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|Volume 12 |Issue 06| February 08, 2013 ||
A Bridge on the River Padma
Finance Minister AMA Muhith on January 30 said that he had sought the World Bank President's appointment in February to persuade the global money lender to provide the fund for the Padma Bridge. He was talking to newsmen in the noon, disclosing his intention to meet the World Bank chief. But he did not know what was waiting.
In the evening of January 30, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held a meeting with some of her government's policymakers and decided that the government would withdraw its request to the World Bank for financing the project. However, the next day, Muhit had to write to the WB President informing him about the government's decision. The same day he also sent letters to the chiefs of Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and Islamic Development Bank (IDB) requesting them to continue to help Bangladesh government with the bridge's construction and river training.
But things did not go according to the government's expectations. Within days, the development partners ADB, Jica and IDB issued separate statements, stating their decision to pull out of the Padma bridge project. Out of the $2.9 billion required to build the 6.15-kilometre-long Padma Bridge, the WB had committed $1.2b and the ADB and Jica nearly one billion dollars. And on February 4, the finance minister announced in parliament that the government would build the Padma Bridge with its own fund keeping the present design unchanged.
Muhith always favoured World Bank funding for the mega project. As the finance minister, he must have understood the reality as he on October 09, 2011 said that $1.2 billion was a big amount and the government needed the money to implement the project. But the last few days' developments changed the entire situation, bringing to a close the saga over the finance for the country's largest ever infrastructure project.
Why did the government so hurriedly take the decision to withdraw its request to the World Bank? Did the government do it to hide something? Or did the government do it after becoming sure that the WB would not finance the project unless former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain was included in the case filed by Anti-Corruption Commission in connection with the “conspiracy of corruption” in the project?
The entire saga also portrayed the lack of coordination within the government. There were inconsistencies in the statements of the ministers. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on July 9, 2012 told the parliament that her government would build the Padma Bridge with its own funds and begin the construction work in the current fiscal year. She had said that the mega project, estimated to cost around Tk 23,000 crore, would be completed within fiscal year 2015-16. She also urged the global lenders not to put up "unnecessary obstacles" to Bangladesh's development efforts. Hasina's announcement came nine days after the World Bank pulled out of the bridge project, citing a corruption conspiracy. In her address, she sketched out how her government would arrange the money for the project from various sources.
But the Prime Minister could not carry out her plan. After around seven months, the finance minister now made the same announcement. What did the government gain by this time? But it is clear that the government could not improve its relation with the World Bank. Rather the way the prime minister and some of her ministers have bashed the money lender has deteriorated the situation. On the other hand, the government could not demonstrate its sincerity in taking stern actions against former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain who has finally become the man bigger than the Padma Bridge and the country's interests. The government's soft spot for him has given rise to such public perception.
After a series of events, Abul was removed from the communications ministry and later he was removed from the cabinet. But he was not made an accused in the case filed by the ACC. Therefore, the WB review panel expressed its dissatisfaction for not including Abul Hossain, saying that the former minister was personally involved in the corruption conspiracy.
Finally, the government has decided not to take World Bank fund to construct the Padma Bridge. The decision has raised a dozens questions--why is the government now so desperate to begin the construction of the bridge? Will the beginning of the work benefit the ruling AL in the upcoming parliamentary elections? Any wrong step by the government might cause waste of public money. Similarly, it is time for the government to prove itself by facing the huge challenge of beginning the process of building the bridge.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.
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