It needed one Sheikh Mujib, the Father of the Nation, to dream that the people of Bangladesh one day will have an independent country of their own. It needed his leadership and farsightedness to realise the dream and for that, he had to struggle for twenty-three years and spend about thirteen years of his life in prison facing death sentences at least on two separate occasions. His dream was realised in 1971 and the independent and sovereign state of Bangladesh was born. That was fifty years back.
It needed one Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujib, to dream of building a bridge over the mighty Padma River with our own resources when one of the original financing agencies, the World Bank, along with a number of their cronies in Bangladesh conspired to torpedo the project crying foul and corruption and withholding the promised funding.They not only planned to torpedo the entire plan for constructing the bridge, a dream project for the nation, but also planned to defame and discredit the entire country, its government. Moreover, they put the country’s Prime Minister in the dock. They tried to humiliate the entire government machinery. It was the sole determination of Sheikh Hasina and her courage that today Bangladesh can, with the installation of the last span of the Padma Bridge on Thursday, proudly say, come what may, with visionary leadership, a sense of confidence and courage sometimes seemingly impossible dreams can be realised.
With the successful installation of the last span over the Padma Bridge another achievement has been added in the cap of Bangabandhu’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina. Congratulations to her, her team and everyone who were involved in making this dream come true. The commissioning of the bridge for public use by the end of next year will mark another landmark in the history of Bangladesh. Padma Bridge by any standard is a megastructure and an iconic project of Bangladesh and it will make the people of this nation proud.
The Padma Bridge project was conceived during the first tenure of Hasina’s premiership in 1998. On 4 July 2001, she laid the foundation of the bridge near the Maoa ferry ghat. Unfortunately, Sheikh Hasina and her party Awami League lost the general election in the same year and Begum Zia and her four-party alliance came to power. Begum Zia’s government practically did nothing to take the project ahead. When Sheikh Hasina again formed the government in 2009 the implantation of the project was resumed with top priority.
Initially, the cost of the project was estimated to be US$ 2.97 billion and it was agreed that the lead financier would be JICA, IDB and ADB. World Bank was the last to join the group but was the only international agency to have raised the foul play and corruption bogey directed towards the project in spite of the fact that not a single penny was either released or spent from the WB fund till then. As expected, following the footprints of WB other fund providing agencies also announced that they will also stall the financing of the project till the WB’s accusation is resolved. WB’s accusation not only put the project on hold but also put the image of the country in the trial dock. It was a gloomy time for the government.
Sheikh Hasina speaking in the parliament denied all the allegations and demanded a proper investigation both by the WB and the country’s ACC. World Bank’s accusation of corruption was widely supported in Bangladesh by a section of leading media, the country’s main opposition party in the parliament, BNP, a section of the civil society which included a few former bureaucrats and members of the erstwhile Caretaker Government. Amongst those from the BNP who regularly appeared before the press to slam the government included the BNP’s Chairperson herself, party general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP leader Dr. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, Brig (Retd) Hannan Shah and few others. They not only crucified the then communication minister Syed Abul Hossain but also dubbed the prime minister as corrupt and demanded her resignation. Professor Emajuddin Ahmed, the former Vice-chancellor of Dhaka University and a leading think tank member of BNP, questioned the patriotism of Syed Abul Hossain and demanded that he resign immediately. Shujon’s Badiul Alam Majumder, Hafizuddin Ahmed, Dr. Akbar Ali, Hossain Zillur Rahman all advisors to the former Caretaker Government joined the bandwagon and condemned the government and accused them of indulging in corruption. TIB’s Dr. Ifthekharuzzaman and Mahmudur Rahman Manna of Nagorik Oikkoy were not to be left behind in performing a post mortem of Sheikh Hasina’s ‘corrupt government.’
For a few months, the midnight TV talk shows and commentaries in a select group of newspapers had nothing to either talk or write about except the alleged corruption involving this mega project. One senior journalist (now deceased) would very often come straight from his hospital bed appear in some TV talk shows and nail the prime minister and the government. This gentleman was once a big beneficiary of both Awami League and Bangabandhu.Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) began its own investigation against the WB’s allegation and after an extensive fact-finding exercise and interrogation of all the parties concerned concluded that there is no truth in the WB allegation. Not satisfied with this finding WB initiated its own investigation through a high-powered panel led by one Louis Moreno Okampo. WB by its endless bureaucracy kept on delaying giving any final decision and on 28th January 2013 Sheikh Hasina declared that whatever is happening with the Padma Bridge project is just a part of a bigger conspiracy against the country and she was not wrong.
In 2018 commentator Suvas Singho Roy and I put together some paper clippings and commentaries regarding the Padma Bridge conspiracy and published it in a book form. In the launching ceremony of the book, we invited Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury, a member of the Expert Committee of the project, Dr. Atiur Rahman, former Governor of Bangladesh Bank, Mr. Mosharraf Hossain Bhyian, the then secretary of the Communication Ministry whose service was not only terminated on the indirect insistence of the World Bank but unfortunately he had to go to jail, senior journalist Swadesh Roy, ACC investigator Shahabuddin Chuppu and Prime Minister’s Economic Advisor Dr. Mashiur Rahman. All attended the launching ceremony except Dr. Mashiur Rahman who excused himself as he had a very important meeting to attend. It was the last day of office of Sheikh Hasina’s second successive term as Prime Minister.
Those who attended the launching ceremony of the book had their own experience and stories to share. The most revealing was that of Dr. Atiur Rahman. As the Governor of Bangladesh Bank, he went to attend an important meeting of the WB in Washington and also had an appointment to meet the then President of WB Robert Bruce Zoellick (2007-2012). While he was waiting to meet the WB President surprisingly three prominent Bangladeshis emerged from the President’s room. Of these three prominent persons, one is internationally renowned, one is an economist working for a local think tank and the third person was an editor of a local daily. They were surprised to see Dr. Atiur Rahman waiting to meet the WB president. Soon after the visitors left, the president’s secretary informed Dr. Atiur’s appointment is cancelled. This was an official appointment and the cancellation was somewhat uncivil.
On 31 January 2013, World Bank informed Bangladesh that they were cancelling the $ 1.2 billion loan credit deal vis-à-vis the Padma Bridge with immediate effect, saying it has proof of corruption conspiracy involving Bangladeshi officials, executives of Canada’s SNC-Lavlin firm that was involved with the project as a consultant though there still was no conclusive evidence of any corruption involving the Padma Bridge. On the same day, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the Padma Bridge project will go on and Bangladesh will arrange sources of funds for the project. Dr. Atiur revealed that earlier he met the prime minister and ensured that the funding is possible from Bangladesh’s own source as the money will not be needed all at the same time.
A case was filed in the Toronto court of Canada against the SNC-Lavlin which was originally accused of masterminding the corruption scandal to get the consultancy contract in the Padma Bridge project. After an extensive hearing, going through all the relevant documents and grilling all the concerned personnel, Justice Ian Nordheimer of the Ontario Superior Court threw out all the concocted evidence and rebuked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for its involvement in the investigation. It was a slap in the face of the World Bank.
On 10 December 2020, the last span of the bridge was placed on the pillars thus completing the first major task of one of the world’s major super-structure. It was a moment of joy for the whole nation more so as it comes just a few days ahead of the 49th victory day of the country. Padma Bridge may not just be seen only a bridge connecting the two banks of the river Padma. It has many social, economic, legal, reputational, emotional and political interpretations as well. Above all, it symbolises the confidence of the country, the quality of national leadership and the courage of Bangabandhu’s daughter. The making of the Padma Bridge will go down in the history as an engineering marvel of our time.
As the main superstructure is complete now remains the fine-tuning and making it functional to coincide with the 50th year Victory Day next year. The unique double storied 6.15 km long superstructure will have a rail link, four-lane highway, and gas and power transmission lines. Once the bridge comes into operation it is expected to change the socio-economic condition of the southwestern part of the country and increase the national GDP on an average of 1.5 per cent while the region’s GDP is expected to show an increase in growth by 2 percent.
The tourism industry will get a big boost and so will be the service sectors. On average 29 districts of the country will, directly and indirectly, be benefitted once Padma Bridge is open for public use. Bangabandhu has erected a monument for the Bangali nation, Bangladesh. His daughter has built on that and today the people of this country are witness to many monuments that strengthened Bangabandhu’s dream of a self-reliant proud Bangladesh. Bangabandhu Satellite, Ruppur Nuclear Power Plant, Matarbari power plant and deep seaport, Rampal power plant, tunnel under the Karnaphuli river, metro rail in Dhaka city, the third terminal of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. The planned Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib dual-gauge Railway Bridge over the Jamuna river which once completed will be the largest dedicated rail bridge in the country.
Padma Bridge is the testimony of the courage of Bangali Nation, determination and leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the country’s ability to conceive and implement a mega project with its own resources, demonstration of the skills of our own engineers and workers, and on top of everything, that the country needs not outside funding for implementation of a mega project. Unfortunately, one key person who was involved with the Padma Bridge project from its very inception, Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury today is no longer with us to witness the success of the project. His contribution will be remembered. The nation will also remember the contribution of all the local people and institutions whose contribution to making this project successful must be given due importance. Syed Abul Hossain the then Communication Minister, who was continuously harassed by the WB should be given his due share in the project and thanked for his stand against the accusation of the WB.
World Bank has always been an important partner in many developments works in Bangladesh from education to building super-structures. Padma Bridge is one project where their decision and calculations went grossly wrong as did in quite a few other countries. However, the Padma Bridge episode will be a learning experience for all relevant quarters and stakeholders. The completion of the superstructure of the Padma Bridge will be a joyous moment for the people of Bangladesh in this month of victory.
A nation born out of sweat, sacrifice, blood and tears cannot be defeated easily.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator