The man who steered Padma Bridge project through tough times
One afternoon in October 2011, Md Shafiqul Islam, then an additional chief engineer at the Roads and Highways Department, was tensely pacing the corridors of the erstwhile communications ministry, contemplating joining the Padma bridge project.
The project had already faced a massive setback after the World Bank had withdrawn its funding.
Corruption cases were filed against some project officials, resulting in a vacancy in the project director's post. Then the chief of the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway Expansion Project, Shafiqul had only two months to retire, but could not resist taking up a new challenge.
"My thinking was somebody would fill in, so why not me? 'Let's give it a try', I told myself. If I could prove myself, I would get an extension," Shafiqul told The Daily Star about how he became involved in the project expected to bring ground-breaking change in the country's communication system and boost trade and commerce in the southwestern region.
He said: "I walked up to the then minister's [Syed Abul Hossain's] room and expressed my desire. He got up from his chair, embraced me and asked: 'Are you sure you want to do it?' I replied 'let me try'. The reason for such scepticism was that nobody wanted to join the project because of the prevailing situation."
Thus began his journey as the director of the most complicated project in the country nearly 11 years ago.
He is the longest-serving project director in Bangladesh, steering the project from its inception to completion amid myriads of challenges.
"We started almost from scratch. But we got cooperation from everyone -- from Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury [chairman of the government panel of experts] and his team to the new minister and new secretary of the communications ministry [now the road transport and bridges ministry]. Whatever suggestions I placed, government high-ups agreed instantly. That's the reason we could make it possible."
He said when it was decided the bridge would be built with the country's own funding, the PD was told that they had to start the project from where the World Bank had left off. As a result, they got many things -- tender documents, design, prequalification -- ready from the WB.
"That was quite a help for us."
Shafiqul said initially they asked the government to grant them time extension to appoint consultants to assist in procurement and technical and financial evaluations.
"We did not have the capacity to do the technical evaluation of a project of this stature. We got them on board, and that boosted our confidence and that of the foreign contractors. It was our main footing ...
"We had a great team for the evaluation work. With the technical and financial evaluation done, we overcame a big barrier and started moving ahead with the project," he said.
The tender evaluation task was completed in 2014 and an agreement with the contractor was signed in June that year.
Then came a problem: they did not get project consultants until December 2014, Shafiqul said.
When they did, the leader of the Korean consultant team quit within a month. It took some time to find his replacement -- Robert John Aves.
As things started to roll, the project faced another hurdle as a devastating flood in July 2015 washed away a large chunk of the construction site. However, the work resumed after the end of the flood.
Then came one of the biggest challenges: problems in piling.
To facilitate the design of bridge pile foundations, he said, soil investigation was supposed to be carried out at each pier site to determine the soil type and properties. Due to time constraints, soil investigation was carried out at some pier locations instead of all 42.
But when the final soil examination started before the construction, they could not find depths at 22 piling points.
"That calls for a redesign," he said.
"There are only a handful of people in the world capable of designing such piles, because a pile with a depth of 122 metres has not been done anywhere in the world. It's a world record."
They approached a British consulting firm, but it could not come up with a concrete decision and sought some more time to do further studies.
He said they then contacted Flint & Neill, another UK-based firm of consulting civil and structural engineers. The firm, which was later taken over by an international consulting group named COWI, had been the checking consultant and vetted the project design.
They too could not come to any conclusion, but gave some observations.
"We became a bit frustrated."
Then Robert said they wanted to apply another method of testing. There was an indication in the tender of that method, which has never been done in the world before, Shafiqul said.
In the method, a new type of pile is planted in the ground with a duct around it. Then, cement grouting of soil is applied around the piles and at the bottom end of the piles to enhance their load-bearing capacity, he said.
It was no ordinary cement but a kind of microfine variety bought from Australia. The cement is able to penetrate very small openings such as soil pores and microscopic rock fissures to improve strength, he said.
"We conducted the test, which took 10 months, and got a positive result. Since it was not a proven method, Robert suggested going for a second test. We got frustrated, but we had no other alternative," Shafiqul said.
They got positive results in the second test too. Then they proceeded, deciding to have a cluster of seven skin-grouted piles for the 22 piers to increase their load-carrying capacity.
"We don't know what would happen if we did not have this engineering [solution].
"We had to balance everything. We had to keep in mind the issue of a rail track on the bridge, the possibility of an earthquake, a hit from a 4,000-tonne vessel."
"So, it is called the safest design because many parameters were added here," he said, adding that the bridge would survive an earthquake, scouring of piles up to 62 metres below the surface, and being hit by a vessel loaded with 4,000-tonnes of goods.
"It's certainly an engineering marvel."
About the challenging nature of the Padma river, he said they were aware of some issues like 1.5 lakh cubic metres of water flowing each second in the river.
"But there are some unpredictable issues too -- we don't know when and where the scouring would take place. Us engineers have to make designs taking into consideration the worst-case scenario," he said.
Then the Holey Artisan attack in 2016 came as a blow to the project with Japanese consultants leaving the country.
Finally, there was the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed the project's progress further.
Soon after the pandemic hit the country in early 2020, they arranged bio-bubbles for project staffers and workers, he said, adding that around 4,000 workers worked under the exit-entry restriction for around four months.
When the work gained momentum as the Covid situation improved, the project site was hit by the worst flood in the last 10 years. "Many things, like 130-135 roadway slabs and many railway stingers, were washed away in front of our eyes."
They built those unique slabs and brought those stingers from Luxembourg, which took time, he added.
Terming the pile-related challenge the toughest, Shafiqul said: "It was beyond our engineering knowledge. The designers were struggling. This was a major decision. There was no remedy had any mistake occurred."
He said consultants from around 30 countries worked on the project and equipment and materials were brought from 10 to 15 countries.
People who worked on this project were courageous as they had to work amid the huge waves of the river, deep fog and many other difficulties.
"The entire project was a result of good teamwork."
"We earned confidence from the authorities, received all-out support from ministries and others concerned. So, the credit does not only go to our team but all concerned," he added.
Asked about the time and cost overrun of the project, Shafiqul said, "Nowhere in the world could a project of this stature be completed like it was here. Even Chinese people say they wouldn't have been able to build this bridge in less time than the Padma Bridge took."
About the cost, he said, "I would request journalists to compare the project with other infrastructure projects like Bangabandhu Railway Bridge over Jamuna and Meghna and Gumti bridges over Meghna."
The cost for the main bridge, excluding river training and others, is around Tk 12,000 crore, he said.
About the design life of the bridge, he said it is 100 years if proper maintenance is maintained.
When asked about his feelings after completion of such a project, Shafiqul said, "Frankly speaking I do not have any special feeling…
"I got engaged with the project knowing the challenges, and I thank the Almighty that I have been able to cope with the challenges."
He said the most important thing is that the project gives a message loud and clear: "Bangladeshi engineers can do many things if they get a good team."