
Upstream of this point is another bridge – commissioned in 2006 – at a place called Parshuram Kund, which now offers 24X7 connectivity to border posts of Walong and Kibithoo in north-eastern most tip of Arunachal Pradesh. Downstream of Dhola-Sadiya bridge is another upcoming bridge, the Bogibeel bridge – a combined road and rail bridge – connecting Dhemaji and Dibrugarh districts of Assam. This bridge will offer connectivity to large parts of north Assam and to several districts of Arunachal Pradesh. That bridge is likely to be inaugurated soon too.
Then why the hype? Especially considering the fact that the real challenge lies ahead.
What beyond Sadiya?
Once you have crossed over to Sadiya, which is on the plains (on riverbank), then you come across the rain-lashed roads followed by the road snaking through land-slide prone hills that make the journey harder. Every year, scores of places across Arunachal Pradesh witness landslides and remain cut off for weeks together, thanks to the intense rainfall.
A Press Information Bureau (PIB) release labelled the Dhola-Sadiya bridge as 'New Hope for the Northeast'.
After Sadiya, northwards, it is a relatively easier journey to Roing and to some extent to Anini. But beyond it, the connectivity till the border remains an issue. As one treads northwards, the deep gorges and furious rivers make it difficult to cut roads – although credit must go to Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to come up with newer roads every few years – in this part of the Himalayas.
Be it the road stretching north towards Roing and Anini, be it the one that goes towards Tezu and subsequently towards border posts of Walong and Kibithoo, it is the Himalayas that we are pitched against. Things turn really problematic during rains – and it rains heavily from April to September-October – when even army personnel are forced to walk down the cut-off mountain faces or wait for a gap in rainy days to use helicopters.
So, the claim that this bridge will help move tanks towards border posts with China is just too far-fetched. Even without crossing the Brahmaputra or Lohit, the tanks can be moved into Arunachal Pradesh. Problem lies in the Himalayas not at the foothills.
One positive can be the bridge itself. The engineering wonder that this bridge is, this itself will be a huge tourist draw.
So, who benefits with this bridge?
This is not to say that the bridge will not help anybody. Of course, this will definitely help the people of Sadiya, Chapakhowa and several other smaller places apart from people from Dibang Valley – especially from the small villages and towns such as Roing and Anini, who lacked a 24X7 connectivity with Dibrugarh and suffered majorly during floods.
Often during heavy rainfall days – and which are too far more than any other part of India – people from these places who needed to reach Dibrugarh’s hospital, railway station or airport could not cross swollen Lohit. Plying of the boats and ferries are suspended when then river is in spate.
But this miniscule population – from Sadiya to northern-most tip of Dibang Valley may be less than 1.5 lakh people – is not any influential lot. The contention that a welfare state like India should be reaching out to even smaller populations, then the bridge should have been built a pretty long ago. So I say, the most intriguing set of people who are likely to benefit are the corporates. Yes. The corporates.
For years now, Arunachal Pradesh with its roaring massive rivers has been looked up by planners as the power house for India. According to planners, the rivers have a huge hydropower potential and remain untapped primarily because of missing connectivity. Of course, there has been heavy resistance by environmentalists and the local ethnic communities for the dams that will submerge huge tracts of forests and put obstacles in the free-flowing rivers due to the planned cascade-like dams on Arunachal’s rivers.
My hunch now is that this bridge will benefit corporates who will find it easier to transport heavy machinery, especially enormous turbines, to harness the rivers for its hydro-power.
Another set of people which can possibly benefit is the non-Arunachali tour operators and tourists, who will not find lesser disruptions in plans due to the year-round connectivity as against the uncertainty of schedules due to landslides in the Arunachal hills and cut off when Lohit/Brahmaputra are in spate.
Hope the tourists don’t spoil the pristine Arunachali landscape as has been done to other Himalayan places.
On personal note
As I watched on television the inauguration of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, my mind inevitably went back to my first visit to that area two decades ago. The journey made a lasting impression as I crossed seven rivers – big and small – and by boats and ferries of different sizes before I came face-to-face with the mighty Lohit, flowing in full fury in June. This we crossed by a small boat wherein the boatmen struggled against the strong current to keep it in line. My journey from Tinsukia in Assam started at 5am and took an entire day to reach Tezu in Lohit district.
But over the years, with better road connectivity, thanks to the bridges on Noahdihing and other rivers en route to the bridge on Lohit at Parshuram Kund, travel has become relatively easier and 24X7X365. Last time I went to Tezu in 2014, I started from Tinsukia at about 6am and was there by 11am.