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Western Economic Corridor: Big dream gets stuck in slow lane

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Western Economic Corridor: Big dream gets stuck in slow lane

ECONOMY

Jahidul Islam
19 August, 2023, 10:40 pm
Last modified: 19 August, 2023, 10:45 pm

Physical construction has not yet started, although the first phase of the programme was approved three years ago​


Funds are there, with two global lenders committing $2.4 billion. However, the high-profile Western Economic Corridor, designed to establish a connection between the nation's southwestern region and international trade routes, is yet to see the start of physical construction even after almost three years since the approval of its initial phase.


The intended transformation of the 48-km Jashore-Jhenaidah two-lane road into a six-lane highway by the end of this year seems to have hit a roadblock. The same old reasons– – complications in land acquisition and tender process – have been cited for the delay, which, apart from escalating costs, will deprive the people and economy of the intended benefits, as happens in most other big budget projects.

With a mere 3% financial progress achieved so far, a new deadline has been set for June 2026 to complete this segment of the Western Economic Corridor and Regional Enhancement (WeCARE) Programme, which includes 260km of highway and a network of local roads connecting two land ports – Benapole and Bhomra – and Mongla seaport.

Out of the total estimated investment of $3.5 billion, the World Bank has committed $1.4 billion, while the AIIB is contributing an additional $1.2 billion. The rest of the amount will come from the government.

These funds will support the development of the corridor, which spans from Hatikumrul in Sirajganj – serving as the gateway to the northern region of the country – to Jashore via Ishwardi and Jhenaidah, as well as from Navaron to the Bhomra land port via Satkhira, officials from the Economic Relations Division (ERD) have told The Business Standard.

The programme is to be implemented in phases and could run in 10 years of implementation, says a project document prepared by the government in January 2020.

Intended benefits

The country's southwest region is a core area of regional and international trade mainly with India, Nepal and Bhutan as three important trade gateways – two land ports and a seaport – are located here, the project document says, signifying the importance of the economic corridor to promote bilateral and regional trade.

According to the Planning Commission, the proposed Western Corridor is an important part of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (Sasec) Road Corridor-4. Along with Banglabandha and Burimari land ports, the corridor is playing a role in increasing trade with India, Bhutan, and Nepal.

The project is designed to improve connectivity and rural logistics along a regional transport corridor in Western Bangladesh including 10 districts – Jashore, Jhenaidah, Magura, Satkhira, Kushtia, Pabna, Natore, Chuadanga, Meherpur and Sirajganj.

According to the World Bank, once the development of the road is completed, the cost of operating vehicles will decrease by 20% per kilometre, while an increase in road speed will reduce travel time by about 15%.


The nearly 260 kilometres of roads in this corridor are set to be transformed into the country's first smart highway, equipped with an Intelligent Traffic System (ITS). This will increase road safety through continuous surveillance of traffic activities via CCTV cameras.

If the roads are upgraded to four or six lanes, the bilateral trade with India will increase through Bhomra, Benapole ports, the stakeholders believe. In addition to this, they believe that the opportunities for foreign trade will increase as the connectivity of Mongla sea port is improved.

The installation of utility ducts during the construction of the road will eliminate the need for road digging for various purposes throughout the year. The project documents of the government as well as donor agencies claim that the corridor will also play a role in digital connectivity as there are plans to lay optical fibre cables along the entire road.

What it contains, who will finance

Sources from the Roads and Highways Department have said that the WeCARE Programme will be carried out in four distinct phases.

During the initial phase, the project gained approval in November 2020 for the construction and development of a 48.5km road connecting Jashore to Jhenaidah, at an estimated cost of Tk4,187.70 crore. The World Bank is providing a loan amounting to Tk2,705.65 crore for this.

An additional project has been proposed for the construction of a 58km road from Navaron to Bhomra land port via Satkhira. This project is set to be undertaken with assistance from the World Bank, and its estimated cost is approximately Tk5,000 crore. However, this project's proposal, including feasibility studies and preliminary design work, is yet to commence.

For the development of a 106.5km road from Jhenaidah to Bhomra in two phases, the World Bank is planning to provide a total loan of $1.4 billion. A portion of this funding will also be allocated for the enhancement of nearly 600km of connecting roads linked to the primary corridor.

Separately, the Road Transport and Highways Department has submitted a project proposal to the Planning Commission for the development of a 99.42km road from Jhenaidah to Bonpara in Natore via Kushtia, as part of the proposed Western Economic Corridor. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will extend a loan of approximately Tk6,980 crore for this project, which is anticipated to be completed by December 2028.

The Physical Infrastructure Division of the Planning Commission held a Project Evaluation Committee (PEC) meeting last week to discuss this proposal.

An official who was present at the meeting told TBS that the meeting agreed to place the project for approval of the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) subject to complying with some recommendations.

Syed Moinul Hasan, chief engineer of the Roads and Highways Department, has emphasised that the project's implementation will align with the Planning Commission's directives.

As per information from Roads and Highways Department sources, the final phase of the entire corridor will involve the construction of a 54.08km road from Bonpara to Hatikumrul. Overall, the AIIB is expected to contribute more than $1 billion for the development of approximately 153km of roads.

Why slow progress

The entire 260km road is supposed to be developed in just 10 years, but the first phase of the work has not yet started due to delays in appointing consultants and completing necessary surveys and detailed designs, as well as complications in land acquisition and failure to appoint contractors for physical work.

Zabid Hasan, director of the first phase of the WeCARE programme, informed TBS that the land-related issues are being resolved following the decisions made in a recent meeting.

Currently, three proposals are awaiting approval from the Cabinet Committee on Government Purchase (CCGP) to contract with construction companies for the physical infrastructure development, he said, expressing hope that contingent upon contract finalisation, the project's construction will commence within the current year.

He also expressed confidence that the project will be completed within the extended timeline.

Hadiuzzaman, former director of Buet's Accident Researchers Institute, commented on the challenges.

He highlighted the absence of effective planning and management in translating the vision of a smart economic corridor into reality. This deficiency is underscored by the fact that even after three years, the first phase of the project has not yet commenced.

Hadiuzzaman stressed the importance of initiating land acquisition and purchase processes early in the project implementation stage. Expressing concern, he emphasised that discussing land complications three years post-project approval is indicative of mismanagement.

He raised doubts about the feasibility of executing four projects within a 10-year span given the current state of affairs.

Dr Selim Raihan, executive director of the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem), said, "We have achieved limited success in the development of roads as corridors. While the Sesec-2 road project has shown some progress, there remains a significant amount of work to be completed, despite the repeated extensions of the project timeline."

Highlighting the concerning lack of progress in initiating the development of the 48.5km road section within the Western Corridor program over a span of three years, he added, "Evidently, the project's implementation will require an extended timeframe, and unforeseen delays are likely to affect the execution of other projects within the programme."

He emphasised that any delays in infrastructure projects result in additional costs to the government's budget for implementation. Furthermore, these delays impede beneficiaries from utilising the infrastructure, generating both economic and financial costs on a substantial scale.

 

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