Sudha Ramachandran charts the development and completion of an ambitious but controversy-dogged infrastructure project, which embodies Bangladesh’s resolve in the face of daunting odds
On June 25, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. It is a ‘symbol of pride, honour and ability’, Hasina said at the event.‘We have shown the world that we can.’
Indeed, the bridge is a significant achievement that has signalled to the world Bangladesh’s ability to complete a mega-project against the odds.
Stretching across the River Padma for a distance of 6.15 km, the Padma Bridgeis Bangladesh’s longest. It is a two-level steel truss bridge, with the lower deck accommodating a set of railway tracks and a four-lane highway at the upper level.
The River Padma is among the world’s most treacherous and unpredictable rivers and the bridge had to be designed bearing in mind its extreme roughness.Consequently, the bridge’s legs had to be sunk deep, with piles installed as deep as 127 metres – a world record.
Although the bridge’s foundation stone was laid in 2001, work did not take off thereafter as the Awami League (AL) lost power in general elections late that year. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was not keen to pursue the project and it was put on the backburner.
Then, with the AL’s return to power in 2009, the Padma Bridge project secured a fresh lease of life. However, it soon ran into trouble.
In 2012, the World Bank cancelled a $1.2 billion loan and pulled out of the project, alleging it had ‘credible evidence’ of corruption by high-level Bangladeshi officials. Other donors,including the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Inter-American Development Bank, also pulled out.
It was at this critical juncture that the Bangladesh government made a big decision: it would self-finance the project. This was no small challenge for an economy that falls under the category of a least developed country, since$3.9 billionwas needed to fund the project. Yet Bangladesh did it. The bridge is therefore a symbol of the country’s resolve to develop its infrastructure against all odds.
At the time of the bridge’s inauguration in June, controversy erupted over reports that the Padma project waspart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This evoked a strong response from Dhaka, as Bangladeshi officials denied receiving loan assistance from abroad. Dhaka’s strong rebuttal is understandable, given how much the self-financing of the Padma Bridge has contributed to Bangladesh’s confidence in its capacity, and sense of accomplishment.
China’s role in the project was not small, however. In fact, its state-owned China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group constructed the bridge.
So, what will be the impact of the Padma Bridge? The structure is expected to transform Bangladeshi lives and livelihoods. Crossing the Padma River by ferry, especially during the monsoon season, has always been challenging. The bridge will help people overcome that problem. It connects the Mawa and Janjira banks of the Padma, thereby linking Bangladesh’s southwestern districts with the northern and eastern parts of the country. The bridge will facilitate travel and transport of people and goods across the country by cutting freight costs, as well as travel time and distance. It will also connect Mongla and Payra ports, Bangladesh’s second and third-largest ports, with the capital Dhaka. This is expected to reduce congestion atChattogram port.The connectivity provided by the bridge is expected to boost Bangladesh’s GDP by1.3 to 2 percent per annum, and that of southwestern regionby 2.5 per cent.
Nor is it only Bangladesh that will reap the benefits of the Padma Bridge. The region and Asia as a whole are expected to benefit too.
Travel distance between Dhaka and Kolkata will reduce by 63 kilometres. If the rail line running through the Padma Bridge is linked to the Akhaura-Agartala railway line, which is just 159 km away, this will benefit India’s northeastern region. The bridge will also boost sub-regional connectivity as it will be a key link in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Network.
Additionally, the Padma Bridge is a key link in the Asian Highway-1 (AH-1), one of the three key highways of the Asian Highway Network that run through Bangladesh. The Asian Highway Network envisages linking 32 Asian countries via roads to Europe. The bridge is also a part of Trans-Asian Rail Route.
The Padma Bridge is, therefore, much more than simply a feather in Bangladesh’s cap.
Bangladesh’s Awami League government can be expected to accelerate the reaping of benefits from the Padma Bridge. However, it will have to contend with manifold challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have dealt severe blows to its economy. Like other crisis-ridden South Asian countries, it has turned to the International Monetary Fund for a financial bailout. It is seeking a loan of US$4.5 billion from the IMF and has put in place economic belt-tightening measures to reduce depletion of foreign exchange reserves.
While Bangladesh’s situation is nowhere as bad as Sri Lanka’s or Pakistan’s, alarm bells are nonetheless ringing in Dhaka.
The country is scheduled to vote in general elections by December 2023 and the Awami League, which has cut back on democratic rights in the country, is projecting economic achievements, especially with regard to infrastructural development under its ruleover the past decade. The Padma Bridge is an important item on that agenda.
Whether the completion of the concrete structure will translate into votes remains to be seen. How Sheikh Hasina rides out the foreign exchange crisis will be a crucial factor in the magnitude of dividends she reaps from the Padma Bridge in the next general election.