Vol. 5 Num 767 Mon. July 24, 2006  

Fools rush in

It was announced in the news media a few days back that the government has approved construction of a second highway linking Dhaka and Chittagong. The project is estimated to cost about $900 million, will be a toll road, and is to be built by a Malaysian firm on a Build, Own, Operate, and Transfer (BOOT) basis.

This is no doubt a bold decision, taken in just one meeting of the Cabinet. This is only the beginning. A lot of work remains to be done before giving green signal to the construction work. From the newspaper reports (The Daily Star, July 4) it appears that a proposal from a Malaysian company was scrutinized by the Communication Ministry, sent to the PICOM (Private Infrastructure Committee) in the office of the Hon'ble Prime Minister, and then placed before the Cabinet. Since no particular company has been selected, and it is mentioned that the government will go for international bidding, it can be taken as approval "in principle." Since the proposal from the Malaysian firm was an unsolicited one, it is expected that guidelines developed by IIFC (Infrastructure Investment Facilitation Centre) will also be followed to select the final party/consortium transparently.

A large number of issues have to be settled before processing the proposal further. The views of all sections of society and support of all stakeholders in all aspects will strengthen the basis of this important project. Some issues are pointed out here for consideration, so that the concerned authorities, whichever political party is in power, may avoid possible pitfalls and use national resources prudently. At $900 million, the proposed project will be the largest in Bangladesh in monetary terms, costing almost $150 million more than the Jamuna Bridge.

The experience of the Jamuna Bridge will be extremely useful here. Before undertaking construction, the project was in public domain for a decade or so, and perhaps even longer, if we remember that the proposal was first broached with the Japanese government during the then Prime Minister's visit to Japan in 1974. A formal feasibility study was initiated in 1985 (first by the UNDP with funds from the Saudi government), various aspects of the bridge were widely discussed among all groups of stakeholders, experts and donors. Only after a consensus was reached, it was decided to go ahead with international bidding. If we recall, the following major issues were debated before undertaking construction of the Jamuna Bridge:

(a Alignment: Apart from the views of experts on river training, hydrology, engineering etc., local public opinion was sought on both sides of the river before the final alignment was decided.

(b) Capacity: Should the bridge be 4-lane, 6-lane or 8-lane?

(c) Additional facility: Should we have a railway track also on the bridge? If so, should it be broad/narrow or dual gauge? Should we have a second electric interconnecter along the bridge in addition to the existing E-W interconnecter? Should we not have a gas pipeline along the embankment for the bridge?

Reaching a consensus on all these issues was not easy, and was certainly time consuming. But the government did not rush through, and finally, the donors who provided the financing, had also to be taken on board.

We should follow a similar process in case of the proposed second Dhaka-Chittagong highway so that we can look forward to a cost-effective modern infrastructure project to strengthen the life-line of the economy in the coming decades.

We should also keep in mind that for the past one year and a half a large investment proposal of the Tata Group has been in the public domain. Government appointed a member of experts and committees to examine various aspects of the proposal. Policy makers, economists, civil society spokespersons and experts have given their views in the matter. But government is yet to take any decision. A well-considered approach and exercise is, therefore, highly recommended for the proposed second Dhaka-Chittagong highway in national interest, instead of rushing through with a decision. After all, the people of the country have to pay back the investment.

First of all, we have to establish the need of the project based on projection of growth of future traffic. If it has been done, and if a feasibility report has been prepared, let us make the data public for consultation with various business chambers, and experts of the country. Projection of traffic growth will indicate when the existing highway will reach its full capacity, and what is the earliest date on which the second highway has to be commissioned. Before undertaking construction of such an expensive project, our engineers and experts will have to explore all possibilities of maximizing traffic handling capacity of the existing highway and railways with additional work and expenditure.

A major initiative has been taken to restructure Bangladesh Railway (BR). At a recently held day-long seminar organized jointly by the World Bank and BR on the future of Bangladesh Railways, the country Director, World Bank made the following statement:

"ADB, JBIC and WB are joining hands to support the Government's reform/restructuring program for BR. A multi-year, multi-donor program of up to $700-800 million is possible. The program is designed to include both policy reform and investment."

It is understood that some of the railway projects under consideration between Dhaka-Chittagong are: (a) a Chord line project between Laksam-Dhaka which will shorten the distance between Chittagong and Dhaka by 80 km; (b) Double tracking the missing portions between Dhaka-Chittagong, with the possible provision of a dual-gauging of the new track. Four-laning of the existing Dhaka-Chittagong highway is already under implementation. This will add considerable new capacity. So new facilities need to be considered carefully, based on detailed investigation.

Second, the rationale for a new alignment for the second highway through Narayanganj, Munshiganj, Chandpur and Mirersarai has to be established, instead of improving the capacity of the existing one as mentioned above, or even a project parallel to the existing one, or even an elevated highway. If an elevated highway is a possible alternative, should it be over the alignment of the existing highway or over the Dhaka-Chittagong railway track? Is it conceivable that if there is an elevated highway, one could be for use of passenger traffic and another for goods?

Let us take into account these possibilities which will save land, and the programs and initiatives for expanding the capacity of the exiting highway and of the railways, as mentioned above, workout the costs and benefits of all these alternative possibilities, and opt for the least cost solution before proceeding with the project. The construction of the new highway along the proposed new alignment will require large quantum of valuable agricultural land. This will adversely impact the target of self-sufficiency in food production, and may bring in many other environmental disaster. Expert review of the environmental impacts of the proposed alignment is absolutely essential.

Another alternative to take care of the growth in traffic in future, may be to build a fleet of bay crossing water transport vehicles in the private sector. It will also force us to undertake regular servicing of the river routes, traffic can go all the way to the north and southwest parts of the country, and development of important inland river ports can have multiplier effects on the economy. From the point of view of environmental impacts, this alternative could be the most attractive. It may be mentioned that an IWT container terminal is under construction at Khanpur (Narayanganj), to facilitate movement of containers between Chittagong-Narayanganj and Mongla-Narayanganj by water transport barges. This should be in operation by end of 2007.

We have to bring all those issues into the public domain, so that the business community, engineers, transport experts, economists, policy makers, and the political leaders can take a full view of things. It will be useful to organize a series of dialogues, workshops, seminars and technical sessions among the stakeholders mentioned above, before coming to a decision which will reflect the consensus of all sections of the society. There are other considerations. Will an alignment through Narayanganj/Munshiganj be convenient for connecting the Jamuna Bridge access road for traffic destined for the northern and south-western parts of the country? Are there projects in hand to expand the capacity of the Chittagong port? Has the much talked about Myanmar-Teknaf-Chittagong linkage been kept in view?

One final, but very important issue, needs to be seriously examined. The proposed second highway will be a "toll-road" and built on a BOOT basis -- as newspaper reports indicate. In that case, will the existing highway continue to remain toll-free? If so, there may not be much incentive for many users to opt for the new toll-road. So, a solution has to be worked out, may be imposing some toll and then gradually increasing it on the existing highway, to bring the charges at par with that of the proposed new highway over a period -- say 10 years. In any case, public consensus will be required on the level of the toll for the new highway. It only means that the estimated cost of the project, among others, will have to be carefully determined on a competitive basis. We hope that the government will soon indicate the steps that will be taken, and whether the issues mentioned above have been taken into consideration in the feasibility study, before proceeding withwn construction of a second Dhaka-Chittagong highway. Otherwise, approving such a large project in only one session of the Cabinet may be misinterpreted by some quarters as pre-election propaganda.

The author is a former Fiance Minister.