Begum Zia: The Forerunner of the Padma Bridge
Mohammad Zainal Abedin:
Many long bridges over the mighty rivers were constructed in many countries around the world. But none ever organized such an over pompous inauguration which Sheikh Hasina did in inaugurating the Padma Bridge.
Knowledgeable circles believe Sheikh Hasina to bury her failure, corruption, human rights violation and the curses of her autocratic rule she organized such propaganda-based expensive inauguration, as if, she alone should get the credit of constructing it. But history is very cruel. It says something otherwise regarding the initiation and construction of the bridge over the Padma, which the new generation needs to know.
BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, was elected in 1991 as the first woman Prime Minister (PM) of Bangladesh. She is the forerunner of constructing many bridges over the mighty rivers of Bangladesh, including the Padma.
On September 3 of 1991 she laid the foundation stone of the Meghna – Gomati Bridge and inaugurated it on November 1 of 1993. On that day she declared, within a short period of time there would be no more ferry on any rivers, as bridges would be constructed over all them. As a result, national highways would connect Teknaf to Tantulia and Tamabil to Vetkhali. She added, transportation from one part of the country to the other would be possible within a short period of time. Her declaration proved Begum Zia was the forerunner and dreamer of all the bridges that were constructed after her and will be constructed in future.
Keeping uniformity with her pledges, Begum Zia laid the foundation stone of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge on April 10, 1994. Astonishing the whole world Sheikh Hasina imposed a nationwide general strike on that day. The government was compelled to use helicopters to ferry the diplomats, foreign dignitaries, journalists and other guests from Dhaka to Jamuna Bridge area and continued construction works of Jamuna Bridge. More than 80% construction works of the bridge was completed before the end of Begum Zia’s first term as the PM of Bangladesh. Completing the remaining 20% work Sheikh Hasina opened it on June 23, 1998.
Violating all types of decency and courtesy Sheikh Hasina purposely and shamelessly changed the name of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge to Bangabandhu Bridge and erased the name of Begum Khaleda Zia from the inauguration stone plaque and wrote her name.
Hasina’s frutle opposition to the construction of Jamuna Bridge could not prevent Begum Zia from initiating constructing other bridges in Bangladesh. Her government declared the date to lay the foundation stone of the second Karnaphuli Bridge in Chittagong on April 19, 2006. Sheikh Hasina, to frustrate the project, instructed her party men to impose a general strike in Chittagong on the scheduled day.
Such undesirable behavior of Sheikh Hasina proves that she always directly or indirectly hindered all the development projects of the Begum-led government. But Sheikh Hashina did not hesitate to claim the credit of those developmental works as her sole achievements, which started during Begum Zia’s period, and later ended in her period.
People around the world, who are aware of Bangladesh, can still remember that the Padma Bridge is the brainchild of Begum Zia, who was also its initiator.
Her government on December 4, 2001 signed a treaty with JAICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). JAICA started to conduct the pre-feasibility study of the Padma Bridge Project in May of 2003.
In this regard let me quote ‘The Daily Star’ (December 15, 2011) of Dhaka: JICA made (finished) a pre-feasibility study in 2004 for construction of the Padma Bridge at four possible sites: (1) Paturia-Goalondo, (2) Dohar-Char Vadrasan, (3) Mawa-Jajira and (4) Chandpur-Vedarganj. The study rejected the Chandpur-Vedarganj site because of its distant location. JICA said that both the Paturia- Goalondo and Mawa- Jajira sites were economically viable. The then BNP government endorsed the JICA study and declared that the Padma Bridge shall be constructed at Mawa- Jajira point. After that declaration by the government, people on the Paturia- Goalondo route started agitating and demanded that the bridge be built at their point. In response, the BNP government declared that it would (later) construct another bridge at their point. (https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-214125)
The BNP government finally accepted the JICA suggestion to construct the Padma Bridge at Mawa-Jajira point. Accordingly, on May 15 of 2005 the then PM Begum Khaleda Zia at a rally held at Shibchar of Madaripur declared the construction of the first Padma Bridge at Mawa-Jajira site. She on the same day also reiterated her pledge to construct the second Padma Bridge at Paturia-Goyalanda site.
To procure financial and technical assistance, Begum Zia, on July 12, 2005 Begum Zia went to Japan on a 4-day visit and got a positive response from the Japanese government and later got assurance from World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other development partners and signed ‘Frame Work Agreement’. To provide loans to Bangladesh for constructing the bridge, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and JAICA formed a Consortium. The World Bank agreed to provide a $1.2 billion loan with nominal interest of 1.75%. On the other hand, ADB agreed to provide $615 million, JAICA $400, and (IDB) $140 million. Bangladesh was supposed to provide $617 million from its own fund.
ECNEC (Executive Committee of the National Economic Council) of Bangladesh in 2006 placed a proposal of Tk 12,000 crores ($1,744.69322 million) for the Padma Bridge Construction project. Begum Zia, considering and comparing the cost of the contemporary mega-bridges of that time suggested the ECNEC to limit the expenditure within the margin of Tk 10,000 crores ($1,543.91109 million) when $1 was equal to Tk 68.78.
On the basis of the pre-feasibility study, Begum Zia government appointed consultants to prepare the design and other required documents, and started the process of acquiring land in 2006. But unfortunately due to the emergence of 1/11 BNP had no scope to take further steps to construct the Padma Bridge.
Subsequently, during the Army-backed emergency government ECNEC finally approved Tk 10,161 crore ($ 1,477.31898), which was close and logical to the amount that the Begum Khaleda Zia government approved in 2006.
Now a genuine question surfaced why how Tk 10 thousand 161 crore ($ 1,477.31898) approved by Fakharrudin government, leaped to Tk. 30193 crores ($4,389.79358 millions) while the final expenditure will stand at Tk. 39, 246, 80,000 ($5706.01919millions) when the railway line will be installed along the bridge. (The Prothom Alo, 22, 2022)
People want to know why the cost of the Padma Bridge became 4 to five times higher than the money approved by the Army-backed government of Fakharruddin Ahmed. Knowledgeable sources strongly believe it occurred due to sky-high corruption of Sheikh Hasina government and her party Awami League.
Sheikh Hasina repeatedly extended the time and allocated money. It was declared to be completed by 2018, but the construction rolled to mid-2022. More allocation of money and extension of time resulted in massive corruption, which dismayed the people around the world.
The vastness of corruption comes to the forefront if one compares the per kilometer (km) construction cost of the Padma Bridge to three bridges of our two neighboring countries India and China.
The per km construction cost of the 6.15 long Padma Bridge was $5435.04 millions; 5.00km long Razib Gandhi Bridge, Mumbai (India), 9.15km long Bhupen Hazarika Bridge, Assam-Arunachal Pradesh (India) $35.78 millions and 36km long Hangzhou Bay Bridge (China) $4186 millios.
Padma Bridge was opened in 2022, Razib Gandhi Bridge 2015, Hunzu Bay Bridge in 2008 and Bhupen Hazarika Bridge in 2017. The per km construction costs of these four bridges were Padma $535.04 million, Razib Gandhi Bridge $7.38 million, Hangzhou Bay Bridge (2003-2008) $41.86 million and Bhupen Hazarika Bridge $35.78 million.
When I talked to the Pro-Hasina supporters, they claimed that the construction cost of the Padma Bridge increased due to the devaluation of Bangladeshi currency. But the reality does not justify their explanation. In 2006 when Begum Zia initiated the Padma Bridge Project $1 was equal to Tk68.78. In 2011 $1= Tk 70.18, whereas on January 1, 2015, $1= Tk 78.09. On the inaugural day, July 25, 2022 $1=Tk 94.42. So, how the cost became 4 to 5 times higher compared to that of the project cost of 2006.
The pity is that Sheikh Hasina during her inaugural address of the Padma Bridge did not mention the name of Begum Khaleda Zia, though she was the dreamer and initiator of this bridge. She did not even mention the name of the Advisor of the Army-backed emergency government Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, who laid the foundation stone of the bridge in 2007 at Mawa-Jajira points. Mentionable, Dr. Fakhurudin Ahmed in 2008 installed Sheikh Hasina to power on behalf of her foreign masters.
Sheikh Hasina is the distorter of the entire history of Bangladesh, which is a black instance. Her steps signal she will never leave power and adamant to remain in power to establish a hereditary autocratic regime like that of North Korea, so that her black laws and all the anti-Bangladesh treaties and agreements signed with a foreing country remain valid for indefinite decades.*
Ø Mohammad Zainal Abedin, a New York-based journalist-cum-researcher, is a warrior of Bangladesh War of Liberation.