A bridge too far
I have deliberately "misappro-priated" the title of an epic movie for this piece. And I must confess that there couldn't have been a more appropriate title for this article that deals with, what I like to call, the Padma Bridge disaster. Those who are conversant with military history will find a parallel between the botched Allied operations to capture, among other bridges, the most important bridge in Arnhem in occupied Holland. The episode has been captured in an epic 1977 movie titled, "A Bridge Too Far."
The development in the Padma Bridge affair has taken such a turn that the project might willy-nilly prove to be a disaster in many different ways for Bangladesh, even if it gets to be built by sourcing other institutions or countries. The economic consequence of that we are told will be quite grave.
The signing of the agreement on a project whose negotiations had been going on since 2004, was an example of very good communication and interaction between the WB and the government, and one wonders why the two couldn't work in the same vein, why did the communication snap at some point between the February of 2011 when the agreement was signed and September that year.
We have been perturbed all along to see the government not only taking the matter lightly but at the same time going into a defensive posture after having received the two letters of the WB informing it of "high-level corruption conspiracy" between three groups that involved Bangladesh government officials, civilians and a Canadian firm, two of whose top executives are under trial in Canada
The reason the WB has chosen to de-link from the project is because of the government's lack of palpable action to address its concerns. It felt that the matter did not receive the due importance of the government. The finance minister binning the recent statement of the World Bank as being the statement of its outgoing president validates the WB's statement.
One wonders whether such an irreconcilable situation should have come about at all. Was it not possible to work out a modus vivendi to address the concerns of the WB? Were the three stipulations of the Bank, namely sending the alleged persons on leave till completion of the enquiry, appointing a special team within the ACC to investigate and making all investigative information to a World Bank panel, so difficult to concede? In fact the best would have been to run a conspicuous inquiry and the project work simultaneously.
One is therefore not sure if the government, in its attempt to protect a few people, has put not only its own credibility at stake but has also jeopardised our national interest. Or is it that the government is so beholden to some of them that it is unable to take action against them.
It is more than merely the WB's $1.5 billion that is at stake. It will certainly influence the other donors also. And when ministers talk callously about alternative source of finance they seem to only betray their ignorance of the complexity of the project and the cost of financing from other sources. And no other source can meet the easy terms of the World Bank loan. Our planners forget that constructing a bridge, particularly like the proposed one, is not like purchasing a commodity in the open market
The action of the government so far has been less than transparent, made even more so with the most ill-advised action of the ACC to bar the media from its office, having felt uneasy with the presence of the RCMP in town. Why such a caveat on the media if there is nothing for the ACC to hide?
The main tussle between the government and the WB stems from the definition of the term "corruption." There is a universal meaning of the term "corruption" and clearly the statement of the Bank says that there was a conspiracy of indulging in corruption. The government's insistence on the fact that no money has passed hands since the project had not even gotten off the ground appears to be a puerile argument. Making preparation for robbery is as much culpable an act as the robbery itself. Why is it a merely a fact versus intention issue?
The WB has made its case by providing what it calls credible evidence to the government of Bangladesh. But there has been nothing substantive from the government the public has been told. And we are not sufficiently persuaded that the obtaining situation is the fault of the WB. If so then the government should have been more proactive and averted the situation.
The country stands besmirched with the allegation of corruption. It is for the government to prove the WB wrong. And it must act fast and substantively instead of hiding behind facile arguments.
We want the government to take all steps to clear our name as a country which does not take corruption seriously. We demand the government make public not only the letters it wrote to the Bank, but also publish a full account of what steps it took to satisfy it.