Padma Bridge: A graft case the World Bank forced on Bangladesh

The World Bank was supposed to finance part of the construction of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. A decade ago, Bangladesh finalised a $1.2 billion loan contract for the project with an initial estimated cost of $2.9 billion.

Reazul Basharand Tabarul
Published : 22 June 2022, 03:42 AM
Updated : 22 June 2022, 03:45 AM

But the Washington-based agency suspended its loan after raising complaints of corruption over the appointment of consultants for Bangladesh's longest bridge.

Uncertainty loomed over the project after the World Bank pulled out and the Bangladesh government, which repeatedly denied the allegations, scanned for ways to regain its favour.

Syed Abul Hossain, the then communications minister, remained firm on his rejection of the World Bank claim.

The World Bank then set forth a condition to reverse its decision -- the Anti-Corruption Commission must investigate the graft allegations.

The government wanted to investigate in parallel with construction efforts, but the World Bank made it clear that loans were off the table if a case was not started.

In February 2012, the ACC found no proof of corruption in selecting a firm for the pre-feasibility study on the construction of the main bridge in its initial investigation.

Allegations lurched into an international corruption case involving former top executives from Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, one of the five firms vying for a construction contract.

The anti-graft watchdog in Bangladesh then looked into alleged irregularities in appointing SNC-Lavalin as a consultancy firm.

WB country director Ellen Goldstein and Economic Relations Division secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan signing Padma bridge loan agreement aboard language martyr 'Barkat' ferry at Mawa point on Thursday. Photo: mustafiz mamun/ Dhaka, Apr 28, 2011

Canada also launched its own investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption over the construction of the bridge. It raided SNC-Lavalin’s headquarters in September 2011, as requested by the World Bank, and arrested Ramesh Shah and Mohammad Ismail, the international projects division's former vice president and director, respectively. The case also named Zulfiquar Ali Bhuiyan, a dual Bangladeshi-Canadian citizen. All pleaded not guilty to bribing foreign officials.

In Bangladesh, the then ACC Deputy Director Abdullah Al Zahid started a case of ‘bribery’ in December 2012, accusing Bridges Division Secretary Md Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan and six others. Mosharraf was arrested in the case and suspended from his job in January 2013. He soon secured bail before the government withdrew the suspension in June.

Later Mosharraf took office as the chairman of the National Board of Revenue before retiring. He is the incumbent ambassador to Germany for Bangladesh.

Former Communication Minister Syed Abul Hossain arrives at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) headquarters on Monday afternoon to face questions for a second time over allegations of corruption in the Padma bridge project. Photo: Dhaka, Dec 03, 2012

The six others accused in the case were Kazi Mohammad Ferdous, superintending engineer (river training) of the Bangladesh Bridge Authority, Riaz Ahmed Zaber, executive engineer (bridge construction and maintenance division-4 of the Roads and Highways Department, and four SNC-Lavalin officials -- Mohammad Mostafa, deputy managing director of engineering and planning consultant and local sub-consultant, Mohammad Ismail, former director of the International Project Division, Ramesh Shah, former vice-president of the International Project Division and Kevin Wallace, former vice-president and general manager of SNC-Lavalin's Energy & Industrial Business Unit.

Before lodging the case, the ACC had questioned Abul Hossain in connection with the alleged graft. Following the interrogation, Abul Hossain, an Awami League leader, said: “The Padma Bridge investigation proceeded sincerely. But there is no fear of corruption in [the project]. Those who are talking about it are wrong.”

Abul Hossain was transferred to the ICT ministry and later stepped down as part of the World Bank’s preconditions for resuming funding of the project.

In May 2013, ACC Chief Prosecutor Anisul Huq and Deputy Director Mirza Zahidul Alam flew to Canada to observe the trial of SNC-Lavalin officials, and collect Ramesh and Ismail’s statements and the former’s diary, but returned empty-handed.

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

Despite their conditions being met, the World Bank refused to budge on funding. Bangladesh officially withdrew its request for a loan in February 2013 and announced it would undertake the project with its own funds.

In June 2014, the government finalised an eight-year contract with China Major Bridge Engineering Co Ltd on building the structure at Munshiganj’s Mawa.

Three months later, the ACC filed the final investigation report, acquitting the accused of all charges after finding “no evidence of corruption or conspiracy”.

Md Badiuzzaman, the then ACC chairman, said, “The case has been documented for final report submission as the case had no merit and not enough information and witnesses were found during the investigation.”

“We did not find enough information to move forward with the case even after probing for one and a half years. That’s why we are unable to submit the charge sheet in court,” he added.

In February 2017, the Canadian Supreme Court delivered its verdict, throwing out wiretap evidence that formed the basis of the prosecution's case, saying it was based on “speculation, gossip and rumour”.

Justice Ian Nordheimer of the Ontario Superior Court acquitted three business executives of charges that SNC-Lavalin staff planned to bribe Bangladesh officials in a bid to win a $50 million contract to supervise the construction of the Padma Bridge.

Prime Minister's Economics Affairs Adviser Mashiur Rahman arrives at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) headquarters on Sunday afternoon to be questioned over allegations of corruption in the Padma bridge project. Photo: Nashirul Islam/ Dhaka, Nov 04, 2012

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP had petitioned for wiretap applications to gather evidence against the engineering firm’s executives in 2011.

Nordheimer said he had a lot of questions about the use of wiretaps.

When the graft allegations over the construction of the bridge surfaced, the ACC was headed by Ghulam Rahman, who is now the president of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh.

Asked on what grounds the ACC started the case, Ghulam Rahman said, “We launched the investigation based on media reports. The World Bank then lodged a complaint. It became our duty to look into it. But the investigation found no proof.”

In an interview with a private television channel in Germany, Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said, “The people of the country know that I was falsely accused. The conspiracy was the work of certain quarters of society who had vested interests. I suffered a lot because of it.”

He mentioned that the complaint also blamed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her family.

“The ACC investigation found no truth in this. Finally, the Canadian court dismissed it as gossip and rumour.”

“The scandal triggered by the World Bank and that quarter of schemers from Bangladesh failed. Now Bangladesh is free from this blemish.”

Hasina is now set to inaugurate the bridge, which will connect Dhaka to Bangladesh’s south-western districts, at 10 am on Jun 25.

[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; edited by Shoumik Hassin]