Bangladesh is blessed with the Bay of Bengal as the sea gives the country a potentially smooth entry and exit route for imports and exports respectively. Chittagong now hosts the major port of the country, which now handles around 85-90 per cent of the country's trade. Its importance to the country cannot, thus, be overemphasised. From a throughput of around 1.0 million TEUs (twenty-feet equivalent units) containers in 2007, the Chittagong Port handled 2-2.5 million TEUs in 2016. The government earns around 30 per cent of its revenue from Custom House Chittagong (CHC) and Chittagong Port.
It is against the backdrop of overwhelming importance of the port that leaders of the business community have time and again called for building a Dhaka-Chittagong corridor for speedy and efficient transportation of goods and movement of people. Even the other day, the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) urged the authorities concerned to give priority to development of the Dhaka-Chittagong Economic Corridor (DCEC). The DCEC caters to 16 per cent of the land area, 30-35 per cent of the population and 50 per cent of the national GDP, and 85 per cent of international maritime trade of the country, said DCCI President Abul Kasem Khan at a press conference. He quite rightly said a strategic roadmap including an integrated transport master plan must be made for development of DCEC corridor to help emerge a natural satellite town between Dhaka and Chittagong. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says, Bangladesh's economy can grow by an additional 1.0 per cent if the DCEC can be upgraded and developed into a modern communication link between the two major cities Dhaka and Chittagong.
In fact, the four lanes of the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway were originally conceived of as part of such a corridor. But where does the so-called four-lane highway begin? A traveller on the highway does not miss the fact that the four-lanes only begin from the eastern end of the Meghna-Gumti Bridge at Daudkandi. And the road between Dhaka and Daudkandi remains as it has been, miserably failing to handle growing traffic with the passage of time. As a result, traffic jams on this vital road are now an order of the day with the highway police not in sight anywhere. This often leads to heavy traffic jams, hitting quick shipment of goods hard.
It is unfortunate that the decision-makers take up projects half-heartedly without considering heavy drainage of taxpayers' money. If not, why did they not expand the road from Dhaka to Kachpur Bridge, from Kachpur to Meghna Ghat and from Meghna Ghat to Daudkandi Bridge in line with the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway? The entire road finally meets the real four-lane highway from Daudkandi points. It fails to meet the need of the hour-faster traffic. One simply wonders what will happen in case of heavy traffic after second bridges at Kachpur, Meghna Ghat and Daudkandi are constructed. The existing road just before the four-lane highway will simply be choked with thousands of passenger buses, cars and vans carrying cargoes for Chittagong and Dhaka in the days ahead disrupting even the supply chain of the entire nation. What is a misfortune for the nation is that nothing is now being done correctly without the Prime Minister's intervention.
The Dhaka-Chittagong corridor is very crucial for Bangladesh to emerge as a developed country as quick transportation of goods and movement of people along this corridor alone can help it move to achieve the status of a Middle Income Country. Experts say that there must be a separate and exclusive corridor for covered vans and other vehicles containing goods to and from Chittagong Port. This too will ease pressure on the four-lane highway.
Why is the government not thinking of speedy railway route along the four-lane highway? At a time when the present government is going ahead with multi-billion dollar Padma Bridge project, the building of such an exclusive route for vans carrying exports and imports as well as speedy rail link by its side will not be as difficult and gigantic a venture as the Padma Bridge is. Badly needed is now the will of the government to do it.
A parliamentary watchdog once had to direct the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry to set a fixed deadline for the contractor to complete the Dhaka-Chittagong four-lane highway as part of the proposed economic corridor. As the DCCI estimated, delay in upgrading the economic corridor is costing the economy Tk 100 billion a year. It should have been the high priority task of the ministry to probe why the four-lane Dhaka-Chittagong Highway project is taking so many years to be completed with the contractor making its bid to mint money citing different excuses. When a contractor submits bid for a specific job, the company must have been allocated the required funds it needed to finish the job within a fixed deadline. And leaving to the backyard the vital job of upgrading the highway, the lifeline of the entire economy, seeking more funds all on a sudden is tantamount to extorting money under duress. This in fact reflects an anarchic situation in execution of most projects of different ministries. What is a matter of concern is that instead of blacklisting the company for breaching contract and refusing to complete the expansion of Dhaka-Chittagong highway, the ministry dubiously opted to persuade it into doing the job within the terms of the contract. But its efforts to that end for past several years have yet to yield any result.
Chittagong port has been able to show a marked improvement in handling containers and optimising utilisation of berths and yards making it easier for the country to become an economic gateway to South Asia, thanks to its computerised management system. The country's key seaport is now ready to open up for neighbours creating an enormous opportunity to earn foreign currency. But without building the necessary infrastructure like the Dhaka-Chittagong corridor linking the port, such a possibility will always remain a distant dream.