Hasina govt plans mega-event for Padma Bridge opening

Ahammad Foyez
2022.06.20
Dhaka
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Hasina govt plans mega-event for Padma Bridge opening A boat passes under the Padma Bridge – Bangladesh’s largest infrastructure project – days before it is set to be open to the public, June 14, 2022.
BenarNews

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina next weekend will inaugurate Bangladesh’s biggest infrastructure project to date, a U.S. $3.6-billion bridge across the Padma River that is expected to deliver big gains to the economy and the country’s firmly entrenched ruling party.

The 6.15-km (3.8-mile) structure will give more than 30 million people in southwestern Bangladesh a way other than ferry to cross the river and access the capital, Dhaka, and other parts of the country.

Hasina herself will kick off the festivities on Saturday, appearing in public for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and giving speeches at both ends of the bridge. While details are scant, organizers say the day-long program will include parallel celebrations in all 64 districts of the country.

“We are preparing an inauguration program that people have never seen in Bangladesh’s history,” State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told BenarNews.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has meanwhile “requested” that newspapers run items on the Padma Bridge daily until its inauguration, which will feature prominently in campaign materials and speeches as the ruling Awami League gears up for the next general election, due by early 2024.

The party is working to mobilize a turnout of one million people at the inauguration, organizers say.

“Awami League believes that the people of the parliamentary constituencies who would directly benefit from the bridge will vote for the boat in the next General Election,” senior party official Jahangir Kabir Nanak told BenarNews. The Awami League uses a boat as its electoral symbol.

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Lights on the Padma Bridge are lit for the first time, as seen from the southern end of the bridge in Shariatpur district, June 14, 2022. [BenarNews]

‘No foreign funds’

Bangladesh has been planning to build a bridge across the Padma for two decades, but hit a bump when the World Bank in 2012 canceled a $1.2 billion credit intended to finance it, alleging that it had “credible evidence” of “a high-level corruption conspiracy” connected to the project.

Furious, Bangladesh pledged to build the bridge itself.

Construction of road links commenced in 2013, and work on the main structure a year later. In 2018, the project deadline was extended to June 2022, and the cost shot up to U.S. $3.6 billion from the initial estimate of U.S. $2.9 billion.

While China Major Bridge Engineering Co. Ltd. built the bridge itself, domestic firms participated in ancillary projects, such as approach roads and service areas, officials say.

“It has come to the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that some quarters are trying to portray that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge … has been constructed with the assistance of foreign funds and is a part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” said a June 17 statement by that ministry, referring to China’s global infrastructure-building initiative.

“Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically asserts that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge has been entirely funded by the Government of Bangladesh and no foreign funds from any other bilateral or multilateral funding agency has financially contributed to its construction,” it said.

A boost for women

One in five of Bangladesh’s 168 million people live south and west of the Padma River. 

“The bridge will save significant travel time between Dhaka Division and the southwest of Bangladesh and possibly on to India. Travel time savings are expected to be about 2 hours for cars and buses and over 10 hours for trucks,” the Asian Development Bank – once an intended funder – said in an undated economic analysis of the project.

Lower transport costs will bring “significant economic structural change to the southwest zone,” including relocation of economic activities, and generation of new activities, it said.

Mustafizur Rahman of the Center for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladeshi think tank, predicted that the bridge would help grow Bangladesh’s gross domestic product by 1.2 percent annually, and also boost South Asia’s GDP. The bridge will increase jobs, service sector activity and tourism, especially if industrial zones and eco-parks are constructed as planned, he said.

The reduced transport time will especially benefit women, in a conservative society that discourages them from traveling long distances.

“The bridge makes it easier to access higher education, treatment, trade and legal support for women,” said Ishita Akhter, a professor at Jahangirnagar University’s Bangabandhu Institute of Comparative Literature and Culture.

It may even bring more women to political activities, said Fauzia Khanam, a former District Council member in the southwestern district of Barguna.

“Joining a program in Dhaka from Barguna for a woman is tough due to various circumstances. As a result, our participation in politics lags behind that of males. The Padma Bridge will open a new window for us,” she said.

Currently, traveling to Dhaka from Barguna takes at least 13 hours. Once the Padma Bridge opens, it will take six, she said.

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Passengers sit on a ferry on the Padma River in Munshiganj district, central Bangladesh, Nov. 21, 2015. [AFP]

Political talking points

Hasina is throwing wide the gates for her bridge launch party, according to Minister of Road Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader, who also serves as the general secretary of the Awami League.

The head of the World Bank is invited, as is Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus – the Grameen Bank founder whom Hasina accuses of conspiring against the bridge project – and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister who has been convicted of corruption and denied medical treatment abroad.

“When the World Bank stood away from constructing Padma Bridge, Sheikh Hasina told Parliament that it will be built with our own finance. She was determined … could we not build a bridge with our own funds? We can,” Quader, who is also general secretary of Awami League, told a recent press conference.

On the condition of anonymity, a party official said that the Padma Bridge would feature prominently in election campaign materials and speeches in the coming days, as the next parliamentary polls were nearing.

The talking points would include criticism of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for making “controversial” remarks about the bridge on different occasions, the official said.

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A fisherman throws a fishing net in the Padma River in Munshiganj district, Bangladesh, Aug. 5, 2014. [AP Photo]

The constitution requires that the next general election be held in late 2023 or early 2024.

A senior joint secretary-general of the main opposition party Main opposition BNP, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, told BenarNews that the government was trying to shift public attention from its failures to the Padma Bridge.

“As the issues of massive human rights violations, snatching peoples’ voting rights, corruption and money laundering were exposed locally and internationally, the ruling Awami League is now trying to cover up everything with the Padma Bridge,” he said.

He further accused the government of planning a mega celebration at a time when people were struggling to feed their families due to spiraling prices for goods, products and services.

For Badiul Alam Majumder, a well-known campaigner for good governance, the bridge launch sheds light on how difficult it has become to differentiate between the government and the ruling party.

“People are not clear who is organizing the celebration programs: the government or the Awami League?”

Such practices are against good governance, transparency and accountability, he said.

The Padma Bridge will be open for public use starting at 6 a.m. Sunday. 

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