The ongoing infrastructure projects will definitely improve our transportation system. We need to assess this development from a historical perspective. At the time of Partition, the transport infrastructure in East Pakistan was very poor. There were only a few hundred kilometres of pucca roads. Due to our unique geographical setting, one has to cross rivers to travel from one place to another. At that time, as there were very few bridges people had to cross rivers through water transports such as ferry and boats. Basically, riverways and railways were the major modes of communication.
We notice some development after 1947. Some bridges were built but those contributed little to the overall improvement of our road network.
In our case, a major barrier to the development of surface transportation network, e.g. road and railways, is the high construction cost. Since this is a flood-prone low-lying country, the roads and railways need to be built on embankments which incurs huge extra costs. Moreover, earthquakes need to be considered during designing of these surface structures.
In hindsight, I strongly feel that we should have emphasised more on the development of waterways and railways. However, the current government has taken some initiatives to revive the water and rail transportation networks.
To cut the long story short, the opening of Bangabandhu Bridge over Jamuna in 1998 was a milestone in the development of our transportation network. It enabled speedy movement of vehicles across the river. Although there was initial reservation from the co-financiers, particularly the World Bank, we added rail tracks to the bridge. Due to the late incorporation, there remain some weaknesses and concerns about the durability of the bridge with the rail line. Load and speed restrictions have been impasses. Recently, a decision has been taken on the construction of a separate railway bridge across Jamuna River. It will be a major improvement for the railway sector.
Due to the overall weaknesses of our transportation infrastructure, we have not been able to achieve our development goals. Foreign investors also shy away from investing here. The good news is that the situation is improving. For example, the inauguration of two bridges—Second Meghna Bridge and the Second Gumti Bridge on the Dhaka-Chattogram route—has significantly reduced the travel time between Dhaka and Chattogram.
We are heavily dependent on our sea ports for both export and import. The capacity of the Chattogram port has increased lately, but it is still insufficient. The second sea port is the port of Mongla. We have already started the construction of the Payra Deep Sea Port, though there are some problems associated with the project. The channels of this port need to be dredged continuously. Once these projects are successfully completed our international communication will be hugely boosted.
Another important international connectivity network is the Asian Highway. Although our government has decided to get connected with this network, it has not been started yet. Earlier the government was a bit unsure about the route connecting Bangladesh to India. The route plan was revised later and it shifted towards Meghalaya through Shillong. The initial route map was designed mostly on flat terrain that was supposed to go through Karimganj in Assam, onwards to Monipur and then to Myanmar. There is another route plan for creating links between the south-east part of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Since the route is planned to pass through Rakhaine state (an area where Rohingya people live), Myanmar government is not interested to cooperate with the project. Therefore, currently it is feasible for us to establish road links in the north-eastern side for the Asian Highway. The biggest contribution to the Asian highway will be the inauguration of the Padma Bridge. It will directly open a road to Kolkata from the south-western part. Another road link can also be established between Bangladesh and Nepal on the north-western side.