Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) has initiated development of two economic corridors in the country. This are-- North-East Corridor to connect the economic hubs mostly along the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, and the South-West Corridor to connect the economic hubs along the Dhaka-Khulna highway.
Development of economic corridors is a forward-looking development initiative. BIDA website mentions the corridors will integrate national and regional economic centres, promote investment, reduce trade cost, generate employment and cause many other positive impacts. The success of such economic corridors in India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries has encouraged BIDA to initiate the programme. Nonetheless, it is an expensive endeavour; the North-East corridor alone needs more than $12 billion to develop the required infrastructure. So, all avenues need to be thoroughly explored for selecting the best possible alignments. In this context the 'Delta Plan 2100' adopted by the government in September 2018 may be found highly relevant.
The Delta Plan 2100 focuses on the country's water system to address important issues e.g., climate change, socio-economic progress, population growth and regional cooperation. The government has already identified 80 projects to be implemented by 2030 at an estimated cost of $37.5 billion under the first phase of the plan.
Now, how much does the highway-centric economic corridor development programme by BIDA align with the Delta Plan? How can the government afford adequate funding for mega development programmes initiated by different government organisations? How will the nation bear the cost of huge investment funds along with the recurring operation and maintenance costs of the projects? We need to address these questions for developing an effective development strategy.
Development planning is a country-specific venture, and not replicating the models of other countries. So, we need to consider the reality of our riverine landscape, geographical location with politically sensitive connectivity demand from the neighbours, high population, and agrarian aspect of livelihood for devising an integrated economic development plan like the Economic Corridors. The Delta Plan with its conceptual depth, investment needs and spatial vastness, by covering hotspots such as coastal areas, Barind and drought-prone areas, Haor and flood-prone areas, hilly areas, river and estuaries region and urban areas, provides an opportunity to consider it as the baseline for designing other development programmes. So, BIDA can take this advantage for developing the Economic Corridors to optimise investment outcomes.
Development indices and political vision indicate that the country aspires to graduate as a developed country in between 2040 and 2050. The pertinent question thus: do we have enough land to manage housing, roads, and other infrastructure needs for the projected 250 million people in 2050 under a developed setting? The answer is simply 'NO', since we need adequate land to grow food for this great number of mouths as well. So, the diversion of the massive freight traffic to be generated from an industrialised Bangladesh to the river system must be a high priority for any development model. Interestingly, river-based development also promises additional land through reclamation from the Padma-Jamuna river system and the shallow coast line.
Rapid growth of transportation along the proposed economic corridors would lead to significant constraints in connectivity management due to land scarcity, insufficient roads and poor road serviceability, rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation, safety hazards and many other issues. To overcome the limitations and tap the growth potentials across the country, we can consider an economic grid crisscrossing the whole country rather than the economic corridors, as explained below.
The Padma-Jamuna river system and the eastern coastline i.e., Gaibanda-Goalanda-Ramgati-Chandpur-Mirsharai-Patenga-Cox's Bazar Corridor can be the National (Principal) Economic Corridor. It can then be branched out as (a) Hatibanda-Gangachara-Gaibandha along the Teesta river, (b) Iswardi-Goalanda along the Padma river, (c) Kushtia-Gopalganj-Khulna-Mangla along the Madhumati-Pasur river link, (d) Chandpur-Barishal-Paira along the Kirtonkhola-Paira river link and (e) Fenchuganj-Bhairab Bazar-Chandpur along the Meghna-Kushiyara river link as five regional economic corridors. Then, there will be local connectors along other rivers, highways and railways corridors. The whole system thus provides an economic grid connecting the whole country as a comprehensive economic hub, imagining 2050-Bangladesh as a mega-Singapore. Looking into the Delta Plan this option looks promising.
The proposed 'grid approach' can provide development programmes along the vital river systems with consequent benefits of preserving river assets, navigation improvement, flood management, river bank stabilisation, land reclamation, irrigation, fish production, traffic diversion from land transport etc. Consequently, construction of the proposed Padma barrage and a possible Jamuna barrage would get priority with numerous economic zones and a few mini hydroelectric plants along the rivers. The projects can be designed aligning with the projects under the Delta Plan saving significant cost, resource and time.
Overcrowding has already made our cities and towns unlivable. As a result, the government has taken various development programmes for providing urban facilities in the villages. The main objective is to keep the villagers happy in their places with employment opportunities by transforming the agricultural sector and the allied industries. As such, the growth centres need connectivity through a good muti-modal transport network using waterways, roadways and railways.
The development of river-based economic corridors can also attract neighbouring countries to focus on river transit opportunity or limited road/rail transit through effective interface with the river transport mode. This will eventually make them aware of keeping the rivers running with reduced water retention in the upstream. Further, the propelling action on the river bed by a growing number of freight vessels would help keep the river network navigable with relative ease. The other positive impacts will be reduction in pollution, road trauma, road maintenance and operation costs, public health concerns, security threats, land loss etc.
Most of the heavy industries, quarries, power plants and urban centres in the country are connected by river network. Majority of the 88 Economic Zones to be developed by the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority are also on riverside. On the other hand, the government has already taken extensive river dredging and inland water transport development programmes. The Delta Plan will bring more projects. Therefore, progression towards a river based economic grid model will be easier to develop, implement and maintain cost-effectively.
The highways infrastructure needs to be developed, as planned under the two economic corridors, to ensure improved connectivity throughout the country. However, they need to be reviewed for developing effective interface with the river network as required for a river-centric corridor development programme.
The economic corridor programme is still in the concept phase. Hence, works done by BIDA to date can mostly be fitted in a modified planning aligning with the Delta Plan. The Delta Plan also needs periodic reviews to accommodate emerging issues from the evolution of other development programmes.
The nation expects a roadmap from the Planning Commission for converging all the development programmes under a common strategy for sustainable development. The nation also expects a comprehensive reform of the whole development governance. Only then, the development goals of the government can hopefully be materialised.
Dr Shafiq Alam is a columnist and infrastructure specialist.