From shocking rumours to scandalous conspiracies: myriads of hurdles before Padma Bridge sparks to life

Lingering doubts over the launch, completion and quality of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge overshadowed years of the construction of the mega structure. Debunking all the conspiracy theories, rumours, and alleged plots to stop the project, the 6.15-km bridge is now on the cusp of connecting Dhaka with 21 districts to spur economic growth in the country's impoverished southwest.

Kazi Mobarak Hossain Staff
Published : 21 June 2022, 07:48 PM
Updated : 21 June 2022, 09:15 PM

Countless conspiracy theories on who sabotaged the credit agreement with the World Bank had run amok in the corridors of power in Bangladesh, from both sides of the isles, for years before and after China’s state-owned Major Bridge Engineering Co Ltd started the construction in 2015.

Rumours about the bridge were rife, sometimes causing violence and deaths. Reports of the Chinese staff dropping blood and some carcasses of chicken into the river came out in the media in 2015. The Chinese company said that event was part of a Chinese ritual before initiating any major task.

The report did not get much traction at the moment, but in 2019, rumours spread on social media that "human skulls, especially skulls of youngsters, are a necessity to build the bridge".

The “human skulls and blood” rumour first took a violent turn on Jul 18 that year after a man was caught in Netrokona allegedly holding the severed head of a child. The man was beaten to death.

The very next day in Dhaka’s Badda area, a mother of two boys named Taslima Begum Renu was killed by a mob that dragged her out of a school headmaster’s room, where she had gone to enquire about the admissions of her sons.

Panic broke out among the common Bangladeshis and reports of lynching were coming out almost every other day for the next few weeks, before the government stepped in and reiterated repeatedly that the “necessity of blood and skulls” are plain rumours. 

Finger-pointing and bickering about Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus and his influences on the global creditor World Bank had dominated general rallies, government forums and standardised stump speeches during the last two general election cycles.

Even only days before the bridge is set to open to the traffic, it seems like the powers that be are yet to be done with the matter. The frustrations left deep scar on the psyche of the politicians and advisers, who were at the centre of that perfect storm. It was apparent in the last couple of weeks for the way they named and shamed Yunus.

One and a half years before the violent rumours episode, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia advised all to avoid crossing the river through the bridge, saying it will put their lives in danger because the bridge was being built hastily. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir backed Khaleda's allegation, claiming experts pointed out the design of the bridge was faulty.

The ruling Awami League is hitting back now. Its General Secretary Obaidul Quader, who is also the government's road transport and bridges minister, has recently said, "Every falsehood and rumour will get the response through the inauguration of the Padma Bridge on Jun 25."

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sees Bangladesh's construction of the Padma Bridge with its own funds after battling the litany of problems as a withering riposte to insults.

Speaking in parliament earlier this month, she reiterated the allegation that Yunus worked actively to stop the credit the World Bank was supposed to release for the project after losing his legal battle to retain control of the Grameen Bank.

Her family also faced pressure, Hasina said, claiming that officials of the US Department of State had threatened her son Sajeeb Wazed Joy two times with consequences if Yunus was removed as managing director of the microcredit bank.

The final span of the Padma Bridge was installed amid heightened security in the construction area of the structure on Thursday, Dec 10, 2020. Photo: Mostafigur Rahman

After years of back and forth and many investigations, suspensions, resignations and legal drama later, the World Bank, the chief lender of the consortium which had agreed to finance the majority of the construction of the bridge, officially backed out of the agreement in 2012, citing “credible evidence” of corruption by several Bangladeshi political powerbrokers and Bangladesh authority’s “unsatisfactory response".

Even before the Washington, DC-based institution pulled the plug on the loan, the Awami League-led Bangladesh authorities went into a circle-the-wagons mood and blamed Yunus, whom Dhaka believed had somehow cajoled the World Bank’s then president Robert Zoellick.

The cajoling theory got momentum as it turned out the decision to cancel the $1.2 billion fund was one of the last acts before Zoellick left office.

Tensions were understandably high among the top brass of the Bangladesh administration at the time, and theories about the opposition BNP’s conspiracy to kill one of the major promises by the ruling party swirled around for quite some time.

Meanwhile, members of the civil society had field days too, expressing over and over again “how disappointed they are” over the whole situation and how the so-called scandal “tarnished Bangladesh’s image.”

A view of the Padma Bridge taken from the river on Monday, June 14, 2021. According to information from the Bridges Division, construction work on the bridge was 93 percent complete as of Jun 1. The government hopes to allow traffic across the bridge from next year if things proceed as planned. Photo: Mostafigur Rahman

Even though Dhaka distanced itself from foreign funding for the project, the scandal kept chasing the Bangladesh administration, as legal proceedings about the alleged corruption were going on in Canada.

The Canadian federal authorities charged a couple of officials of a Montreal-based construction company, called SNC-Lavalin, alleging that they were involved in attempting to bribe certain Bangladesh government officials to win the project.

After years of examination of the case, a Canadian court threw out the case because of the lack of evidence in 2017.

The verdict gave the ruling party and the government a carpe diem moment, and they effectively used it to restore some of their credibility, especially on the global stage.

[Writing in English by Adil Mahmood; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder and Biswadip Das]