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Bridge across the Brahmaputra

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Bridge across the Brahmaputra River

When the river rises now, it’s seen as unusual. Instead of seeing it as a case of people encroaching on the river, we see it as a case of the river encroaching on people.

At the time of writing this column, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to make his way to Assam, to a place on the bank of the Brahmaputra river to the east of Dibrugarh. On his agenda was the inauguration of the longest bridge ever built in India. It is a bridge across the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhola Ghat, 9.15 kilometres long.

Any bridge across the Brahmaputra has to be a massive feat of engineering; the river itself waxes and wanes with the seasons, but is easily nine kilometres wide at most places on that stretch. When the rains come down, it rises to swallow the surrounding countryside. At those times, it is an ocean. If you stand on one shore, you cannot see the other.

The Brahmaputra is easily the largest river in India. Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Assam, called it Mahabahu, meaning mighty. In another of his celebrated songs, he berated it for flowing on without a care in the world, despite the chaos it causes the innumerable people on its banks.

Ways of life evolved over centuries as people learned to live with the river’s powerful, uncaring presence. The river would swell during the monsoon rains. It was natural. People dealt with it by building houses on stilts. The materials they used were cheap and plentiful – bamboo, timber and thatch. Now people no longer live in stilt houses. Population growth has seen people, including alleged illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, settling even on small river islands in the middle of the Brahmaputra that are little better than sandbars.

When the river rises now, it’s seen as unusual. Instead of seeing it as a case of people encroaching on the river, we see it as a case of the river encroaching on people.

When the river rises now with the rains, it is seen as something unusual. A flood is now a calamity, not because it kills people but because it causes financial damage. Farmers lose crops, buffaloes and cattle to the waters every year. The fact that the local dairy industry has moved almost entirely to low-lying river islands to take advantage of free land is forgotten. Instead of seeing it as a case of people encroaching on the river, we see it as a case of the river encroaching on people.

People everywhere, even on the river islands, now want the same things as people everywhere else – schools for their children, healthcare, roads, piped water, and electricity. In a word, they want development. The bridge across the Brahmaputra will be hailed by those who have to cross Mahabahu at Sadiya, Hazarika’s birthplace because to go across by ferry is a slow process – it takes at least a couple of hours.

Now, with the bridge, it will come down to half an hour. The north bank of the river will become more accessible. Arunachal Pradesh will be easier to reach. Going to college or hospital in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, the major hubs in that region will become a whole lot easier.

The poachers, smugglers and robber barons who rob the Northeast of its natural wealth will also benefit from the easier access. The British left us with a wonderful network of railways. This is true. They built it for the same reason that China is building its “One Belt, One Road” – to facilitate trade, with natural resources moving out and manufactured goods moving in. For development to be something other than colonialism by another name, it must do more than this. It must provide pathways for indigenous communities to reveal their unique talents and products to the wider world in an equitable manner. Otherwise, the bridges and roads are a very mixed blessing indeed.

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