Wednesday, 6 July, 2022
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More than a bridge to celebrate

  • Enayetullah Khan
  • 24th June, 2022 04:19:38 PM
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First things first: there can be simply no scope whatsoever, none at all, for undermining the achievement, or downplaying the significance of Bangladesh finally having a bridge over the mighty Padma River at the vital Mawa-Jajira point. This isn’t the first bridge over the Padma; indeed, it is the third. But located significantly further upstream than the one opening to the public next Sunday (June 26), neither had anywhere near the same potential to be a gamechanger for the country’s fortunes.

Just to recollect then: the region most directly expected to benefit from the Padma Bridge we have today comprises some 21 districts, mostly located in the country’s south-west, and covers close to 29 percent of the country’s landmass, that is home to close to 30 million people - nearly a fifth of the country’s entire population. Building it however represented a significant engineering challenge - although nothing that could not be overcome with time and money. And given the entire history that is now tied up in its eventual realisation, it is impossible for Bangladeshis to not give vent to some of the emotion that we have invested in it as well over the years. For us, it is more than a bridge.

In order to truly appreciate the special place it occupies in the hearts of Bangladeshis, we must revisit the international crisis that had to be overcome centring the then proposed bridge, around halfway through Sheikh Hasina’s second term as prime minister (2009-14). And there can be no fair assessment of the events that transpired back then, and the eventual denouement we have today, without regarding it as a significant personal triumph for the prime minister. Although in keeping with one who carries the legacy of her great father, the personal here is in lockstep with the wider interests of the nation.

Some of her most influential advisers and cabinet members, namely Dr Gowher Rizvi and the late Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, were resolutely opposed to the path their prime minister had chosen, in rebuffing the World Bank’s insistence that she remove a member of her cabinet on their say-so. At the time, it may have come off as stubborn, or even compromised. But her innate political instincts were clearly onto something the vast experience and wisdom of stalwarts around her were missing. Most of the time, when an external funding source pulls out of a project for whatever reason, the project itself gets ditched. She could have easily chosen that path, and pointed the finger of blame at the overbearing World Bank. She has done a fair bit of that of course. But by demonstrating she didn’t necessarily need, her criticisms of the Washington-based lender have come from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

Like any leader worth her salt, the country Sheikh Hasina sought to build, particularly since her return to power in 2009, was not one that allowed itself to be dictated by foreigners – be they governments or multinational corporations, or the network of INGOs. For any country that regards itself as independent and sovereign, foreign dependence is an extremely humiliating and demoralising condition that can affect everything from governance to citizens’ morale. What Sheikh Hasina managed to successfully establish through this entire episode, was that Bangladesh was no longer ready to play that game. Can it be mere coincidence that a decade later, there is a consensus among observers at home and abroad, that Bangladesh has emerged as a more confident and self-possessed nation on the world stage?

When the ribbon is finally cut tomorrow, it is that intangible benefit that Bangladeshis around the world will celebrate, as much as the magnificent structure of the bridge itself.

The writer is the Editor-in-Chief of UNB & Dhaka Courier