Thursday, 7 July, 2022
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We Would Need a White Paper on the Self-Financed Padma Bridge

Prof. Dr. Abdul Mannan Choudhury

We Would Need a White Paper on the Self-Financed Padma Bridge
Prof. Dr. Abdul Mannan Choudhury

The idea of constructing Jamuna and Padma Bridges was conceived by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He could not initiate any of those except urging the Japanese government to come for these bridges’ construction. Of course, the Jamuna Bridge came into being during the first regime of Sheikh Hasina. Then, she laid the foundation stone of the Padma Bridge in 2001. But, she took the most visible and effective steps in the construction of the bridge after assuming power in 2009. The government sought help from many donors but it was immediately turned down by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. However, while Japan, ADB and others came forward, the World Bank of its own volition came into the picture, took the lead role and convinced others to act in unison even that entailed a case of withdrawal. At that time, Syed Abul Hossain was the minister of Road, Bridge and Highways in the cabinet of Sheikh Hasina. He completed the land acquisition, preparation of work, including the rehabilitation of the displaced people, selection of the qualified bidder of the main bridge and the appointment of SNC-Lavalin for supervision of the entire project work.

The work went ahead with some hitch on the selection of SNC-Lavalin which led to controversies, misgivings, allegations of conspiracy of misappropriation of the still unreleased fund and litigation at home and in Canada. When all these dramas were in the stages, the World Bank in a statement announced the scrapping of the loan financing saying that it had presented credible proof of corruption in the Padma Bridge project to Bangladesh but the latter did not take any step in that regard.

After the World Bank folded its hands, it was expected that a developing country like Bangladesh with its meagre resources and poor foreign currency backup should withdraw from the project. But the government led by Sheikh Hasina did the opposite. She took a bold and farsighted decision to go ahead with the project entirely with country’s own fund. On May 4, 2013, the prime minister announced the construction of the Padma Bridge. On December 12, 2015, she inaugurated the main filing work of the Padma Bridge at Mawa in Munshiganj. The final cost of the now completed bridge is a total sum of Tk. 30,193 crore. It is a grand achievement and clear testimony of the capacity of a nation that achieved independence by fighting an unequal war with Pakistan in 1971.

As soon as the World Bank folded its hands, its associates followed the suit. These moves caused many people to stand against the World Bank but encouraged others of the so-called civil society and political elites to stand for the World Bank.  Even a lone Nobel laureate of the country failing to regain his position of MD of Grameen Bank stood for the World Bank and convinced his patrons within and outside to campaign for the withdrawal of World Bank funding. 

Afterward, litigations were instituted at home and abroad under the pressure of the World Bank. The Canadian Court took up the matter and found the allegation of corruption based on gossip, hearsay and misgivings and discharged the accused from the flimsy charges.

While a trail of criticism and mudslinging was going on, some liberals thought that the withdrawal of the World Bank from the Padma Bridge project was a blessing in disguise to arouse people’s sentiment of having such a prestigious project with own fund, which would be an example of our capability, prestige and honour. Moreover, they felt that it has taken Sheikh Hasina's leadership to a greater height.

Now, there are a few points to ponder and discuss. The claim of the global lender that the government did not take any action against the so-called offenders was a blatant lie, because the government jailed its own officials, and sent Dr. Rahman on leave. Syed Abul Hossain was first transferred to another ministry then deposed and ultimately dismembered from the party. They were socially ostracised and humiliated beyond measure. The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) conducted a thorough investigation and found no trace of any misappropriation of funds and any conspiracy case in the civil court in Bangladesh was rejected.

Then different corners again appeared in favour of and against the verdict. Some influential, including those who earlier supported the World Bank, stood for the victims. The victims were very benign, gentle and, perhaps, well-groomed. They did not go for any revenge or vengeance; rather stood for the World Bank from a different angle. However, they asked for an explanation. Others who have sought one or other action against the bank were Tofail Ahmad, A.H.M. Mostafa Kamal, Dr. Faras Uddin Ahmad, Barrister Shafiq Ahmed, Dr. Abdur Razzak, Dr. Hasan Mahmud, TIB, Bangladesh Economic Association and Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh etc.

However, according to former ACC Chairman Golam Rahman, the World Bank cannot be subjected to formal litigation. Dr. Moshiur Rahman rejected the idea of filling a case against the bank for tarnishing the image of the country. M.A. Muhith however, identified the then head of the World Bank in Dhaka as an incompetent and bad man.

For good reasons, Bangladesh could have taken steps of going against the World Bank. By analysing the pain and frustration of its large population, the government could even proceed to charge a large amount of money or boost up such activities that could greatly damage the image of the bank all over the world. Moreover, the bank-funded projects within the country could have been victims of public anger. The government and patriotic people of Bangladesh did not do anything like this.

On the other hand, Bangladeshi so-called civil society and opposition politicians have taken the side of the World Bank to grind their different ends. They demanded punishment for Minister Syed Abul Hossain, project adviser Dr. Moshiur Rahman, Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan and others. Besides, a minister of Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet and an advisor to the prime minister worked in an unexpected way on behalf of the World Bank, especially to get Syed Abul Hossain behind the bar. He escaped on account of the superior judgment of the prime minister although a case was instituted against him, which was dropped for the absence of evidence.

The general people were vocal but not violent and provided all-out support to the government’s endeavour of self-financing. These people ultimately won the battle. Their leadership had defeated all kinds of conspiracies, both domestic and foreign and brought a desired conclusion to the project. However, the withdrawal of the World Bank and its cohorts caused a system delay in implementing the project.

Due to the Padma Bridge, the income of the local people would increase by 3% and the GDP of the entire country will be enhanced by 1.2%. Due to the delay of the project by five years on account of the bank and its affiliates, the visible loss in Bangladesh could be calculated as enormous. A demand for a 100-million-compensation was an expression of indignation and frustration. However, many believe that Bangladesh has received more investment from the bank than it withdrew. This may be deemed as an outward expression of their remorse and indirect apology. Perhaps that had caused Dr. Moshiur Rahman and others to be lenient to the World Bank.

Now, politicians, elites, bureaucrats and ambassadors of different countries have been invited to the inauguration of the Padma Bridge. World Bank officials have also been invited. It is thus possible to respond to their detestable actions by being immensely affectionate to them. It is not vital to spend time asking for explanations from them. BNP leaders have also been invited to the event. And many may be invited who were not only against the Padma Bridge but also were against the independence and sovereignty of the nation. Others could have been invited as a mark of the same sweet revenge. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that chasing someone 12 yards away requires at least running of 11 yards. However, if the elements are to be chased the effort of the chaser gets multiplied. Therefore, we should not over-stress ourselves or should not ask for any explanation from the World Bank; rather if we can we should ask explanation from our own people. Bangladesh has conquered the invincible nature and has dominated all the adverse forces that stood against the Padma Bridge. The World Bank has lost its opportunity of involving itself in such a promising and transformative project. It may be left out in the forthcoming. This is also our victory. Even then I would request the government to publish a white paper on this so that it remains a permanent record of conspiracy, unholy alliance and achievement of a nation that has a previous record of achieving even an apparently unachievable goal.

The Padma Bridge will be remembered by generations as a mark of patriotism, nationalism and unique testimony of an iron-willed and determined daughter of the soil who is no other than Sheikh Hasina.

 

The writer is the Vice Chancellor of World University of Bangladesh