National Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury: A Visionary Leader | The Daily Star
11:12 PM, May 22, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:17 AM, May 23, 2020

National Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury: A Visionary Leader

Recently Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury left this transitory world and left us forever. Before leaving, he made unparalleled socio-economic development of Bangladesh. I am proud to be one of his students and one of his colleagues.

I was a direct student of Jamil Sir in BUET, and he taught us a course in Structural Engineering in our fourth year. He was one of the best teachers in my lifetime. After graduation in 1982, I joined the civil engineering department in Structural engineering as a lecturer. He was the head of the department of the civil engineering department at that time.

On the first day of our teaching career at BUET, he asked us why we force the administration to delay the exams every semester and what the solution is. To solve that problem, we suggested that if we introduce the class tests system, that problem can be solved. He took our suggestion seriously. In 1984 he became the Dean of the Faculty of Civil Engineering. In 1985 the class test system was introduced. I was one of the teachers who taught a class of first-year students and was part of the implementation of the class test system. The result was remarkable. The students engaged in studying year long. Good students were getting higher scores. The students who were failing year after year were making strides in passing the class.  Students were no longer interested in delaying the exams. He was the chief architect behind implementing class tests in BUET, and I had the opportunity to work with him as a lecturer at BUET. This ingenuity is one of the thousands of examples of his life for his deep far-sighted commitment to engineering education in Bangladesh.

In 1986, I left Bangladesh for my MS and Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in the USA. After graduation, I started working in bridge engineering in California. I was part of the engineering team to lead a group of engineers for the construction of the new eastern span of the San Francisco Oakland bay bridge. This bridge was a signature project of the State of California and was the largest infrastructure project so far in terms of budget. The cost of this project was 6.5 us dollar, and it took eight years to complete it.

In 2014, I met former BBA Secretary and the Current Cabinet Secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam while he was visiting San Francisco for the Oracle World conference. He saw my work and invited me to work with Jamil Sir as a member of the International Panel of Experts for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project. He was the chairman of the Panel.

The beginning of the construction was challenging. World Bank not only cut off the funding of the project but also tried to destroy the project. World Bank warned the sizeable international construction companies not to work on this project. They threatened that if they worked on this project, they would not work on the World Bank projects. Only for that reason, few companies bid for this project. BBA selected KEC, a Korean Company, for the Supervision contract. One of the best decisions made by honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is to fund the construction of the bridge by the Bangladesh government. It gave freedom to the BBA management team and Jamil Sir to lead the largest infrastructure project by Bangladeshi Engineers. This also gave Bangladeshi emnginerrs an opportunity to earn experience pof working for such a mega-project.

From the beginning, it went through difficult times. The most challenging part of the project was the foundation problem faced in 2017-18. Pile load test showed that the test piles are not getting expected design capacity. Besides, different piers had different soil characteristics. The number of piles was increased from 6 to 7 for the majority (22 out of 42) of piers to solve the problem. Jamil Sir navigated the project brilliantly during this challenging time, as failure was not an option for him. He was always calm and smiling in those challenging times.

Another problem with this project was the installation of earthquake-resistant friction-pendulum bearings in 2019. This bearing sits between the lower load-bearing pier and the upper superstructure and acts as a cushion between the two. By allowing the superstructure to move more separately, it causes earthquake-induced energy loss by friction. It also separates the peer from the superstructure for small movements. This arrangement reduces the amount of seismically induced forces on the bridge. This type of bearing was first used in 2002 on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge near San Francisco. They are now being used all over the world. The friction-pendulum bearings used on the Padma Bridge are the largest ever used in the world. However, this type of bearing is being used for the first time in Bangladesh. Using these bearings, the designers of the Padma Bridge was able to reduce the number of piles from eight to six. The manufacturer of all bearings on the Padma Bridge is Uhan-Hirun which tested the strength of all bearings with their equipments. Their lab is great. But they can only test the bearings for the forces coming from one side at a time. So we needed to make sure it was tested by a third party laboratory. The bearings needed to be tested, especially for forces coming from many directions at a time.

One such laboratory exists at the University of California, San Diego. Their Seismic Device Testing Lab is the only laboratory in the world that can test the load capacity of the bearings for multi-directional forces, including seismic induced forces. I recommended testing the load capacity of one of those bearings as a sample in this laboratory. Our contractor was very reluctant to send the bearings to the United States for testing. They repaired the bearings and re-tested them in the Wuhan lab. Jamil Sir was adamant about testing these bearings in the UCSD lab. He forced the contractor to send the modified bearings to an American laboratory for testing. The test was completed on 19-26th of January, and the Bangladesh government paid for the test. I was personally present in the lab during the test. The bearings pass the load tests. Jamil Sir presented the results at a meeting of the international panel of experts at the local Padma Bridge construction site last February.

I have participated in eleven meetings of the panel of experts for the Padma Bridge with Jamil Sir. I observed him very closely. The panel consists of eleven members with Jamil Sir as the Chair. As Chairman of the panel, he was tasked with the challenging task of collecting, compiling, and executing various opinions from all members. Sometimes, I disagreed with him politely but vigorously. He took the differences positively. He was never offended by this disagreement. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Jamil Sir, his knowledge and wisdom, his relentless pursuit of perfection, and the hard work of the BBA Engineering Management team, Bangladesh will have a world-class Padma Bridge by 2021.

He was also the Chairman of the International Panel of Experts on Karnafulli Tunnel Project, Dhaka-Ashulia Elevated Expressway, Dhaka Elevated Expressway, and Dhaka Subway Feasibility Study Project. BBA engineers believe that the solution to Dhaka's traffic problem is the subway. Even in 2014-15, the dream of building a subway in Dhaka was sown. The population of Dhaka is about one crore and seventy lakhs. And the population of Beijing is about two crores. When you go to Beijing, you don't see many people on the streets. Most people travel underground by rail. Dhaka needs a similar solution. Under the leadership of Jamil Sir, BBA took the initiative to explore the feasibility of the Dhaka subway. The feasibility study is complete. It is now at the design stage.

Jamil Sir was in charge of almost all the mammoth infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh that have taken place in the last two decades or are coming soon. He has proved that Bangladeshi engineers can lead the challenging mega-projects and complete them with confidence. Bangladesh will remember his contribution to infrastructure projects for decades to come. Bangladesh lost a legendary engineer who was dedicated to improving the quality of life of Bangladeshis.

May Allah grant him Jannat.


Dr. Mohammad Abdul Awal is a bridge engineer working in California, USA, a member of the international panel of experts on the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project, and a former student and colleague of Dr. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury.

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