Karnaphuli tunnel, which will connect Chattogram Port and Anwara upazila and cut the distance between Dhaka and Chattogram, is set to act as a harbinger of growth by turning the southern part of the port city into a business hub.
A slew of large industrial plants have started lining up on the south bank of the River Karnaphuli as the country's maiden underwater expressway tunnel is expected to open to traffic this December – with 87% of work on it already complete.
New investments are coming in and new industries are being set up, while many old factories are being expanded. Besides, a number of large industrial groups have bought land in advance to establish factories.
Speaking to the Chattogram Chamber of Commerce, the BGMEA, BKMEA, BGAPMEA, and the local upazila administration, The Business Standard has learnt that businesses have undertaken initiatives to build at least 80 large industrial units in various sectors – apparels, shipbuilding, edible oil, fish processing, steel, cement, among others – on the south bank of the Karnaphuli.
Some of the factories have already started production.
Mostafa-Hakim Group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the country, has set up a steel plant and an oxygen plant with an investment of Tk1,500 crore. The two factories – HM Steel Plant and HM Oxygen Plant – currently employ about 2,000 workers.
Besides, Akij Group, Four H Group, Diamond Cement, S Alam Group, and Partex Group have purchased land in Karnaphuli and Anwara upazilas to set up factories.
Among the industrial units that have already started operations are Super Pharmaceutical Limited, Partex Petro Limited, Acorn Infrastructure Services Limited, and BN Lubricants at Juldha in Karnaphuli upazila.
Belami Textile, ATP International Limited, GSL Export, Benchmark Apparel, Yuasa Battery Factory have started production in the Khoajnagar and Ichhanagar areas of Karnaphuli.
On the other hand, a large garment factory, HS Composite Textile, is being set up on about an acre of land near the approach road to Bangabandhu Tunnel. The factory is expected to generate 3,000-5,000 jobs.
The Saad Musa Industrial Park has been built just 500 metres away on a five-acre area of land, housing several export-oriented factories, including cotton mills, textile mills, spinning mills, and composite textile mills.
In this way, massive industrialisation is in progress on the south bank of the Karnaphuli in view of the potential economic benefits to be derived from the Karnaphuli tunnel. As a result, the adjacent villages are turning into semi-urban areas, as a visit by TBS found in different areas of Karnaphuli and Anwara upazilas.
A potential game changer
Businesses have said the Karnaphuli tunnel will open up a window of opportunities for tourism and the economy in South Chattogram and Cox's Bazar.
This tunnel will facilitate road communication between the deep seaport under construction at Matarbari and Chattogram and the rest of the country, they maintained. They also expect that not only Anwara and Karnaphuli, but the entire area stretching from Mirsarai to Cox's Bazar along the River Karnaphuli will see massive investments following the opening of the tunnel.
The Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA) says the tunnel will reduce the distance between Dhaka and Chattogram by 50 kilometres and that between Chattogram and Cox's Bazar by 15 kilometres. It will also ease communication for people living on the south bank of the Karnaphuli with Shah Amanat International Airport.
Moinul Islam, economist and former professor at Chittagong University, told TBS that the opening of Bangabandhu Tunnel would first lead to industrialisation in South Chattogram and facilitate easy communication between Matarbari Deep Seaport, Chattogram Port, Bay Terminal, Mirsarai Economic Zone.
But the impact of the tunnel would be more far-reaching, he said, adding that it would serve as a bridge to build the country's largest industrial corridor from Mirsarai to Cox's Bazar. Besides, it will be a significant part of the Asian Highway.
At present, goods and passenger vehicles ply to South Chattogram and Cox's Bazar via Shah Amanat Bridge, Third Karnaphuli Bridge, and Kalurghat Bridge. When the tunnel is opened, many of the vehicles plying on the Karnaphuli Bridge will use the tunnel instead of the bridge. Industrial cargo vehicles of the mills and factories being set up in South Chattogram also will use it.
Mohammad Sarwar Alam, director of Mostafa-Hakim Group, told TBS, "Products manufactured in our heavy industries here are supplied all over the country. Once the tunnel is complete, freight vehicles will be able to go directly to the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway through the Outer Ring Road. It will also save our transportation costs and time."
Chattogram Chamber President Mahbubul Alam said, "Hopefully, we are going to get the benefits of the tunnel from next year. The tunnel will be an easy means of transporting industrial raw materials and finished goods across the country. There will be no obstacle to the development of new industries in South Chattogram and Cox's Bazar."
Raisul Uddin Saikat, chairman of Albion Group, told TBS, "Keeping in mind the economic potential of the south, we have built a distribution house next to the approach road to the tunnel, from where we supply raw materials to Unilever and Marico. Apart from this, we are making new plans to make the best use of the economic potential of the tunnel."
BGMEA Vice-President Rakibul Alam Chowdhury said Bangabandhu Tunnel will bring about a new revolution in the country's garment sector.
"Work on four new factories has already started at the Korean EPZ. Also, many entrepreneurs are seeking permission to set up factories there. On the other hand, 15 local and foreign companies have taken initiatives to invest in the China EPZ to be built next to the tunnel."
87% work done
Engineer Harunur Rashid, project director of Bangabandhu Tunnel, told TBS on Thursday that some 87% of the work on the Tk10,374 crore project has been completed as of June. Besides, work on the approach roads and flyover on both sides of the tunnel is almost completed, he added.
"We are working in line with the target of opening the tunnel by December. But we can't say right now whether all the work can be done within this time because of the delay in bringing the communication system inside the tunnel, including ventilation and other equipment, owing to the lockdown in Shanghai, China. Even though some equipment is coming now, it is being supplied at a slow pace," said the project director.
Meanwhile, the tunnel project authorities have sent a letter to the ministry to extend the project by another six months. If the application is accepted, the implementation time of the project will be till June 2023.
Land prices rising, living standards improving
The tunnel feasibility study report said that almost the entire economy of the Anwara-Karnaphuli region was dependent on agriculture as only 2% of the land was used for industry, while 47% was agricultural land. But, about 27% of the area was likely to be used for industries following the opening of the Karnaphuli tunnel, the report added.
Seven years into the feasibility study, land on the south bank of the Karnaphuli have risen more than ten-fold as hundreds of businesses, including the country's top conglomerates, have already purchased thousands of acres of land there over the last three to four years, Karnaphuli Upazila Nirbahi Officer Sahina Sultana told TBS.
Expatriate Mizanur Rahman has built a four-storey house next to the approach road to the tunnel with the money he earned by selling his agricultural land to an industrial group. "The rate at which I sold the land was higher than what I had imagined," said Mizan.
Meanwhile, the government has undertaken a project to improve the living standards of people living in South Chattogram. The project will be implemented in Cox's Bazar Sadar, Maheshkhali, Chakaria, Teknaf, and Ukhiya upazilas at a cost of 32,462 million Japanese Yen.
Need for developing Anwara-Pekua road
Local people have said the road from Anwara-Banshkhali-Cox's Bazar to Pekua needs to be developed in order to get maximum benefits of the tunnel.
Morshed Nayan, a local social worker, said, "A number of industries, including coal-based thermal power plants and LNG stations, are being set up at Matarbari in Maheshkhali upazila of Cox's Bazar with domestic and foreign investment. Besides, a coal-fired power plant is being constructed at Banshkhali. If the Anwara-Pekua road is developed, communication between Cox's Bazar and Chattogram will be easier and thus maximum benefits can be reaped from the tunnel."
Jointly funded by Bangladesh and China, the initial cost of the project was estimated at Tk9,880 crore. Work on the project began in December 2017, two years after getting the green light. The cost was subsequently revised up to Tk10,374 crore.
The main tunnel is 3.32 km long, while the length of each of the two tubes is 2.45 km with a diameter of 10.60 m. The tubes will each consist of two lanes. There will be a 5.35 km connecting road on the west and east ends of the main tunnel along with a 727 m long overbridge.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated the construction of the project on 14 October 2016.