Bogibeel Bridge opened: Residents of northern Assam hopeful for future, but fear environmental degradation, demographic changes

The early morning mist hangs lightly, the ambiance surreal. From Kareng-sapori (“Kare” is a Mishing dialect word for an extended verandah in a bamboo stilt-raised house, “sapori” a riverine sandbar), a boat and ferry inland water port on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, about 35 kilometres away from Dhemaji, the contours of the southern bank near Dibrugarh are just about visible.

Resma Doley, a petite 20-something who runs a ramshackle teashop, is both wistful and hopeful. “After the picnic season this winter, my shop will have no customers. Kareng-sapori ghat will disappear. I am sure other avenues of livelihood will crop up. I am happy that the Bogibeel bridge has finally seen the light of day.”

What used to be a three-hour journey across the mighty Brahmaputra in the past is now just a 7-minute sauntering drive.

Actor and film producer Nip Konwar, a local man, says with a lump in the throat, “It is a strange feeling. The river, the ghat, had spawned a unique riverine culture. Many Bihu songs and “oinitoms” (Mishing love ballads) have been written of pining lovers who were separated by the massive river. This ‘ghat’, this ambience, this sub-culture will be gone for good. But the bridge is, without doubt, the best possible news.”

At Karengsapori, Resma Doley is anxious but full of hope. Image: Sanjib K Baruah

At Kareng-sapori, Resma Doley is anxious but full of hope about the Bogibeel bridge. Image: Sanjib Kr Baruah

For centuries, Assam’s north bank of the Brahmaputra, a veritable gateway to Arunachal Pradesh and further north to the border with China, had been seen as a semi-dark region due to its inaccessibility, immense vulnerability to the annual floods and lack of infrastructure, which led to staggered development that did not keep pace with the progress elsewhere.

One big obstacle had been the mighty Brahmaputra which almost slices Assam into a northern and southern part. At certain stretches, one cannot see one bank of the river from the other, not to speak of the situation during monsoons, when the river resembles a furious roaring sea.

Bijoy Pait, 50, a pig farmer, scurrying around his few bamboo cages of whimpering piglets in Kareng-sapori, says, “As a child, a bridge across the Brahmaputra was in the realm of the imaginary. All of a sudden, it has now come true.”

Also finding it difficult to come to terms with the new reality is Pait’s senior colleague Chandra Doley, who shakes his head and admits to his confused state of mind, “I am finding it difficult to comprehend the situation. I have been transporting piglets across the river for most of my life on boats and ferries. At times I would miss the ferry and then there would be thunder and furious storms. But from now on, it will be just a drive.”

It is also not easy for those unfamiliar with the region, to even begin realising how big a change the Christmas day opening of the Bogibeel bridge means.

Says Dipak Gogoi, a prominent businessman of Dhemaji, “For people who are not from the northern bank, you cannot imagine what the bridge means to us. Emergencies, including medical ones, will be far easier to tackle now. We will have unimaginably easier access to schools, colleges, hospitals, groceries in Dibrugarh.”

Dibrugarh is the biggest city in Assam after the capital, Guwahati.

But there is apprehension too over what the 4.9-kilometre-long link that cost Rs 5,000 crore may lead to.

“The crowds will come in, vehicles will crowd our roads, our pristine environment and cleanliness will take a backseat. I only hope our innocence is not lost and the delicate ethnic demography is not substantially altered,” says Gogoi.

Land rates have more than doubled in Dhemaji and nearby Lakhimpur districts even as machine boat (locally called “bhotbhotis” or “fighters”) owners are scampering around looking for customers to sell off their boats to.

Says Keshab Chattradhara, a local social activist: “Land plots near Bogibeel are already in high demand. Already a process of distributing land pattas has started, if only to legitimise existing land holdings. That prices will spiral is a given.”

“There is a strong possibility that local people from the economically weaker sections will sell off their lands and move elsewhere or will pose as fronts for non-locals for business purposes. I only wish the government had done something for about 85 families whose only means of livelihood may take a hit,” he adds.

Touted as a game-changer for the region’s economy, socio-economic progress and national military strategy, the demand for such a bridge was articulated first in 1977. With the government agreeing to the bridge in the Assam Accord of 1985, it has taken 33 years since then till its completion.

Bijoy Pait (left), Chandra Doley (right) wait for the ferry with their piglets. Image: Sanjib Kr Baruah

Bijoy Pait (left), Chandra Doley (right) wait for the ferry with their piglets. Image: Sanjib Kr Baruah

Besides the ubiquitous red tape, it was also the complexity of the construction that delayed its completion. An entirely new technology has been used that is based on welded pillars, and the bridge is styled on the lines of the Oresund bridge that connects Sweden with Finland.

Bogibeel is the fifth bridge across the Brahmaputra after the Saraighat (opened in 1963), Koliabhomora (1987), Jogighopa (1998), and the Dhola-Sadiya (2017).

Of these, the Dhola-Sadiya and the Bogibeel are crucial not only for vastly improving connectivity between the backward north bank and the more developed south bank, but also from the strategic standpoint as they would serve as extremely important feeder routes for military movement to the border with China.

It is through these two bridges that a lot of military movement may be expected to take place as they are located in a vantage position for supplies of security personnel and material to possible flashpoints like Tuting and Mechuka (in Upper Siang district), Asaphila and Longju (Upper Subansiri), and Dichu (Anjaw), which have some legacy issues when it comes to India-China border tensions.

Significantly, while the Dhola-Sadiya bridge can easily withstand weights of up to 60 tonnes, the Bogibeel bridge has been built to hold heavy equipment up to 90 tonnes, thereby enabling smooth movement of the heaviest of Indian infantry equipment and tanks.

China already lays claim to the territory of Arunachal Pradesh and calls it “South Tibet”, while India strongly contests the stand. In 1962, the armies of both nations had clashed in the region.

Updated Date: Dec 29, 2018 15:29 PM

Updated: December 29, 2018 — 11:03 am