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Bridge of dreams turns bridge of sighs

Corruption again throttles progress for poor in Bangladesh

  • The Third Eye, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • July 4, 2012
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Bangladesh has been abuzz with rumors and counter-rumors since last Friday, when the World Bank cancelled its US$ 1.2 billion funding of the country’s longest and most ambitious bridge project.

The Padma Multipurpose Bridge was intended to set up direct road and rail links between Dhaka, the capital, and the southwest. Crossing the mighty Padma River, which is fed by both the Ganges and the Jamuna on its way to the Bay of Bengal, the 6.15 km bridge would undoubtedly bring a host of advantages.

It would save literally millions of hours every year in travel time, cutting the length of a typical journey by as much as 100 km; it would save numerous lives, which are frequently lost in crossing the broad, fast-flowing river by boat and ferry; and it would open up the undeveloped southwest region. It has been estimated that, once operational, it would create a GDP increase of at least 1.2 percent.

This ‘bridge of dreams’ was a centerpiece in the list of pre-election pledges made by the ruling Awami League when it came to power in 2008. The party promised to open the bridge before the end of its five-year tenure in 2013.

Its successful completion could well be a decisive factor in the party winning a second term, for the first time in the history of this fledgling democracy. But we can only speculate on that because, so far, it has failed to start its construction, let alone its completion.

The World Bank has cut off the funds for reasons that are only too familiar in Bangladesh. Its fateful statement of June 29 said it had “credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources” that some Bangladeshi government officials, along with executives of the Canadian contractors SNC Lavalin and private individuals, were involved in a “high-level corruption conspiracy.”

Predictably, the government spluttered with indignation, describing the decision as “unacceptable, disgraceful and mysterious,” and demanded a review. This has proved fruitless, as the World Bank has now underlined its determination to pull out, with its new chief Dr. Jim Yong Kim reportedly saying that quitting is the right thing to do.

It would seem that the co-funding promised by the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency is now also in jeopardy.

The government does have other options. The Islamic Development Bank has expressed an interest, and there is a strong possibility of investment from Malaysia. But analysts say the project will now be much more costly, to a point that may well make it prohibitive.

And in a country where corruption is endemic, the fact remains that no investigation has taken place. Former communications minister Abul Hossain was removed from his post to appease the World Bank.  Apart from that, there has been an unsurprising reluctance from the government to take any stern action.

Corruption is a daily reality in Bangladesh, a country where half of its 160 million people earn little more than 50 cents per day, and almost half are illiterate.  These are the very people who could benefit from the bridge, as it would bring opportunities, work and income by opening up the southwest’s undeveloped seaports, as well as much needed relief on the many occasions when the region is flooded.

Was the World Bank right to punish a whole, impoverished nation for the misdeeds of a few individuals? Will the government ever admit the existence of corruption in this project? Will it ever take a stand against it?

The Third Eye is the pseudonym for a Dhaka based journalist and analyst
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