12:00 AM, January 20, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 20, 2013

News Analysis

So close yet so far

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Inam Ahmed

The dream came so near to reality and yet it again may become elusive. Yes, we are talking about the Padma bridge.
The latest World Bank panel's report on how the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) dealt with the investigation in the alleged corruption in the project clearly shows we either do not want to see the dream come true or that we really do not care about the economic importance of this vital bridge connecting the southwest with the rest of the country.
And as it looks today, only one man, former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain, stands between us having the bridge and the nation being deprived of it.
We repeat the importance of the bridge to joggle up public memory as to how vital the bridge is to Bangladesh economy and future development.
In a nutshell, from the first day of its operation, 21,300 vehicles are supposed to use the bridge every day and the number was expected to reach 41,600 by 2025. It is expected to boost the nation's GDP growth by 1.2 percentage points and regional GDP by 3.5 percentage points.
The bridge would create 7,43,000 new jobs too.
These figures are important for various reasons. First, we are striving to become a middle-income country by 2021 and such growth propulsions would have helped us reach the target which now looks not achievable.
Secondly, the south-western region that the bridge would have served suffers from inequality in terms of growth. Poverty is high there and opportunities low. The 3.5 percentage point additional growth would have yanked that region up the development slope.
It has an Economic Internal Rate of Return of 21 percent, well in excess of economic opportunity cost of capital of 12 percent.
The bridge would save vehicle operation costs and travel time costs.
It would in fact be the last remaining major bridge necessary to provide comprehensive connectivity between all the major regions of the country.
Jica in its assessment of the bridge said: “The provision of a bridge across the Padma river is also important for intermodal connection as it will immediately provide better road access to Mongla Port. The bridge will also provide the potential for a rail link to the port if a road-cum-rail bridge option is found feasible. From the sub-regional perspective, it can provide a second access for transit of goods between the South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) countries.”
Now, have we shown justice and attached sufficient importance to such a vital project? The track record says “No”.
As the tendering process started for the project, a group of very influential people, the former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain included, allegedly started a scheme to make money. They had allegedly proposed a Canadian company, SNC-Lavalin, that it would get a contract provided it paid them money.
The World Bank, the lead financier of the bridge, first broke the news. In Canada, it caused a huge uproar. Two Lavalin officials were arrested and put on trial for the Padma graft. Their hearing would start in April.
But in Bangladesh, the government's response was always a denial. First, it said since there was no contract signed, there cannot be any graft. Then it said “conspiracy for corruption” is not a crime in Bangladesh.
As the relationship with the World Bank soured beyond limits, and the funding of the bank became uncertain, the government started touting ideas that there are so many funders ready to invest. There were Malaysian funders, Chinese funders and so on. Even if these funds would ever materialise, it would come at a very high interest rate.
Then there were talks that we would do it with internal resources. Even an account was opened where various groups started depositing crumbs of money. As if a $2.8 billion project could be done with donations of takas and anas from this or that group including from school children.
In fact all these were just idiosyncrasies that experts pointed out were eye-wateringly infantile approaches to a serious matter. None of them was achievable.
As negotiations with the World Bank was almost falling apart, the government agreed to investigate the corruption allegations. The ACC was engaged.
Unfortunately, the ACC sat on the matter for one year and did not find enough proof to scale the issue from enquiry to investigation level.
And when it did after much insistence of the World Bank, it did a pathetic job. As the World Bank panel's latest letter reveals, the ACC had enough evidence that former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain had meetings with Lavalin officials and that he was allegedly to get a 4 percent cut of the deal. Yet, the ACC left him out when it filed a case. Why? Because the ACC felt that implicating Abul would release a lot of political hot air. So the decision to leave Abul out was a political consideration.
It was evident that the ACC was not acting independently as it was supposed to. The question comes why the ACC was trying to save this one man? And why the prime minister was just watching the show while making the Padma bridge dream become ever so distant? Why does she not intervene? What message should we get from her inaction?
In spite of everything, Padma bridge is still in the realm of possibility, and realising that dream would brighten the face of the nation. The ruling party which has an election coming just next year would also do itself a lot of good by being serious about the investigation.
Let's not forget that the bridge is the World Bank's largest ever infrastructure project and there is no instance that the bank had revived a project once it had cancelled it as has been in this case. This shows the World Bank has walked a long distance to make it happen.
Similarly, the government has also walked a long distance, from outright refusal to file a corruption case. So the distance between the World Bank and the government is literally an inch or an individual, Syed Abul Hossain.
It would be an unprecedented betrayal to the nation if this last block cannot be removed and let the bridge run over the Padma.

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