A Path to Progress | The long winding history of our transportation sector

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The long winding history of our transportation sector is marked with the promise of constant development juxtaposed with its own challenges.

A major rural hub is known for its rich agricultural heritage, Bangladesh is a unique case given its high density of population and a success story of turning its war-ravaged impoverished form into yet another Asian success story. Much of the economic progress can be traced to the country’s transport sector development. Given its strategic position on the map, the delta republic offers its own sets of advantages which the successive governments have tried to utilize at varying degrees. This five-decade-long journey is mixed with impressive steps on connectivity and transport, though chronic problems continue to plague economic growth.

However, Bangladesh is yet to develop specialized agencies responsible for the overall transport sector. The opening of a new railway ministry in 2010 or other agencies has done little to alleviate the problem. Local government, metropolitan, and city governing bodies are responsible for road and bridge sector development while government agencies dominate rail and water sectors. The absence of central coordination has resulted in costly, unnecessary reversal and delays.

Infrastructure development Road, Rail and Water transport

The British efforts to shape the historical water-based transport practice in Bengal introduced some of the major rail projects in the Indian subcontinent. The 1971 war left most of the country’s road and river transport systems in ruins. The government took major steps in the 1980s by reshaping administrative divisions. The introduction of union and Upazilas meant major efforts were on the way to penetrate rural areas. Upazila sadars were connected with major highways, leading to the economic centers of Dhaka, Chittagong, and Khulna. Port of Chittagong and Mongla were already major sectors in this regard. Domestic political strife halted the efforts largely in the late eighties to early nineties. Many projects were shelved, slowed down, or overran the cost and provided little to no result. The country saw the second round of major infrastructure development since the 2010s. A major port and road facilities are being taken all around. Since 2006, ADB alone has loaned 6 billion USD for the transport network.

The water flow of 24,000-kilometer-long river systems has been a problem since independence. Today 6,000 kilometers remain navigational during monsoon; it reduces to 3,900 kilometers by the dry season. The river transport system is cheap and preferred by many in the Southern regions. While many rivers lost their water level and ceased to be operational by large boats; major routes of Padma, Burigandha, or Meghna rivers are still used by vehicles more than a thousand tonnes. The river transport also serves fuel to crucial Rampal power plant and export-import through Mongla and Payra port. Recently, the first-ever transboundary river shipment of export has taken place through Khulna and Comilla to India.

Railway also had a reputation as the safe, cheap, and reliable transport sector. Bangladesh has a 2,900 route kilometer rail network. In recent times new tracks and engines have been introduced to make the railway profitable. Bangladesh Railway operates almost five hundred stations across the country.

However, though costlier to build and maintain, highways and roads have been the preferred sectors by successive governments. Bangladesh has one of the densely built road networks in the world. With its 21,302 kilometers long paved and more unpaved network, roads have long replaced dying river networks as the most preferred connection mode. More than 3.4 million vehicles plow these roads, along with numerous three-wheelers and other locally built motor and paddle vehicles. The government has initiated major Projects under Bus Rapid Transit and Metro Rail projects. Four Lane Expressway connecting Dhaka and major industrial centers of Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj, Manikganj; 1.7 billion expressway in Sylhet-Dhaka region are some of the promising features. The brightest fit to step up Bangladesh’s road transport is the building of Padma Bridge. These projects cost immensely, for example, the Dhaka-Gazipur connecting road costs more than 4,000 crores BDT and is already running behind schedule. The Padma Bridge cost more than 28 thousand crores BDT. The utility of these new projects is expected to be very high.

The economic impact of road and transport sectors

The penetration of roads and modern facilities across the country brought new economic opportunities to Bangladesh. It has facilitated the growth of small vendors, roadside businesses, and new marketplaces. The backbone of Bangladesh’s economy is its garment sector and industrial satellite cities circling Dhaka. Since the 1980s, Dhaka, Narayangang, and Gazipur have become the main industrial hub, drawing millions across the country. Availability of cheap labor and an equal surge of entrepreneurs largely depends on the road and transport network being built around Dhaka and to some extent Chittagong and other cities. Around 8 million MSME industries and large businesses are mostly dependent on road networks. Roads have brought electricity and future chances for pipeline borne gas, water facilities. The building of the highest road in Thanchi-Alikadam marked Bangladesh’s significant attempt to connect backward hill regions and reap the benefits of tourism thanks to the scenic beauty of Chittagong Hill Tracts.

In 2021, the land and water transport sector added more than 1.8 trillion BDT to Bangladesh’s GDP. Almost 4 million people are employed here. The dominating sector is road understandably, employing more than 80 percent of the transport sector.

International commerce

Three major international airports and several regional ones serve national-international passengers but the high ticket price and short distance made airlines available to limited users. The port of Chittagong serves 92% of Bangladesh’s export trade, while four major land ports, including Benapole with 80 percent of traffic, are mostly engaged with India. Bangladesh has taken several attempts to connect with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor and Belt and Road Initiative, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) motor vehicle agreement, and major projects concerning these. The country is already facilitating India’s connection with her Northeast provinces, at the same time; transit facilities are also helping Bangladeshi traders to reach the Indian market.

Challenges

Though paved and unpaved roads are not a dream anymore almost for most of the remote corners, what Bangladesh suffers from is a serious safety issue. Lack of training, proper guidelines, and monitoring authorities, corruption means the sole safety factor here depends on the driver’s skills. Institutional standards are not maintained. Outdated vehicles are a major concern too. Moreover, most of the roads remain in poor conditions, lack significant or long-lasting repair work, or are just simply too narrow to support heavy traffic. Roads are an expensive business in Bangladesh.

It’s arguably the most expensive country to build roads, along with maintenance and poor planning means frequent disturbance for smooth operations. Bangladesh lacks any specialized agency to overtake a coordinated approach in road infrastructure. Local government and city development agencies overview the projects while there are frequent uncoordinated and ill-planned examples. Carelessness on the part of monitoring or planning authorities is abysmal. One example suffices: The flyover in Dhaka’s Moghbazar-Mouchak area had to go through major delay and rebuilding as the previously approved design wasn’t suitable with the Bangladesh road system.

In 2019 alone, 8,543 people lost their lives on roads, along with 14,000 plus injuries. Bangladesh roads remain one of the deadliest to travel in the world. Student and public protests resulted in the 2018 Road Safety Acts but the details are yet to be implemented. Railway also suffers the problem of obsoleteness. 78 or more than one-third of engines of its inventory are outdated or demand much costly, constant repair jobs. As rail and water transports are heavily dependent on the government, corruption and violation of rules are frequent. This has led to a profit-driven private sector too, disregarding public safety.

Frequent collisions and accidents are common in the water sector too. Only in the last 11 years, 387 vehicles have sunk, more than a hundred of them remain at the bottom of channels. Government agencies are ill-equipped as their 4 rescue vehicles with a combined capacity of close to 700 tons are merely enough. Many river routes demand constant dredging while in many cases collisions between ships and bridges or accidents. Water flow remains a big problem and demands constant dredging. Outdated vehicles are overwhelming in the 22,000 plus fleet using Bangladesh waterways. Many of its 22 major ports remain underdeveloped and underutilized.

For example, the station in Pangaon Inland Water Terminal, built with much hype and investment, remains mostly unused. River erosions and ill-planned river control projects also remain a problem. Another key issue is environmental damage. This is particularly in the case of Sundarbans where oil, coal, and cement carrying ships have sunk frequently to make things worse. The government agency BIWTC is yet to achieve high standards suiting the river transport system.

Transport service lags well over international standards. Almost three-fourths of Bangladesh’s forty thousand plus busses operate in and around Dhaka. Syndicates and monopolistic behaviors from the transport owner’s part have often resulted in clashes and poor service too. Constant hassle in the means of the ticket price, traffic congestion, and lack of monitoring bodies hamper public comfort and safety.

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