The dawn of a new age: A Bangladesh bridge redefines connectivity to drive economy

In 2010, Masuma Akter, a school teacher from Patuakhali’s Bauphal, was critically injured in a road crash. Bruised and bloodied, she was initially taken to a local hospital, then to Patuakhali Sadar Hospital, before being moved to Barishal Sher-e-Bangla Medical College Hospital from there.

Reazul Bashar Farhan Fardaus and Golam Mortujabdnews24.com
Published : 24 June 2022, 08:08 PM
Updated : 24 June 2022, 08:25 PM

As her condition deteriorated, the doctors took a risky gamble – sending Masuma 300km to Dhaka by ambulance. The journey would take the entire night and it would be dawn before they arrived.

Miraculously, Masuma survived. But her children have long wondered whether the hours of uncertainty they spent in apprehension could have been avoided if the Padma Bridge linked the southern districts with Dhaka.

That bridge of dreams is now a reality for the country’s 35 million people in the south.

No longer will Asim Baroi, a farmer from Bagerhat’s Chitalmari, have to give up a portion of his hard-earned pay to the middleman. The 6.15-km long link with Dhaka will allow him to leave at first light, sell his fresh vegetables to wholesalers in the capital, and return home in time for dinner.

Economists believe the bridge will not simply change the lives of people in the 21 districts to the south, they think it will energise the country’s economy as a whole.

“The Padma Bridge itself will lead the country’s southwest towards growth and boost Bangladesh’s GDP [gross domestic product] by 1.23 percent,” says State Minister for Planning Shamsul Alam.

The late Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, who led the panel of experts for the bridge project, hoped the structure would play a crucial role in the development of connectivity, trade and tourism in South and Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set to inaugurate the bridge on Jun 25. Today, Mawa and Zajira don celebratory attire in anticipation of the grand occasion.

 

A decade ago, Hasina famously announced Bangladesh would undertake the massive project with its own funds after the World Bank pulled out of its commitment to finance a major part of the project, citing a “corruption conspiracy” that was never proven. That was 2,387 days ago.

Hasina has set her sights on transforming Bangladesh into a developed country by 2041. Meeting this particular ambition requires a massive leap in per capita income, from the current $2,824 to more than $12,056.

To do so, GDP growth will have to hit double digits in the coming year. Bangladesh’s growth had been a little over 8 percent for two years before the pandemic hit. The country is only now regaining that pace.

Government officials believe that the Padma Bridge will be the star in building the “Golden Bangladesh” of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dreams.

In a media briefing on Wednesday, Hasina stressed that the mega structure will reduce poverty by 0.84 percent a year.

“We aim to meet the SDGs by 2030-31 and become an upper-middle-income country before transforming into a developed country by 2041. With the help of the people, we'll fulfil these promises, as we've done in the past,” she said.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

There are more than 700 rivers in Bangladesh, but the largest - the Padma, the Brahmaputra-Jamuna and the Meghna - divide Bangladesh into four parts. The basins that formed along these streams are the country’s north, east, northwest and southwest regions.

The Meghna Bridge, the Meghna-Gomati Bridge and the Bhairab Bridge stretching over the Meghna, the Bangabandhu Bridge straddling the Jamuna and the Lalan Shah Bridge in Khulna all play important roles in connecting people and transporting goods to the capital from the north, east and northwest.

But the Padma River still separates the southwest from the capital and people from the region are forced to travel to Dhaka on ferries or launches that make slow journeys. Perishable goods transported by truck often rot because of the long trip.

The long-awaited bridge, which will open to the public a day after its inauguration, aims to relieve the people from these burdens.

It will bring a drastic change to the connectivity of 16 districts in the Khulna and Barishal divisions and six in Dhaka. The bridge will also link trains and pass gas to supply the necessary fuel to industries.

Most of the land on either side of the highway from Khulna to Mongla Port -- a stretch of over 50 km -- has been sold. This land will be used to develop industry and create employment.

In addition, the price of land in 21 other districts in the southwestern part of the country is rising rapidly as tourism centres are spruced up and employment opportunities in the region begin to boom.

The opening up of new factories in the industrially lagging south will also increase activity at the Payra, Mongla and Benapole Ports.

On top of all this, Dhaka and Chattogram will be directly connected by road, which will reinvigorate tourism in the country and favour economic growth.

A REVOLUTION IN PRODUCTION

Farming is key to production in the 21 southwestern districts that supply 21 percent of the country’s production.

In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the region produced 60 percent of jute, 28 percent of wheat, and 23 percent of paddy in Bangladesh. It also makes an important contribution to the production of onions, vegetables and fruit.

Bangladesh produced over 3.8 million tonnes of fish in the fiscal year 2019-20. Thirty-two percent of that number came from the southwest. Khulna is responsible for nearly 90 percent of shrimp production.

A 2020 report by the Asian Development Bank said the GDP in these districts, inhabited by 21.15 percent of the country’s population, will rise 2.3 percent once the Padma Bridge is linked, and that will raise the country’s GDP growth rate by 1.23 percent.

“The Padma Bridge will create new and important linkages within Bangladesh, boosting commerce and improving the quality of life.  It is also another example of Bangladesh’s leadership in promoting regional connectivity in South Asia,” the US Embassy in Dhaka said in a statement on the eve of the inauguration.

The street outside the Secretariat in Dhaka is decorated with banners and festoons, ahead of the inauguration of the Padma Bridge. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove

LIVELIHOODS WILL CHANGE

Md Shakil from Shariatpur has been working in Dhaka for more than 12 years as a driver. He lives in a tin-roofed home in Dhaka’s Shyamoli with his wife, a son and a daughter. A third of his salary goes to rent.

To cut down on costs, Shakil is preparing to send his family to his hometown. He plans to visit on the weekends. His hometown is in Dhulikandi Village in Zajira, at one end of the Padma Bridge.

“Many people are returning to their villages. I’ll be able to travel [to my workplace] in two hours once the bridge opens, so I’ve begun building a home on a piece of land left for me by my father,” Shakil said.

“I saved up Tk 150,000 and made a bit more by selling trees. I’ll sell goats during Eid-ul-Azha. With a couple of rooms and a toilet, it’ll be fine. I can no longer bear the expense of living in Dhaka. Even butter buns now cost Tk 15.”

However, the price of land is already rising as the Padma Bridge prepares to open.

Shakil said land prices in the area have soared over tenfold in the past decade. “Large companies are buying land near the road and those who have a lot of money are also buying. They are responsible for the rising prices.”

According to him, land that used to cost Tk 500,000 per 1,338 sq metre [1 bigha] now costs at least Tk 200,000 per 66.9 sq metre [1 katha]. Land for housing costs at least Tk 400,000 while farmland costs Tk 200,000.

The people of Zajira will benefit more from river training as 13 km of the 14 km modification on the project was done there. The land price in the area was quite low until now due to erosion.

Zajira Municipal Mayor Md Idris Madbor said the assurance of soil stability, along with the ease of connectivity, is causing land prices to rise.

“People are becoming keen on different kinds of business. Restaurants, fast-food eateries and shops for decorative items are being set up,” he said.

Authorities are also setting up a weaving village on 48.56 hectares of land in Madaripur’s Shibchar and Shariatpur’s Naria Upazilas to generate jobs for 1 million people. Prospects of more such industrial zones are also on the cards, pushing up land prices.

 

The bridge has opened the doors to “huge opportunities” and people are buying land to put that to use, said Zajira Upazila Chairman Mobarak Sikder, also a garment businessman in Dhaka, who bought some land in the area for future investments.

Real estate companies have taken hold of most of the land on either side of the Mawa Expressway, from the Shimulia docks to Dhaka’s Keraniganj. Some companies have also bought plots by the sea adjacent to Patuakhali, Kuakata and Payra Port, sending land prices soaring.

Barishal Divisional Commissioner (Additional Secretary) Md Amin Ul Ahsan said Hasina opened the Payra Port before the Padma Bridge to establish road connectivity with the south, along with Barishal. But the inauguration of Padma Bridge will spell a new chapter in connectivity with the south and expand trade there.

Mannan Sardar from Shariatpur’s Damudya travels to Barishal’s Sher-e-Bangla Medical College Hospital to treat his bladder issues. But with the Padma Bridge opening, he has decided to visit Dhaka instead of Barishal, as it will save up both time and money.

Barishal Chamber Member Bhanu Lal Dey, the managing director of Amrita Lal Dey and Company Ltd, said: “The trucks used to get stranded at ferry terminals before. Freight vehicles were often stuck at the docks for a day or even two. Many products would waste away, raising costs. Now we can deliver goods on time.”

Kabir Hossain from Dema Village in Bagerhat Sadar Upazila has been farming shrimp, lobster and whitefish for a decade and a half. He complained that shrimp in Dhaka costs more than the prices which frozen goods exporters gave to them.

He was relieved that he would no longer have to worry about money flowing to exporters once Padma Bridge opens.

With the opening of Padma Bridge, Bagerhat will be 170 km from Dhaka. Bangladesh Fertiliser Association Director Md Shahid Mahfuz Racha thinks the southwestern regions will become an agriculture-rich economy due to this.

“Every day, wholesalers from outside the city come here to load up 50-60 trucks with vegetables bought from here to sell in different districts, including Dhaka. But the farmers in this district never get fair prices,” he said.

“After the Padma Bridge opens, these farmers will be able to directly sell their harvest in Dhaka and in districts that are further away. This will raise their profits, which in turn will boost the production as well.”

ECONOMIC ANALYSIS

According to the ADB’s forecast, 21 districts in the southern part of Bangladesh will undergo positive changes in eight ways once the Padma Bridge is open.

Firstly, the districts in the west and south will see unprecedented connectivity changes with the rest of Bangladesh.

An 80-kilometre expressway has been built from Dhaka to Mawa. Other roads and highways connecting different districts are being developed as well. Previously, travelling to Kuakata beach in Patuakhali required travellers to take at least eight ferry rides. Now, with the opening of the Padma Bridge, the last ferry will end its operations.

The travel time between Dhaka and the 21 districts in the Khulna, Barishal and Faridpur divisions will decrease by two to five hours.

Goods will be transported easily to Dhaka from Mongla, the second largest seaport in Bangladesh, Payra Seaport and Benapole Land Port. A journey to Dhaka from Khulna or Jashore took an average of 13 hours via Paturia and 9 hours via Mawa. People will see a 60 to 70 percent drop in that travel time.

A 10 percent drop in travel cost will push up travel by 10 percent, says the ADB research. According to Bangladesh, a 10 percent drop in travel time in an area will increase production by 5.50 percent.

Secondly, the bridge will not only improve connectivity, but also play a major role in the supply of power, natural gas, and telecommunication. The cost of supplying power and gas will drop.

A 10,000 MW power plant hub is already being built in Patuakhali’s Payra. There will be other power plants near the Mongla port as well.

Thirdly, industrial organisations will see a rise in production and more industries will be set up. Existing factories in the southwest part will be able to propel their production. More industries, both large and small, will be established in the 21 districts.

The export processing zone in Mongla is already experiencing an increase in its capacity. Currently, there are around 50 factories in the area, but the number will soon reach 90, the Bagerhat administration says. At least 14 LPG factories and some cement factories are situated there.

Fourth, a rise in the number of tourists will push up the GDP in the region. Apart from the Sundarbans and Kuakata, the southwestern part of Bangladesh houses other tourist destinations. Lalon Shah Shrine and the holiday cottage of Rabindranath Tagore in Kushtia, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s mausoleum in Gopalganj, Mujibnagar in Meherpur, and the rivers in Barishal are likely to have more visitors once the bridge opens.

Fifth, a positive impact is expected on the GDP as farmers get a good price for their products. For example, most onion farming takes place in Faridpur, Kushtia and Jashore. Vegetable and fruit production in those districts is rising as well. Good road connectivity will ensure better prices for farmers and eventually, an increase in agricultural production. The bridge will play a significant role in increasing the size of the market.

Sixth, Mongla port will play a major role in domestic production when it is utilised properly after the bridge opens. The port is already bustling with activity. As many as 623 ships moored in the port in the 2016-17 fiscal year. The figure rose to 970 in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The bridge is also expected to have a positive impact on the Payra Port.

Seventh, connectivity with foreign countries will be better, as the Asian Highway opens and is linked to the Padma Bridge.

Eighth, the rising price of land will bring positive development.

The Padma Bridge will eventually create more employment in the impoverished southwestern districts, believes ADB.

Altogether, the bridge will increase the GDP by 1.23 percent, according to the Manila-based lending agency.

"When we focus on the benefits of the Padma Bridge, the main issue is time,” said State Minister Shamsul Alam. The daily per capita work hours saved by the Padma Bridge will infuse new life into the economy of the southwest and open new opportunities for the people of the region and the country, he said.

[Additional reporting by Alip Ghatak in Bagerhat, Sayeed Memon in Barishal and Marium Sultana in Dhaka. Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo and Sabrina Karim Murshed; editing by Shoumik Hassin and Biswadip Das]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher