The commissioning of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge (also known as the Bhupen Hazarika bridge) is a major step towards addressing the connectivity woes of the Northeast. Lauded as the country’s longest river bridge, it is also transformational in terms of stepping up the country’s defence capabilities.
Bridging the gap
The construction of the Dhola-Sadiya bridge began in 2011 under the aegis of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). The project was awarded to Navayuga Dhola Infra Projects Private Limited, a special purpose vehicle incorporated by Navayuga Engineering Company Limited to execute the project on a build-operate-transfer basis. It has been implemented as a part of the Arunachal Package of the ministry’s Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for North East.
The 9.15 km bridge spans the Lohit river, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra, trimming the distance between upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh by 165 km. The project’s scope also involved developing and strengthening 16.65 km of approach roads (two-lane highway) from Dhola to Islampur Tinali, resulting in a total project length of 28.5 km. The bridge entailed an investment of Rs 20.56 billion and was inaugurated on May 26, 2017.
The Dhola Sadiya bridge connects Sadia town in Tinsukia district with Dhola village in Assam, and is situated 540 km away from the state capital, Dispur, and 300 km away from Arunachal Pradesh’s capital, Itanagar. It is 9.15 km in length and 12.9 metres in width with an external post-tensioned bridge with 183 spans each of 50 metres, along with an 11.87 km two-lane connecting road and paved shoulders from Dhola Bazaar to Islampur Tinali.
Situated in a highly seismic region, the bridge was built using state-of-the-art equipment, including imported hydraulic rigs, and provided seismic buffers in all 182 piers, thereby making the bridge earthquake-proof. It can further withstand the weight of a 60 tonne battle tank, making it suitable for use by the armed forces.
The bridge has been constructed using 17,000 tonnes of cement and around 30,000 tonnes of steel. Steel products supplied by Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) accounted for nearly 90 per cent of the total steel used in the project including thermomechanically treated bars, structurals and plates for the bridge.
Further, the MoRTH has agreed to provide lighting for the project at an estimated cost of Rs 300 million, while the electrification work will be done under the present concession agreement between the central and state governments.
Weighing the pros and cons
While the bridge has important connotations for the region in terms of both cross-border trade and economic collaboration, it is also significant from a geostrategic perspective, as it offers the armed forces logistical support for beefing up defences in the disputed areas of the Northeast.
The new Dhola-Sadiya bridge has become the only source of connectivity, besides the Kaliabor bridge in central Assam, along the 375 km of the Brahmaputra’s riverbank and has transformed the transportation scenario in northern Assam. Also, as there is no civilian airport in Arunachal Pradesh, the bridge will allow easier access to the nearest railhead in Tinsukia and airport in Dibrugarh, promoting greater interregional movement.
It will further provide round–the-clock connectivity between Dhola and Sadiya as opposed to the earlier arrangement where ferries offered a means of transport only during the day, barring times when flood warnings were flagged. The bridge has also reduced the distance between Rupai on National Highway (NH)-37 in Assam to Meka/ Roing on NH-52 in Arunachal Pradesh by 165 km, thereby reducing the travel time to just one hour from the earlier six hours. This will lead to an estimated saving of almost Rs 1 million a day in costs. Besides regional connectivity, the bridge also presents various other developmental opportunities in the region. It will ensure better supply chain management which will help keep supply prices in control while also ensuring timely distribution. This will eventually lead to a marketable surplus which will prevent price fluctuations and therefore enhance production activities. Industrial investments with better border trade between the Northeast and South Asian countries are also expected to be expedited in the region along with greater access to healthcare and educational facilities.
The bridge will facilitate several economic/industrial corridors and provide shorter and thus faster access enabling Indian industries to tap the south-western and south-eastern Chinese markets.
The bridge will also enhance the Indian Army’s mobilisation capabilities and the movement of troops and heavy equipment in the areas bordering China. Earlier, army convoys in Assam either spent hours crossing the river by boat from Dhola to Sadiya, or took a circuitous 10-hour, 250 km road trip from the Dinjan division headquarter, near Tinsukia, to Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh, before driving ahead to the border. The Dhola-Sadiya bridge will now give easy access to Anini and Kibithoo which are less than 300 km away from the bridge point.
The numerous benefits notwithstanding, the project faced several challenges, one of the main ones being land acquisition. During the execution of the project, a road stretch of around 10 km faced delays despite the authorities having paid compensation to the settlers, who later refused to vacate the land and demanded more compensation. Twelve cases of land acquisition were stuck in litigation on the northern side (Sadiya) and seven on the southern side (Dhola). This was despite the ministry already having cleared the estimated Rs 3.1 million for the acquisition of the particular stretches of land on both sides of the river. Bureaucratic hurdles, the river changing course and flooding were other reasons for delays and cost overruns of the project.
In contrast to the architectural and transportation accomplishment, there was a high cost associated with the displacement of people. The boatmen who used to deploy all their boats each time an army convoy arrived have lost a big share of their business. There were about 150 boats plying across the river and with the inauguration of the bridge, the livelihood of the boatmen is said to be in jeopardy.
The way forward
In recent years, construction and rehabilitation works have picked up pace with the central government assigning top priority to enhancing road connectivity to the Northeast. Currently, nearly 3,000 km of roads are being constructed in the region with highway and inland projects worth Rs 400 billion under way and plans to spend over Rs 1.5 trillion in the next two years. Going forward, with the successful commissioning of projects of this magnitude, the bridge segment is certain to receive a major impetus. These projects offer key learning in terms of innovations in materials and construction techniques and efficient manpower deployment for other projects to emulate.