Padma Bridge inaugurated: Here’s how PM Sheikh Hasina turned adversity into opportunity

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Published on June 25, 2022
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Bangladesh has come of age as a huge turnaround story with the formal inauguration of the 6.15-km rail-road bridge on the Padma River on June 25, Saturday.

This is the country's biggest infrastructure project since independence from Pakistan, which left Bangladesh bloodied and battered. But in 50 years down the line and with Sheikh Hasina at the helm, this youngest nation in South Asia has excelled to become the bull case for the region.

Bangladesh can finish the $3.9 billion (original estimate) Padma Bridge project with its own funds has paid back conspirators fair and square. Hasina’s long-term adversary, the United States, sided with Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war and allegedly convinced the World Bank to withdraw from the project.

For Prime Minister Hasina, the rosy economic outlook emanating from the Padma Bridge will be a boost on the road to parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2023. Despite opposition protests over enforced disappearances and rigged elections, even her Critics have admitted that Hasina has a brilliant record of economic growth and human development during her thirteen years in power.

But for Sheikh Hasina, this is a moment of great pride and vindication of his decisive leadership that has given Bangladesh its 'Golden Decade of Development’.

It was she who decided to do the project with Bangladesh’s own resources after the World Bank halted proposed funding, citing “credible evidence of corruption”, which was later thrown out by a Canadian court.

“I am the daughter of the great Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman). I do what I promise," Hasina told mediapersons recently, recalling how detractors including her bete noire, Khaleda Zia (opposition BNP chairperson) had ruled out completion of the Padma Bridge...

Padma Bridge to boost GDP

Economists, such as the former Governor of the Bank of Bangladesh, Atiur Rahman, predict that the Padma Bridge, which will now connect the capital Dhaka with all the southern districts and the country’s second port, Mongla, will contribute 1.2% to annual growth. of GDP. “The bridge will add a whopping $10 billion to the national GDP,” according to several national economists as well.

Bangladesh has now bridged its two mighty rivers, Padma and Jamuna, making the country a well-connected and integrated economy.

Padma Bridge: The 'CAN DO' moment for Sheikh Hasina

Since independence, the entire population of the southern region had to resort to a waterway to cross the Padma River and reach the capital. Speedboats, launches, and ferries were the only hope, and crossing this treacherous river, second only to the Amazon, often proved fatal as countless lives were lost each time a boat or launch capsized.

“Few in Bangladesh know all our rivers as well as Sheikh Hasina, for she has physically visited every nook and cranny of the country on her return home in 1981 to take charge of the Awami League. By the time she came to power in 1996, ensured the completion of the Jamuna Bridge and laid the foundation stone of the Padma Bridge,” said former Information Minister Tarana Halim.

“Her vision of these bridges as an integral part of an integrated economy is now materializing in a really positive direction. It will stimulate growth throughout eastern South Asia,” said Indian economist Bipul Chatterjee.

Following the feasibility test conducted by the Awami League government, then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina laid the foundation stone for the construction of the bridge on July 4, 2001.

In the same year, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the combined Jamaat and Islami alliance formed the government and the project hit a major snag.

However, in the run-up to the December 2008 parliamentary elections, the Awami League committed to building the Padma Bridge in its election manifesto. Immediately after coming to power, Sheikh Hasina approached multilateral funding agencies like the World Bank for the Padma Bridge project.

How did Sheikh Hasina prevail in the World Bank Conspiracy?

In April 2011, the World Bank signed an agreement with Bangladesh to finance this mega bridge. Strangely, within five months of signing, the global lending agency raised corruption charges without releasing a single penny for the project.

Shortly thereafter, Sheikh Hasina’s government launched an investigation, and her close associates, from an economic adviser to a minister to a secretary, had to resign in a desperate effort to comply with World Bank prescriptions.

The World Bank even went ahead with the appointment of Gabriel Moreno Ocampo to investigate the alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project.

Finally, nearly six years later, a Canadian court found the World Bank’s allegations to be based on “flashy motives and flawed evidence” in 2017.

But fed up with the World Bank’s change of mind, Sheikh Hasina decided to finance the project with Bangladesh’s own resources. Many thought this was madness, but time has vindicated what Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswamy recently described as ‘Hasina’s exceptional bravery and sincerity.

A lesson for Civil Society and NGOs

Like her father, PM Sheikh Hasina knows exactly what the country's people need and is very determined to go the extra mile to make life easier for the public. And her firm conviction to go ahead with this marvel of engineering, in defiance of the World Bank, surely stands as a clear marker.

Ironically, in Bangladesh, some groups under the guise of civil society often conveniently promote the Western narrative of development and undermine the role of leaders like Bangabandhu, while Sheikh Hasina has not been spared either. Days after the WB brought up such accusations, those groups went wild for Sheikh Hasina, with some even demanding her resignation as the only way out to build the bridge, a demand only to boost the morale of the Islamist opposition party.

A look at the tenor of that campaign would surely put her credibility on the line, while her actions can best be described as a ‘force multiplier’ for the WB.

“When Sheikh Hasina’s model of distributive justice lifted millions out of poverty and helped Bangladesh outperform its neighbors in terms of human development indices, the same quarter went out of their way to praise Dr. Yunus and other NGOs. Of course, NGOs have played an important role in the country’s quest to emerge as an Asian tiger, but to believe in narratives like NGOs having a bigger role over the government is just a joke,” said Ajoy Das Gupta, an eminent researcher, and journalist.

A great boost to regional trade

The Padma Bridge will greatly boost regional connectivity with India as the main beneficiary. Rail and road travel between Kolkata and Dhaka will be cut in half, with a similar cascading effect on travel time between West Bengal and India’s northeastern states.

A World Bank report last year noted that improved connectivity between Bangladesh and neighboring Indian states could boost the two nations’ national income by 8-10 percent and exports by 182-297 percent. percent.

“The opening of the bridge to road and rail traffic will bring immediate benefits to direct users. The road distance from Dhaka to almost all major destinations in the southwestern region will be reduced by 100 kilometers or more, resulting in huge savings in the time and costs of moving passengers and goods, vehicle operation and maintenance costs, and reducing the burning of fossil fuels. said Zahid Hussain, a former World Bank chief economist.

Significant impacts on international trade between neighboring countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar are also expected.

The southwestern region, about 27 percent of the country’s land area, and home to almost a quarter of its more than 160 million people have remained one of the least developed parts of Bangladesh, mainly due to a lack of connectivity with the rest of the country. , according to a 2011 Asian Development Bangladesh (ADB) study.

The Padma Bridge will be an integral part of the Trans-Asian Railway and Asian Highway One (Sylhet-Kanchpur-Dhaka-Mawa-Jashore-Benapole, connecting Kolkata in eastern India) rail systems, according to the appraisal report of the World Bank.

“This report card is what will present the nation with beating the incumbent as it seeks a record fourth term in power,” said Sukharanjan Dasgupta, an author of books on Bangladesh.

“There is no leader in South Asia who can present such a strong record of economic growth that it spills over,” Dasgupta said.