Bangladesh unveils Padma River Bridge
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the country’s longest bridge, which took eight years to build and has been plagued by delays, political disputes, high costs and allegations of corruption.
The opening of the bridge over the turbulent Padma River crowns a key infrastructure objective of Hasina and was presented by his government as the jewel in his crown, which shows the administration’s courage, determination and resilience in the face of international and national pressure. critical.
Construction of the six-kilometer bridge by a Chinese company began in November 2015, with the aim of connecting the country’s southwestern region to the capital, Dhaka, by road and rail. The double-layered steel truss bridge includes a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-lane railway on the lower level.
At a cost of $3.86 billion, it is one of the largest projects ever undertaken by Bangladesh. The entire amount is being funded by its own government after the World Bank and other global lenders pulled out of the project following a corruption scandal involving a Canadian construction company linked to the bridge.
Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has been accused of bribing officials overseeing the project and banned from bidding on World Bank projects for a decade. Prosecutors in Canada ultimately declined to pursue corruption charges against company executives after a court ruled some wiretap evidence against them was inadmissible.
Sheikh Hasina said his government would self-finance the project. His decision was met with a battery of skepticism from the country’s economists as well as political opponents, as Bangladesh had no previous experience in building such infrastructure without the financial support of several donors.
At Saturday’s bridge opening ceremony, Hasina reminded the crowd of that skepticism. “Some people said that we would always be indebted to others, but our father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, (Hasina’s father) taught us the importance of self-respect.”
“This Padma Bridge is not a pile of bricks and cement,” she said. “This bridge is a symbol of Bangladeshi pride, honor and capability.”
Why is the bridge important?
Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star, the most widely circulated English daily newspaper in Bangladesh, wrote in a commentary that “Padma Bridge marks the most public and direct challenge to a multilateral organization like the World Bank and, through it, to the practice of donors in general. ”
Anam, often a staunch critic of Hasina, wrote that “many countries are building their own bridges and with their own resources”, but building this bridge is a milestone for Bangladesh because “it forever shatters our image of a country dependent on aid. .”
With national elections scheduled for next year, the construction of the bridge is seen by political pundits as the most significant achievement of the Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government in its three consecutive terms spanning more than a decade.
The bridge will function as a direct gateway to the poverty-stricken southwestern region of the country, a major source of political support for the party, and will significantly reduce travel time. The mighty Padma River separates the southwest from Dhaka and people are forced to travel on ferries or speedboats which make slow journeys. Perishable goods transported by truck often rot due to the long journey.
The bridge was built by the state-owned China Major Bridge Engineering Company, Ltd. and is seen by Beijing as a milestone for China-Bangladesh cooperation. Chinese state media have tried to claim it as part of the Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI), a claim the Bangladeshi government dismissed earlier this week.
Encouraged by the growth of its economy and its foreign exchange reserves, the government of Bangladesh has also rejected Chinese proposals to finance the construction of the bridge.
Economist Mustafizur Rahman told VOA that the bureaucracy in Bangladesh has never had the capacity to execute such a mega-project. “It is reassuring to see that we can successfully complete structures like the Padma Bridge. It is a tremendous stimulus for us.
He also said the bridge would help increase Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.3% per year and increase jobs, service sector activity and tourism in the southwestern region.
Experts say the construction of the bridge, which involved more than 4,000 engineers, a third of whom were Bangladeshi engineers, is a major engineering achievement.
The bridge’s underwater piles span 122 meters deep, a world record, and it requires 41 support pillars. At some points of the river, the volume of water flow ranks second in the world only after the Amazon River.
Is the cost too high?
The opposition criticized Hasina’s government for tripling the bridge’s construction budget from its initial $1.2 billion over the years and accused authorities of building the bridge with one of the highest costs. high per kilometer.
Rumin Farhana, a lawmaker from the country’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told parliament that the Padma Bridge would be a classic example of corruption. “If we compare Padma Bridge with other bridges of similar or slightly longer length, we can call it Golden Bridge,” she said.
Rumin cited the cost of constructing the longest bridge in neighboring India, the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge, and said the construction of the nine-kilometer bridge cost just $156 million. “It is possible to build 30 Bhupen Hazarika bridges in India at the cost of one Padma bridge here in Bangladesh,” she said.
Dr. Shamim Z. Basunia, chairman of the Padma Bridge Project Expert Group, however, told VOA that comparing the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge with the Padma Bridge is a “huge mistake”.
“There are bigger bridges in the world than the Padma Bridge, but there is no bridge over a river as big and unpredictable as the Padma River. Just for river training, we had to spend over a billion dollars, which increased the cost,” he said.
Speaking to VOA, Germany-based Bangladeshi financial analyst and researcher Zia Hassan said no two bridges in the world are the same, so cost comparisons between bridges would often be misleading. . “However, the comparison between the Crimean Bridge, built in three years at a cost of $3.69 billion across the Kerch Strait, with a similar pile depth (to the Padma Bridge) but three times longer ( 18.1 kilometres) brings the $3.868 billion spent on the Padma Bridge into perspective,” he said.
The World Bank has said Bangladesh has the highest infrastructure costs in the world, which it attributes to a lack of competition in the bidding process and higher land acquisition costs. .
The same applies to the Padma Bridge, where the main construction contract was awarded to a single bidder (China Major Bridge Engineering Company, Ltd.), while the other bidders refrained from submitting a complete bid (bids project). Corruption in land acquisition has also come to light,” Hassan said.