The Dhola-Sadiya bridge, inaugurated by the prime minister on May 26, is the country’s longest, connecting the remotest parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Note: This story was first published on May 18 and is being republished today after the bridge was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Sadiya (Tinsukia) Assam: The last ferry leaves the riverbank at 4:30 pm every day. When monsoon arrives, the Brahmaputra and a stretch of the Lohit – its tributary – swell, following heavy rainfall. The ferries stop altogether, cutting off Sadiya, the easternmost sub-division of Assam, from the rest of the state.
People who need to commute from Sadiya to the nearest railhead in Tinsukia, or to Dibrugarh – the biggest town in upper Assam, which also has the only government hospital of repute in the region – have no option but to wait for the waters to recede.
“Even on normal days, you have to start very early in the morning from Sadiya to be able to finish work on the other side of the river and board the 4:30 pm ferry back. The other option is to stay overnight at someone’s house in Tinsukia, Talap or Dhola and return home the next day,” said Dimba Gogoi, a resident of Sadiya, relaying an everyday reality of his life.
With a touch of sarcasm, Gogoi said, “While we in Sadiya have no option but to take the ferry to reach Dhola, then Tinsukia and thereafter the rest of Assam and India, those on the other side venture into Sadiya only if it can’t be avoided.”
Rajen Perme, a social activist and a prominent resident of Sadiya, added, “Even if we start at 6 in the morning, we take about six hours to reach Tinsukia, though it is just 40 kms from the Dhola ghat. It is because the onward commute from the ghat after the two-hour journey on the river is not very reliable.”
“In summer, on reaching the Sadiya ghat at 6:30 pm,” Perme said, “we can find a vehicle to go to Chapakhowa, the centre of Sadiya, but in winter, sometimes we don’t because it becomes too dark. Also, if it becomes too dark, the ferries fear losing their way, so they stop midway and we end up staying the night in the river. It has happened to me so many times.”
Besides Gogoi and Perme, other Sadiya residents were waiting for May 26, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed on a field in Dhola gaon to inaugurate what Gogoi said will be “the new lifeline of the people of Sadiya,” the Dhola-Sadiya bridge.
The 9.15 km s-shaped bridge, built over rivers Lohit, Kundil and Dhola to link Sadiya with the rest of Assam, is the longest in the country – a little over three kilometres more than the Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai.
On Friday, Modi inaugurated it and dedicated it to Assam’s iconic singer, Bhupen Hazarika.
While the national media has been looking at the imposing two-lane bridge only from its logistical advantage, a large number of people living in the remote border areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are far more excited about it, owing to the difference it will make to their daily lives. The bridge will certainly give the army access to an extremely remote part of the Chinese border, along the Anjaw and Dibang valley of Arunachal, allowing them to move tanks over it. But for the people in the region, the bridge will be their “lifeline”. Thus far, they have been solely dependent, even during medical and other emergencies, on a fleet of rickety ferries.
“I am happy that we will have an architectural marvel in Sadiya that will be of some advantage to the army, but I am happier that it will solve a longstanding problem of the people of the sub-division. While the ferry ride between Dhola and Sadiya takes over two hours, by road it will now be a 30-minute ride. It will change our life, we will save a lot of time and energy every day,” Noren Sutia, another Sadiya resident, pointed out.
The Sadiya administration readied “a separate road” to help eager locals reach the temporary helipad prepared for the prime minister’s fleet to land on May 26, so that they could “see and hear him”.
“The opening of the bridge is a big thing for the people here. And then, the prime minister is coming to inaugurate it. So everyone wants to come here on May 26. We have, therefore, readied a separate road for them to reach an open field where the prime minister will address them after inaugurating the bridge,” Prasanta Sagar Sangmai, Sadiya superintendent of police, had told The Wire at the police outpost in Dhola. For some weeks now, Sangmai has been camping at the police post near the bridge to look at the preparation for the inaugural event.
Though the bridge is all set for traffic from May 26 onwards, the roads leading to the bridge from both Dhola and Sadiya were yet to be completed till last week.
According to officials at the site office of Navayuga Engineering Co Ltd, the firm constructing the bridge since 2011, work has been continuing at an accelerated pace. They said work on the road on the Sadiya side was delayed “because of a compensation issue raised by the Aath Mile village that lies close to the bridge.”
“It is now sorted out, so we will try and complete it as soon as we can. The approach road on the Dhola side will be done much before May 26,” one official said.
Connecting Arunachal Pradesh
At a dhaba on national highway 37, near Moran, a town in the region not too far from the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, a group of people from Roing, the headquarters of the Lower Dibang district of Arunachal, were as ecstatic as the people of Sadiya.
“We are waiting for May 26. Commuting from some towns in Arunachal like Tezu and Roing through NH 37 has been a huge deal. After the Parashuram Kund bridge was constructed in 2004, we could drive down by the highway to enter Tinsukia district of Assam, but the time taken is more than eight hours. Now, with this bridge, the travel time will be cut by half,” said one of them last week.
The route they take to Roing is through Tezu, situated 100 kms away, or though Pasighat, about 50 km away.
“Now, after crossing the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, Roing will barely be 35 km away,” he added.
“Besides improving the life of the people of Sadiya, this bridge will change the economy of many remote parts of Arunachal. Already, tourists lodges are being built in places like Mayodiya in that state,” said Sangmai.
“Yes, the bridge will not only greatly shorten the travel time of people living in that state’s Lohit, Upper Dibang and Lower Dibang districts but will also develop tourism in that belt, particularly in places like Mayodiya, Dong, Bismaknagar,” added Dibrugarh-based journalist Rajib Dutta.
While Mayodia is a pass situated about 56 km from Roing, close to the Indo-China border, Dong is one of the eastern-most villages with just three or four hutments in the Lohit district. In India, the sun rises earliest in Dong, at 3 am – a phenomenon that draws many tourists.
Situated barely 80 km away, another set of people living in Diburgarh and Dhemaji districts, separated by the Brahmaputra, have, however, been waiting for the arrival of such a moment of joy for decades now.
“We heard that the bridge is finally going to be ready by this December. That would be a boon, much awaited,” said Rekha Rani Bora, referring to the Bogibeel bridge being built over the Brahmaputra to connect Dibrugarh with Dhemaji, the easternmost district of Assam bordering Arunachal, not just by road but by the railways too.
Like the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, the Bogibeel bridge is also set to be an infrastructural feat for Assam – the longest road-cum-rail bridge of the country at 4.94 km. Besides giving the army a logistical advantage, it will also give the people of Dhemaji and Arunachal the option to use trains to commute. However, the bridge has failed to meet the pace of construction of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge.
A promise of the central government as per the Assam Accord, signed with the All Assam Students Union and Asom Jatiotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad in 1985, the bridge was sanctioned only in 1997-98 during the H.D. Deve Gowda government. However, work on the ground started only in 2002 during A.B. Vajpayee’s time. Since then, it has missed many completion deadlines and seen billions of rupees as cost overruns.
To push the construction, the Manmohan Singh government gave it the status of a national project in 2007. Since then, the Union finance ministry has funded 75% of its cost while the railway ministry has contributed the rest. Yet, the delays have continued.
According to Gammon India, the company contracted by the North East Frontier Railway in 2008 to construct the sub-structure of the bridge, the latest deadline is December 2017. A consortium of construction firms, including Hindustan Construction Company, is also involved in building the superstructure of the strategic bridge.
Bora, who runs a pan shop close to the Bogibeel ghat, said, “Like in Sadiya, the ferry service also stops between the Bogibeel ghat of Dibrugarh and Kareng Ghat of Dhemaji during high monsoon. Those days, people in Dhemaji have to take a circuitous road of over a hundred kms to reach Dibrugarh, which is otherwise 17 kms after crossing the Brahmaputra.”
Loss of livelihoods
Interestingly, if these bridges will give the locals the vital road link that they are eagerly waiting for, they are also likely to render many of the village families jobless. An estimated 250 families living in the villages along the Brahmaputra and another 300 families in Sadiya and Dhola area make a living from the daily ferry service.
“Many in our village own ferries. They are very worried about losing their livelihood,” said Bora. “Also, those who got jobs of welders, helpers, etc, in the construction sites will also lose their jobs once the bridge work is over. My son works as a welder in the Bogibeel bridge site. He earns about Rs 24,000 per month. I don’t know what he will do after the bridge is complete by December,” she added.
Ferry owners at the Bogibeel and Sadiya ghat said they welcome the construction of the bridges but also stressed on “a rehabilitation package” by the state government for them. Last month, the labour union of the ferry workers of Sadiya and Dhola ghat had submitted a memorandum to the state government seeking an alternate means of livelihood.
“Yes rehabilitating the ferry owners and their workers is an issue but the local administration plans to help them operate ferries for tourists. Being milestone bridges, both of them are certainly going to be local tourist spots,” said Sangmai.
“We are also likely to engage the ferries operating in the Dhola-Sadiya section to take tourists to the Dibru-Saikhowa national park,” he added.
Located about 12 km from Tinsukia town, the Dibru-Saikhowa sanctuary is a one-of-a-kind biosphere reserve spread on the floodplains of Lohit and Brahmaputra rivers.
A tributary of the massive Brahmaputra, Lohit originates in eastern Tibet and flows through Arunachal Pradesh before entering Assam. Below the Lohit, near Sadiya, the river expands its breadth significantly and takes the name of Brahmaputra before flowing for about 1,450 kms to enter Bangladesh.