Communication and Transport
The airports at Bangkok and Singapore are stretched to their seams. Dhaka should be in a position to handle diverted international traffic. But that would require, better airport services and facilities, urgent conversion of Chittagong airport into an international one; and upgrading Sylhet airport to handle non-resident Bangladeshi traffic from the United Kingdom.
A ADEQUATE infrastructural facilities for power, telecommunication and transport are essential prerequisites for economic growth. I have written about elusive energy and the lagging telecommunication services in this column earlier. Today, I shall write about the need for efficient communication and multiple forms of transport, so necessary for moving not just people but also industrial freight along an inter modal network. What follows is basically an effort at collating analytical materials from knowledge sources and it borrows extensively from a long run prospective study, namely, Bangladesh 2020.
A major transformation that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh is the pace of urbanization. Bangladesh has essentially been a rural country with four out of five inhabitants living in the countryside. By the year 2020 nearly every other child woman and man will live in an urban center. Given past and present trends. Greater Dhaka as a mega-city will grow by more than double in terms of population, with the port city of Chittagong closely following.
Urbanization will be squared along the Tongi-Joydebpur Gazipur corridor with new road and perhaps computer train link between Dhaka-Joydebpur. Road improvements will facilitate urban development along the Sripur-Bhaluka-Gafargaon-Trisal-Mymensingh corridor. Further if a road bye pass and commuter train as well link Dhaka-comilla-Feni Chitagong with the northern corridor, Tongi-Joydebpur-Gazipur in particular, that will reduce pressure on Dhaka city and more importantly integrate nortern districts with the economic hub of the south.
Commissioning of Bangabandhu bridge over the river Jamuna will enhance the importance of Rajshahi metropolitan area as a regional center of the western districts. New physical links between eastern and northern frontier states of India coupled with the conservation of the single-track railway along Sirajganj-Ishwardi-Rajshahi to a double line broad-gauge railway and the proposed meter gauge railway along Sirajganj-Bogra will further augment the importance of Rajshahi metropolitan area and the growth of other urban centers in the western districts, namely, Nawabganj, Bogra, Naogaon, Sirajganj, Joypurhat and Natore. Similarly, districts towns in the northwest like Gaibanda, Nilphamari, Kurigram, Dinajpur and Lalmonirhat will also blossom, if the regional transport-links are there.
Another important consideration for decentralized urbanization for decentralized urbanization is the growth of thousands of market-towns, the most important prerequisite being investment in trans portation infrastructure. World Bank’s Rural Infrastructure Study (1996) has identified 2100 of such growth centers.
Within this spatial scenario of urbanization, it is important to upgrade the road network linking divisional district Thana and market town centers. Such improvement will greatly help the private sector to take over inter-city passenger traffic thus allowing the railway system to reorganize itself into a predominantly freight moving profile.’ Also important is to expedite improvement is to expedite improvement of standard of major highways as has been done in the case of Dhaka-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar road link.
Another urgent task is the construction of Dhaka by-pass, connecting the south with the North and North and Northwest through the Bangabandhu bridge. It is worth remembering that as and when the Asian Highway is completed, this historic bridge will bear the traffic passing through Bangladesh. And that presupposes considerable expansion and upgrading of existing roads and highways.
A proposed bridge over the Ganges at Paksey will open up the Mongla port for commercial/industrial freight from Nepal and Bhutan. A happy announcement by no less a leader than the prime Minister of Bangladesh herself regarding a bridge over Padma will not only bring the eastern and southern parts of the country together, but also halve the distance between Dhaka and Khulna. Mongla port will be in real business then.
Again, as the document Bangladesh 2020 notes: “some medium scale bridges such as one over Meghna at Bhairab Bazar, one over Rupsa at Khulna and one over Karnaphully at Chittagong could bring nearly all parts of country under a single roads and highways network. Especially as a participant in improving the urban network including some urban network including some urban bypasses such as the one east of Dhaka city on a BOT basis for instance the private sector can become a major player Bangladesh’s transport network,”
Let me now make a transition from roads to railway.
Exclusively state owned, the ledger book of Bangladesh Railways has been heavily in the red. An encouraging initiative by the government is to progressively hand over passenger traffic in inter-city routes like Dhaka -Chittagong, Dhaka – Sylhet and Dhaka-Rajshahi to the private sector. Why not handover the maintenance of inter-city trains to private operators? What is important for future, however, is to restructure the profile of the railways for freight traffic, especially container transport. In that context, improvement of critical routes like Dhaka-Chittagong to handle high volume of traffic rapidly and reliably is most urgent.
Also, in the context of the Trans Asian Railway routes, Bangladesh is in a strategic location. The two possible routes, so far envisaged, are through Sylhet and through Cox’s Bazar. The routes will connect Southeast Asia-Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore-with India and Central Asia. If Bangladesh upgrades its existing railways to international standard, she can earn enviable revenues.
Again, as between meter gauge in the east and a combination of broad and meter gauge to the west of the Jamuna bridge, there is a similar division between South east Asia (meter) and south and Central Asia (broad). “Bangladesh” as the 2020 document notes,” is thus well positioned to develop a hub to switch gages at Sirajganj on land to be reclaimed along the western guide bund” of the bridge.
Having said all that, let me turn to the cheapest and traditional water transport. With waterways of 25.000 kilometer, it is naturally so. But due to heavy situation coming down from the upper reaches, lack of dredging and river-training, the water ways are severely hindered and sometimes a deathly menace. But planned development with both private and public initiatives can make that a blessing, rather than a curse. The ten inland ports in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chandpur, Barisal, Patuakhali, Khulna, Narsingdi, Bhairab Bazar, Azmiriganj and Baghabari, need immediate improvement and upgrading Some of the ports such as Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chandpur, Baghabari and Asmiriganj should be developed as container ports with private sector participation. Some of the trunk routes such as Ajmiriganj – Chandpur, Baghabari- Chilmari should be maintained on a priority basis.” The coasted regions need to be connected with the rest of the country by rapid and reliable transport.
The greatest opportunity, however, lies in Chittagong port as the gateway for regional freight – traffic for destinations abroad. But what is the current state of the art in that dismal port ? “Moving a container through Chittagong costs $600 compared to norms of $ 150 to $300 at neighboring ports. Bangladesh’s competitiveness is so compromised by such in efficiency that the costs to the economy were estimated at $100 million in 1995 and are expected to reach about $170 million per year by 1999. The forecast for container throughout is as follows:
1999 395,000 TEU
2005 554,000 TEU
2010 737,000 TEU
2020 780,000 TEU
An examination of existing capacities and future growth of container traffic suggest that the optimum solution might be to develop the existing container facilities using the private sector (Bangladesh 2020, UPL 1998)”
Mongla port, as mentioned earlier can handle bulk freight. Another possible option is a deep-sea port at the mouth of Shibsa, south of Mongla.
Turning from land and water to the yonder blue of wide-open sky, the golden eagle for Bangladesh is state-owned Biman. Lack of adequate fleet, factionalism and apathy have plagued the services in the past. A welcome initiative has been the induction of private operators in selected domestic routes, More scope remains including leasing out of unused airports (e.g, Shamsernagar or Thakurgaon) to private enterprise for operation and maintenance. Also, and perhaps more important is to corporatize and progressively privatize Bitman. An important first step is to bring professional management and appropriate strategic partners. Only thus, the national airline can cope with rising passenger and cargo-traffic, particularly on international routes, so important for an outward looking and growing economy.
Also, today, the airport at Bangkok and Singapore are stretched to their seams. Dhaka should be in a position to handle diverted international traffic. But that would require, better airport services and facilities, urgent conversion of Chittagong airport into an international one; and upgrading Sylhet airport to handle non-resident Bangladesh traffic from the United Kingdom Again, private sector investment and management expertise are much needed. Let us be nationalistic but not parochial.
In the end, I recall the verses that Amit Ray recited to Labanya in Shesher Kavita.
“পথ বেঁধে দিল বন্ধনহীন গ্রন্নি
আমরা দুজন চলতি হাওয়ায় পন্থী।”