On a map laid out on the table, the concept looks impressive – an all-weather metalled road to connect Europe with Asia, spanning more than a hundred thousand kilometres, travelled by lorries, and buses and cars, carrying goods and passengers end to end without hindrance.
Named the Asian Highway, the project was to have a network of roads which would connect the far corners of the two continents. UN-Escap's Asian Highway Network shows a route that is supposed to touch Dhaka and will connect Istanbul to Tokyo.
As per the route map, in one go, a commuter could enter a highway in Dhaka and take an exit through Tamabil to pass through Indian and Myanmar territories to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Beijing, Seoul and then Tokyo. The other route will exit through Benapole, then Kolkata, New Delhi, Lahore, Islamabad, Kabul, Tehran before ending in Istanbul.
Conceived in 1959 during the height of the Cold War, the 1,44,630-kilometre Asian Highway network looks to connect 32 Asian countries to Europe. An intergovernmental agreement was adopted in Bangkok in 2003 to establish the network. Bangladesh officially approved the accession of the highway network in 2009 through signing the regional instrument.
It was an ambitious project, even more so when it was first conceptualised. While the work initially began with much gusto and fanfare, funds eventually began to dry up. The Asian Highway has not even been high on the government's agenda. Today, it is not even certain if and when the highway will start functioning, realising the vision of the planners taken in the middle of the last century.
Of the 1,771 kilometres to be developed in Bangladesh, less than 300km have been completed comprising the Dhaka-Chattogram four-lane highway and Dhaka-Bhanga expressway.
These are the only projects completed for the Asian Highway.
Why the region fails to connect
While a lack of initiative on the part of Bangladesh, like others, is cited as the reason behind the disappointing progress, some experts have also pointed out India's failure to take a lead in this regard.
"Like China, India also had an opportunity to play a lead role in ensuring this regional connectivity. But they had not done so," said Shamsul Haque, a communications expert and professor at Buet.
"Failure to make these roads means we are failing to reap the economic benefits. For instance, China had agreed to make a road to Kunming and Myanmar had agreed to it too. But, the then Bangladesh government at the end of last decade refused to take the deal.
"If the road were made, we could directly communicate with Kumming and it would be a huge milestone in road networks for the country."
Shamsul Haque observed there was no coordination or even a separate body who would work strictly with connectivity, reiterating that India should have played the biggest role in ensuring such a body was formed.
"China has taken so many initiatives, but India has done nothing like them," he maintained.
"Bangladesh has neither plan nor research on how connectivity can help us. We talk about this sometimes, but we don't have a vision. Our dream of connectivity isn't even on paper," he pointed out.
An Indian expert rubbishes the idea that India had faltered in any regard.
Prabir De, coordinator of ASEAN-India Centre, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, pointed out that India had completed most of its work in terms of land connectivity.
"The trilateral highway will be completed next year. It will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand," he added.
The ground reality
Currently, the Asian Highway network is made up of 88 different routes. Of these, three routes – AH1, AH2 and AH41 – are in Bangladesh.
Work is ongoing on all the three, but it is yet far from complete.
According to the Regional Road Connectivity Bangladesh Perspective, prepared by the Road Transport and Highways Division in 2016, Bangladesh will have three Asian Highway (AH) routes: AH1 (Tamabil-Benapole 492km), AH2 (Tamabil-Banglabandha 517km) and AH41 (Teknaf-Mongla 762km).
All the three routes will touch the capital Dhaka and two of them will connect India at both ends. The other route, AH41 remains within Bangladesh, but could be extended to neighbouring countries including Myanmar via Teknaf.
In fact, these routes encompass national highways which have already been constructed or in the process of development under at least 26 projects.
Tamabil-Kanchpur, Kanchpur-Dhaka, Dhaka (South)-Mawa-Bhanga, Padma Bridge, Joydevpur-Chandra-Tangail-Elenga, Elenga-Hatikumrul-Bogura-Rangpur, Panchagarh-Banglabandha, Teknaf-Cox's Bazar-Chattogram, Chattogram-Daudkandi, and Joydevpur-Chandra-Tangail- Elenga are some of the projects which do not have the Asian Highway tags but are very much parts of the three AH routes, as per the government document.
To meet the standard of the Asian Highway, no work has been completed in this regard. The Dhaka-Sylhet route is still in the tender processing stage. The Joydebpur-Elenga (70km) route work has been going on for the past nine years. Around 35% of the work on the Elenga-Rangpur road under the Sasec initiative has been completed, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Finally, the AH41 will be built from Teknaf to Mongla in Khulna. However, to meet the standard, the Dhaka-Chattogram four-lane highway needs to be turned into a six- or eight-lane highway. Work has stalled as a consultant has to be found. The ADB has preliminarily agreed to fund this.
Similarly, the Cox's Bazar-Chattogram road (132km) needs to be turned into an expressway or a four-lane highway. A feasibility study for this has been done and the project can be started with a government-to-government (G2G) with Japan or under a public-private partnership (PPP). No work has been done in this regard yet.
The Cox's Bazar-Teknaf route under this network is currently being worked on and the roads there need to be widened.
Work has, however, begun on the Hatikumrul-Mongla route. Work on the Hatikumrul-Benapole-Jhenaidah (153.5km) route, funded by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is yet to begin.
The Jhenaidah-Jashore (48.5km) work, funded by the World Bank has been greenlighted but has made little progress.
Finally, development of the road on the Jashore-Mongla route (98.5km) is yet to start, although the feasibility study has been conducted.
Official status report, however, shows significant progress in work on three AH routes.
It says two routes – AH2 and AH41 – do not have any missing link or substandard section, but investment is needed to upgrade them to AH Standard I.
But the AH1 has two missing links near the Padma Bridge at Bhanga and at Bhatiapara, one sub-standard section between Bhatiapara-Narial-Jashore.
Some other initiatives
The Road Transport and Highways Division's perspective plan states that Bangladesh has been deeply involved in several regional initiatives and identified strategic transport routes under the umbrella of UN-Escap, Saarc, Sasec, Bimstec and BCIM Forum.
These transport routes will allow Bangladesh to connect with regional and global supply chains and provide landlocked countries and territories access to seaports at Chattogram, Mongla and Payra.
The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative (BBIN) has also not progressed much other than signing a Motor Vehicles Agreement in 2015, which was rejected by the Bhutanese parliament, stalling further development.
A 2013 car rally that covered around 3,000km from Kolkata to Kunming via Bangladesh and Myanmar was the only visible event under the 2800km Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic corridor, a component of China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – another much-hyped umbrella network planned to revive ancient Silk Route across Eurasia and Africa.
According to experts, as disagreements between China and India began to grow on their "sovereignty concerns," this initiative too has stalled.
In terms of the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (Sasec) corridor, the hope was to bring together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, also connecting through South-East Asia through Myanmar, to China and the global market.
Under this initiative, some work is still ongoing, which include the Joydebpur-Elenga, Elenga-Rangpur, Rangpur-Burimari and Rangpur-Banglabandha roads. The latter two are undergoing feasibility studies, while construction work is ongoing on the former two.
The Dhaka-Sylhet and Sylhet-Tamabil are two more routes under Sasec, both of which are awaiting the tendering process.
No long-time government plan for regional connectivity
People concerned said there is no long-term plan for the implementation of the regional connectivity projects.
Regional road projects are implemented by the Roads and Highways Department (RHD).
Shishir Kanti Routh, additional chief engineer of the RHD said work on various roads under the ADB-funded Sasek initiative is now underway, while the other connectivity projects, including the Asian Highway, are still under discussion.
Mohammad Yunus, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), observed that countries in this part of the world have taken a long time to build a consensus or understand the importance of regional connectivity. "Our approach in this regard has been conservative. Even though we are seeing some progress of late, whether we will see the implementation of such projects in our lifetime remains uncertain."
Mentioning the government's initiatives, Dr Shamsul Alam, state minister for planning, said the government has no long-term plan and the five-year plan does not contain any target about the implementation of regional connectivity projects. However, there is mention of how many kilometers of four-lane roads or inter-district connectivity roads will be built in the country in these five years, he added.
"The regional connectivity projects have been given importance in the five-year plan but there is no mention about the construction deadline of roads under the projects."
Mamun-Al-Rashid, member of the Physical Infrastructure Division of the Planning Commission, also acknowledged they have no long-term plans for the implementation of regional connectivity projects.