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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Padma Bridge: How a mega structure ushered a new era for Bangladesh

The geographical divide with 21 districts in southwestern region comes to an end on June 25 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened the 6.15km landmark rail-road bridge to traffic. It was her own grit that pulled the dream project almost out of nowhere after the World Bank and other lenders had washed their hands of it, and made it happen, burying all scepticism and uncertainties.

It is a new dawn – not only for the southern region, but also for the entire Bangladesh – now that all the parts, divided by rivers, are well connected by road and rail.

During her first tenure as the prime minister 24 years ago, she had opened the Jamuna Bridge that connects the northern region with Dhaka.

The eastern region, which includes the Chattogram port city, was connected in early 1990s by bridges built over the Meghna and its branch Gumti.

It took 51 years since independence for the people of the southern region to have a direct road link with capital Dhaka and key port Chattogram. After six months, they can expect to cross the bridge by train too, when the rail link project ends in December this year.          

Travellers and transport operators are the first to breathe a sigh of relief as the bridge puts their uncertain wait for ferry to an abrupt end. “The Padma Bridge will save our time by 2-3 hours at the ferry ghat for each trip,” said Soumitra Kumar, manager of Eagle Paribahan. Transport operators are now planning to use the bridge to cross the river instead of Daulatdia-Paturia ferry ghat to travel between Dhaka and Jashore.  

For Abdur Rahim Babu, Padma Bridge is a great relief as it will save his vegetables from rotting in trucks waiting for a ferry to cross the river and reach Dhaka. “There are instances that we waited for the whole day at the ferry ghat and then left the truckload of vegetables to rot there. The Padma Bridge will help us reach Dhaka market in 4-5 hours,” a smiling Babu said.

According to the agricultural extension office, on an average 600 tonnes of vegetables are shipped to Dhaka every day from Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira districts, and delay at ferry ghat causes damage to these perishable goods. 

The bridge will expedite transporting goods to and from Mongla port in Bagerhat and Bhomra land port in Satkhira, facilitating export trades and easing supplies of essentials in the domestic market. Around 160 tonnes of shrimp are shipped to Dhaka every day from the Khulna region, while jute worth about Tk500 crore are exported through Mongla Port annually.  

Over 400 trucks carrying imported goods from India enter the country through Bhomra land port and more trucks keep waiting to enter, says Monirul Islam, deputy director at the Bhomra land port in Satkhira.

The bridge carries a gas pipeline which will pave the way for expanding the gas network to the south-western districts. Pipeline gas supply will encourage industrialisation and generate employment in the relatively underdeveloped region. 

“Furnace oil-based power generation is expensive. I think if gas supply is ensured, costs of electricity will decline and garment and other industries will be set up,” Siddiqur Rahman Bulu, vice-president of Khulna chamber, tells The Business Standard.

This is the largest road-rail bridge of the country and 11th in the world. But the steel-structure is iconic not only for its hugeness. It stands out alone as a national pride, a milestone of achievement because of the story behind. 

It is a symbol of self-determination because of the embarrassment it endured.

When embarrassment grows into strength

The $3.87 billion self-financed Padma Bridge is now a reality, an iconic infrastructure, a symbol of national pride and self-confidence, not only because of its hugeness, but the humiliation it endured.

The story behind makes it a test case for the government to make the almost impossible possible. Completion of the Padma Bridge project is the only answer to all sorts of allegations, confusion and disbelief.    

The bridge could have been a reality at least six years ago had there not been the setback. The project was given a go-ahead in 2010 and scheduled to complete in 2016. Agreements signed with multilateral lenders and groundwork, such as land acquisition and rehabilitation on both sides of the river started. Then came the blow, like thunder out of the blue. The lead financier of the initially-estimated $2.97 billion multi-lender project, World Bank, claimed to have got “credible evidence” of a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials. It announced its withdrawal from the project on 1 July 2012, citing “inadequate response by the government”.

Other lenders – the ADB, Jica and IDB – followed suit, leaving the government quite off-guard and embarrassed. The allegations were never proved either in Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission or in Canadian court, but criticisms continued even long after the project was revived and construction finally started in December 2015. 

Sheikh Hasina Quotes

It was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who stood out alone and asserted in parliament that the Padma Bridge would be built with own finances. It was an utter surprise announcement and even most of her cabinet colleagues were not convinced that such a huge project could be possible without World Bank’s support. Corruption allegations, suspicion, and disbelief dominated the discussions about the Padma Bridge project in newspaper columns and television talk-shows in those days.But the prime minister stood firm and the project work proceeded more even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was a herculean task and readying it for traffic was a real challenge in all aspects – both financial and technical.

The government decided not to take loans from funding agencies and planned to complete the prestige project from its own fund through budgetary allocations. 

There was a wave of enthusiasm among people, with instances of schoolchildren saving tiffin money to raise funds, government staff donating one-day salary, insurance sector offering support from their fixed deposits, stock market suggesting release of infrastructure bonds and so on. 

To meet the foreign currency component of the project, there were suggestions for issuing sovereign bonds, borrowing from the global financial market and even using a part of the central bank’s reserve holding. 

The government took a challenge and proceeded with the self-financing plan, keeping aside money in the annual budget for the Padma Bridge project. The construction began in December 2015.

The length of the main bridge was revised upward and new components were added, raising the cost to Tk30,193 crore from Tk10,161 crore initially estimated in 2007. 

The Bridges Division signed a loan agreement with the Finance Division for Tk29,900 crore to meet the expenses of the bridge project. The amount is repayable with 1% interest in 35 years in 140 instalments. The expenses are expected to be realised in 30 years from tolls given the flow of vehicles expected to cross the bridge in coming years.

Strength of being connected

Impacts a bridge can have on an economy are profound. The Federal Reserve of San Francisco calculates that $1 spent building a bridge and the corresponding roadwork leads to $2 of economic growth in the interested area. 

Be it Øresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden, or Turkish Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge over the Bosphorus River, or the likes of the Ohio River Bridges Project in the US, Hong Kong-Macao Bridge in China, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, or Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge over the Amu River. All are examples of enormous bridges with wide ranging impacts on the economy and life of the countries. 

The Bangandhu Bridge was built on the River Jamuna 24 years ago and its construction cost was expected to be realised by 2034 only from tolls collected from vehicles crossing it. Collection from tolls has already surpassed the construction cost and the surplus amount will be used to repay loans for the Padma Bridge, bridge division officials said.   

Economic benefits of the bridge on the economy of northern districts have not studied exclusively, nor is there any such study on the impacts of Meghna and Gumti bridges on the eastern region, which is blessed with second units of parallel bridges opened three years back to match with the four-lane Dhaka-Chattogram highway. 

Poverty data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) might give a broad hint how a bridge makes the difference. Extreme poverty rate dropped 17.7 percentage points in Rajshahi in five years to 2010, while the decline was 8.9 in Barishal during the period.

The 4.8km Bangabhandu Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge, built at a cost of $900million, was opened to traffic on 23 June 1998. It linked the country’s more impoverished and less developed northern districts with the rest of the country, and brought about dramatic economic and social changes in the region.

Before the bridge was constructed, the only way to cross the Jamuna River was by slow-moving ferry boat with traffic jams at the ferry terminals causing a journey between Dhaka and Bogura to take 12 to 36 hours. The bridge reduced the travel time to 4 hours.

Chinese and Korean firms are engaged in the Padma Bridge work. They made the comments to the media the week before the grand opening of Bangladesh’s flagship road infrastructure project.

Appreciations pour in from foreign diplomats 

South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh Lee Jang-keun said that dream is a glorious reality today. It is a very proud history-making project. 

Li Jiming, ambassador of China to Bangladesh, said three words come to his mind when he thinks about Padma Bridge – courage, determination and prosperity. 

Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh Charles Whiteley in a message said the inauguration of the Padma Bridge is going to be an “unforgettable moment” for the country’s development. 

Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Vikram Kumar Doraiswami has said the much-cherished Padma Bridge will help contribute to greater connectivity between the two countries and in the sub-region supporting the BBIN initiative.

Appreciations also poured in from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and     the US Embassy for Bangladesh’s efforts for promoting regional connectivity.

The Padma Bridge now links the southern region with capital Dhaka and major port of Chattogram. It will bring Mongla Port, the less utilised second port, in the spotlight for overseas trades. 

The bridge connects Dhaka with greater Barishal, Jashore and Khulna by direct road right now and by rail in December, for the first time in the railway’s 170 years’ history in the country. 

Being a part of envisaged Trans Asian Highway (N-8) and Trans Asian Railway, it will facilitate trades with India, Nepal and Bhutan, widening access to Mongla and Payra ports and two major land ports – Benapole and Bhomra. 

Mawa and Jazira – two points across the river – will grow into new towns with scores of resorts, shops, recreation centres, attracting visitors and creating jobs. 

It will be instrumental in the formation of an economic corridor linking Dhaka with Madaripur, Faridpur, Jashore, Khulna and Barishal, maximising use of Mongla and Bhomra ports.   

Apart from the economy, the bridge will give the people of the south a faster access to better healthcare in Dhaka and save lives. 

Crossing the Padma Bridge itself is a thrill for travellers, who will now be attracted more to tourists’ spots in the region, including the Sundarbans.   

All put together, the contributions of the bridge to the national economy would amount to 1.2% of GDP and add 2.5% to regional GDP.   

The lessons

For as many as 80 young engineers, it was a lifetime achievement to get involved in such a huge and challenging infrastructure project at the very beginning of their professional career. From river training to dredging, piling, dumping geo bags and stones, and using huge modern equipment never used before in the country – all gave them rich experiences for the whole professional life ahead of them.   

Project Director Md Shafiqul Islam said the young engineers, while working in this project in various disciplines, got in touch with skilled professionals from as many as 30 countries. That was a priceless learning for them for future work, he believes.

Civil engineer Prof M Shamim Z Bosunia, who chairs the government’s expert panel on Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project, also speaks highly of local engineers who worked in many capacities from soil testing to designing to construction to supervision, and gained valuable experiences.

“This experience enriched them. They in turn earned credibility,” he said.     

Building this bridge on the fierce Padma River was a challenge. There are bigger bridges in the world than the Padma Bridge, but there is no bridge on a river as big and as unpredictable as the Padma River, creating a wide array of technical and other challenges for engineers starting right from building the foundation. The bridge is 70 to 80 feet above ground-level. 

The Padma is an almost uncontrollably mighty river, and taming its strong stream was a challenge throughout the project work, requiring huge dredgers and hammers used for the first time in Bangladesh. 

Local expertise developed from the Padma Bridge project could well be replicated in building such big bridges, including the one planned over the Meghna to connect Chandpur and Sharitapur to give the southern region faster access to Chattogram Port, in future, hopes Prof Bosunia.

That is the added benefit of Padma Bridge, on top of a lot of other returns.

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