Padma Bridge: Belittled yet elated nation
The drama with Padma Bridge finally seems to have ended, fortunately with a positive outcome. The reason I chose to say "seems to have ended" is because what started with an auspicious project promising to increase GDP by 1.2% and growth in the southwest, one of the most impoverished region of Bangladesh, by 3.5% was almost on the brink of collapse. The allegations of corruption, persistent denial by the government, consistent accusation by the WB, breaking down of talks, cancellation of loan agreement, revival attempts based on mixed signals, ambiguous position of the government, untenable positions of the ministers, advisers, and bureaucrats in question, and finally some smart diplomacy and lobbying by few ministers and adviser made it one of the most eventful projects in recent years.
Why is Padma Bridge so important and why are the stakes so high? Some of the key economic indicators, as revealed during the studies undertaken by the agencies, will answer the question in a nutshell. The proposed 4 mile bridge would link the underdeveloped south-western districts with Dhaka benefiting 30 million people, leading to a $6 billion rise in GDP over the next thirty years. Economic benefits would peak around the year 2030 with an annual return of about $300 million a year. Gross agricultural output in the region is expected to increase by more than 50% during the same time. The bridge will reduce poverty by 1.9% a year at the national level. The combined savings in utility crossings for electrical lines, fibre optic cables and gas pipelines would be $271 million. It is an economically viable project with a net present value of around $ 1.4 billion and an economic internal rate of return of 20%, well in excess of the economic opportunity cost of capital of 12%.
The numbers above alone give an idea of the enormity of the project in terms of the positive economic return it is expected to generate and the resulting social benefits it will accrue. When such high socio-economic advantages are embedded in a single project, one would expect a political government to be sensitive and careful in the management and implementation of the project. More so by a government which came with a popular mandate and had an election manifesto that had construction of the Padma Bridge as one of its electoral pledges. What happened in reality?
Responsibility of this key ministry was given to a man with a controversial past and dubious character as far as professional integrity and honesty are concerned. Given the public perception about this minister's background, from the very beginning many were skeptical about the government's motives with regard to assigning him this vital ministry. As time progressed, the skeptics were proven right as the minister lived up to the same reputation he has been enjoying in the power sector as well for many years.
As pressure mounted on the government from the development partners led by the WB on taking appropriate steps against the concerned minister, for some unknown reason the government led by the prime minister seemed to be unusually steadfast in defending him. Inevitably, the question in the public domain was why was safeguarding this one individual so important? From where was this man deriving his strength against all odds so as to prevail, no matter what price the nation would have ended up paying? What could have explained the intransigency of the government with respect to this man who, much to the disappointment of the nation, was branded by the prime minister as a "patriot?"
From the beginning of the allegation of corruption and the negotiations between the government and the WB that followed to resolve the impasse, the brinkmanship that the government tried to play was ill-conceived, unsustainable, and in some cases outright foolish. For example, instead of taking a proactive role by reaching out to the Canadian authorities when they started investigation into SNC Lavalin's reported acts of corruption at the request of the WB, the government took a defensive position of demanding hard evidence as a precondition before any action would be initiated against any of the persons who were on the WB's negative list. Similarly, trying to save the adviser till the end as the clock was ticking in Washington and WB was sticking to its demand and then came the final exit, there was no need to optimise at a time when credibility had already been minimised and bargaining position weakened through successive acts of retreat and compromise forced upon the government by the WB.
From the vagaries regarding Malaysian investment to the silly act of raising local funds through forcing people in the name "patriotism;" from the contradictory positions of the prime minister and finance minister, with the former making caustic remarks about the WB while boasting about self-sufficiency and the latter trying hard to revive the loan while explaining its vitality; it all looked messy, clumsy, and confusing to say the least. All this was played out under the watchful eyes of the international community and development partners to whom we not only lost our reputation but also our credibility. I was in Islamabad last week to attend the South Asian Economic Conference and it hurts when citizens of a country which has someone like Asif Zardari as its president, now have an opportunity to ask questions like: "Is corruption in Bangladesh so bad that the WB would cancel a loan and then force the country to bite the dust before deciding to give the money again?" The government owes an explanation to the nation as ordinary people have done nothing to earn this ignominy.
At the end, we are elated as this is an opportunity we could not let go as Padma Bridge is too important to be allowed to sink in the whims and wishes of the corrupt. At the same time, thanks to the largely inept handling of the government and might of the corrupt and controversial, we have never been so belittled in recent times in front of the global audience. We got what we wanted, but in the process we lost something which is more precious than the bridge -- the self-respect and dignity of a nation.