Bright future beckons for Bangladesh as trailblazing Padma Bridge opens Saturday

Bangladesh had a vision two decades ago.

Reazul Basharbdnews24.com
Published : 24 June 2022, 06:30 PM
Updated : 24 June 2022, 07:03 PM

It was to have a multipurpose bridge on top of Padma River - second only to the Amazon in South America in terms of high currents during the monsoon - which will connect at least 21 districts in the south-western part of Bangladesh to Dhaka and will essentially end eons of sufferings of the people travelling to those parts.

Considering Bangladesh’s technical capability and financial firepower capacity back then, the project was considered a herculean task, and Bangladesh, quite understandably, sought out credits and technical expertise from some development partners.

In turn, those so-called creditors and development partners resorted to conspiracies that tainted Bangladesh’s image in the global community.

Not a single soul believed Bangladesh could pull it off on its own after the main creditor, the World Bank, pulled off from the behemoth project.

Except for one person.

With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh has proved that anything is possible if the country puts its mind to it.

In a message to her fellow citizens, Hasina said: “It is a historic moment for all the Bangladeshis to be proud.”

She will inaugurate the bridge at 10am on Saturday, a definitively emotional moment for her as many were sceptical when she first announced in 2013 that the country will fund the construction project on its own.

 

The first segment of the inaugural ceremony will take place at the Mawa end of the multipurpose bridge where the prime minister will release a commemorative postal stamp and souvenir sheet. She will also unveil the inaugural plaque and Mural-1 at the toll plaza.

For the second segment, Hasina and her entourage will travel to the Zajira end of the bridge and unveil the inaugural plaque and Mural-2 there.

She is expected to join a rally organised by the Awami League at Madaripur’s Kathalbari.

The bridge will be open for traffic the next day, on Sunday, Jun 26.

President Abdul Hamid has issued a separate message congratulating Bangladeshis to mark the occasion.

FESTIVITIES ALL AROUND, SECURITY TIGHTENED

On Friday, both sides of the bridge, and surrounding areas and roads were decorated with colourful festoons and banners highlighting Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of the inauguration.

Awami League adherents and public servants involved in organising this mega event were found busy in last-minute preparations.

Security agencies have erected a multi-layer security protocol for people who would like to attend the event.

Inspector General of Police Benazir Ahmed said every point of the inaugural event and the rally that follows are under a tight security blanket.

“District police, river police, traffic police and highway police- all are working to protect the area. We'll be here until the rally ends,” he said.

Referring to the recent uptick of COVID-19 cases, the police chief said: “Millions of people will gather at the rally. That is why I'm requesting all those who come to the public meeting place to abide by the restrictions and maintain standard COVID-19 health protocol. ”

THE HURDLES BEFORE THE BRIDGE BECOMES A REALITY

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian federal authorities launched their 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.

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 project funding.

Despite their conditions being met, the World Bank refused to budge on funding.

Bangladesh then officially withdrew its request for a loan and Hasina announced in parliament that Bangladesh 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”.

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”.

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

CONSTRUCTION BEGAN, FINALLY

Construction of the main bridge worth Tk 301.93 billion started in December 2014, but the actual plan was initiated in 1996 when the Hasina government came into power.

By 1998, a pre-feasibility study was conducted to build a bridge over the Padma River. Hasina laid the foundation stone for the Padma Bridge in July 2001.

The progress of the project lost its momentum when BNP came into power in 2001.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency, in the meantime, recommended constructing the bridge at Mawa-Zajira point following a survey in 2004.

The bridge project got stalled for a long time and was resumed in 2007 when the army-backed caretaker government was in power. The Asian Development Bank, or ADB, was the leading development partner for the project. At that time, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council, or ECNEC, approved the project with a budget of Tk101.62 billion.

Following a series of dramatic incidents with the World Bank withdrawing its funding, the government decided to build it with its own funds.

In 2009, the Awami League-led coalition government revised the plan for constructing the Padma Bridge and the budget rose to $2.91 billion as the proposal for setting up railway lines was included.

The Awami League government geared up to construct the bridge and completed detailed planning with the Bridges Division floating tenders from 2009 to 2011.

After a few revisions, the ECNEC approved the revised Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project with a budget of Tk 205 billion on Jan 11, 2011. The government confirmed the foreign lenders beforehand for providing funds for the project.

Though the ADB was the main partner in the project, the World Bank committed to providing the highest amount of loans and became the ‘lead lender.’

The WB promised $1.2 billion of the total construction cost of $2.91 billion. Among other lenders, the ADB promised $615 million, JICA $415 million, and IDB $140 million. The Bangladesh government was to provide the rest.

On Sept 30, 2017, the first of the 41 spans on the Padma Bridge pier was installed and the bridge came into full view when the last one was installed on Dec 10, 2020, connecting the Mawa and Zajira end of the bridge.

The asphalt layering work on the bridge began the next year. As the construction ended, parliament passed a motion on Jun 9, to thank Hasina for making the much-cherished bridge a reality. Finally, the capacity lights were turned on for the first time on Jun 14.

As the country edges closer to the inauguration of one of its mega projects, the prime minister called the Padma Bridge an ‘emblem of confidence and capacity of Bangladesh.’

By withdrawing support from a hundred-year project, the Word Bank has ‘deprived’ itself, commented Mashiur Rahman, economic affairs advisor to the prime minister. State Minister for Planning Shamsul Alam said the Padma Bridge would lead the south-western districts of Bangladesh towards prosperity.

PROTOCOLS EVERYONE NEED TO FOLLOW

The Bridges Authorities have asked everyone to abide by some instructions while crossing the bridge as it is a 'very important national installation'.

The maximum speed limit for vehicles crossing the Padma Bridge is 60 kilometres per hour.

Vehicles are not allowed to park or come to a standstill on the bridge. Walking and taking pictures while standing on the bridge are also prohibited.

Any freight vehicle higher than 5.8 metres is not allowed to cross the bridge. No three-wheelers, including rickshaws, vans, CNG-powered auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, bicycles or non-motorised vehicles can cross the bridge either.

[Writing in English by Sabrina Karim Murshed and Adil Mahmood, editing by Biswadip Das]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher