Bangladesh has developed a transport network that includes roads, railways, inland waterways, two maritime ports and civil airports catering to both domestic and international traffic. Road transport has traditionally been the centre of the government's attention in this sector.
It is the fastest growing mode, with an average annual growth of 8% for passenger and 9% for freight since 1990s. Roads account for around 80% of passenger and freight movement. The road network consists of four broad categories. National highways connect the national capital with divisional headquarters. Ports and international and regional highways form a five-way regional corridor (Dhaka-Chittagong; Dhaka-northwest; Dhaka-Khulna; Dhaka-Sylhet and Khulna-northwest), which represent 3 and 2% of all road length respectively.
Feeder roads connect Upazila headquarter and growth centres with arterial road system and represent 34% of the total road network. Rural roads represent the largest part of the Bangladesh road system, constituting 61% of the total road network. Roads & Highway under the Ministry of Communications looks after national, regional and some of feeder roads whereas major feeder roads and rural roads are looked after by LGED under the Ministry of Local Government Rural Development and Cooperatives.
The government's transport strategy aims to support economic development by expanding linkages in the internal transport system and promote local market integration, specially in rural areas. There is sizable public investment (through development budget, ADP and revenue budget) in road construction (1.8% of GDP).
Bangladesh today has an extensive road network (2.4 lac kilometres) surpassing other South Asian countries in total road density. An extensive rural road network has contributed greatly to economic growth and poverty reduction. 80% of the rural road network is composed of narrow roads in poor condition because they are built with poor compaction and without proper structures.
Rural roads are mainly constructed under political pressure without proper planning, as a result the agricultural lands are reducing day by day. On the other, the regional highways and feeder roads are generally constructed under the direction of political leaders without any feasibility study, and don't follow the master plan of roads or five-year plan or long term plan. Rural, feeder and regional highways can be termed as political roads.
The great potential of Bangladesh's ports is not utilised well. While Bangladesh's ports generate small operation surpluses and receive negligible amounts of ADP expenditure, all the major ports suffer from overstaffing, excessive labour strikes (labour unions are politically motivated), cumbersome customs procedures and outdated and inefficient work rules and management practices. This represents a hefty tax on Bangladesh's economy and the costs of these inefficiencies are passed on to traders and customers.
Heavy siltation makes Mongla's approach channel difficult to maintain, resulting in low berth use because most cargo has to be lightened at anchorage. Turnaround time for feeder vessels in Chittagong is 6-8 days, compared with 1½-2 days in Bangkok and 1 day in Singapore. A meaningful port development policy should be formulated and implemented without political interference.
The inland waterway system, which carries large volumes of the nation's freight, is not used to its full potential due to silting waterways, lack of ghat berthing facilities and obstruction caused by low or narrow road bridges and irrigation channel sluice gates. Planned and meaningful dredging should be introduced for navigability of inland waterways. The government has given highest priority to dredging, but the money which has already been allocated/ to be allocated should be used properly.
Bangladesh Railway (BR) has a total of 2,885 route-km railway lines consisting of three different gauges. The Medium Gauge (MG) (1000 km) and Broad Gauge (BG) (1676 km) systems have been in use since the beginning, but Dual Gauge (DG) -- a mix of MG and BG --system was introduced in 2001. If rail is to survive as a viable mode, it must significantly improve service quality and operational efficiency. Moreover railway networks need multi-modal integration with road and inland water transport systems as well as improved infrastructure facilities to be able to carry more traffic efficiently.
Unplanned piece-meal and economically non-viable projects should not be implemented with inexperience project directors. The potential of the railway in Bangladesh needs to be unlocked through planned investment in track, signalling, rolling stock, maintenance and human resources. Donor and suppliers driven projects/programmes should not be considered.
Clear and appropriate assignment of responsibilities for the management of different types of roads, providing adequate funds, regulating traffic, managing street parking and enforcing road rules is a pre-requisite for a sound road transport system. Yet the relationship between ministries of finance, planning, local government, communications and various implementing agencies is unclear. In addition, a national policy for construction and maintenance of road should be formulated and implemented without any political interference.
Unplanned roads should not be constructed. Load capacity of national and regional roads should be 12 tons instead of 7 tons for regional connectivity. It may be mentioned that there are no formal mechanisms for allowing a constructive dialogue on overall sector policy and strategy, inclusive of all the major stakeholders within and outside the government. Corruption in road construction and inland water dredging should be looked into.
A master plan for railway should be formulated immediately for planned development. Railway has a shortage of skilled manpower; and without proper and efficient manpower it is impossible to implement the on-going and future projects. Instead of track improvement and expansion, Bangladesh Railway is interested in procuring locomotives, passenger carriages, wagons etc.
BR should introduce 110 pound rails immediately for implementing transit and Trans-Asian Railway. Railways and inland waterways were neglected in ADP allocations. Railways and inland waterways together account for only 12% of transport expenditure, which may be increased to 45% of total transport allocation.
The priority for the government in the transport sector is to embrace the role of regulator and standard setter. Road safety, improvement of railway service, pollution control and inland waterways are four major areas where needs are most pressing. The highest dividends in terms of growth and poverty reduction will be achieved if the government focuses on maintaining (not expanding) the core network as well as enhancing capacity on major highway corridors, expanding railway routes by introducing 110 pound rails and improving the service delivery of BR, bridging river gaps, dredging inland waterway for navigability, replacing ferries with bridges and introducing efficient port management.
The large network of rural roads also requires more maintenance not expansion. Combining rural and feeder roads maintenance with the Food-For-Works programme is a winning strategy, but more engineering supervision and local participation are required to improve the sustainability of these actions. Institutional changes are necessary to support these strategic choices. Involvement of political elites and representatives of the people in project selection should be stopped for the greater interest of the nation. For achieving economic development objectives as well as regional connectivity planned development of transport sector is need of the hour.
The writer is Joint Chief (Rtd), Planning Commission. Email: [email protected]