The story so far: In a historic moment for Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on June 25 inaugurated the Padma Multipurpose Bridge across thePadma river, calling it “a symbol of pride.” The bridge is currently the longest in the country. The inauguration took place over 20 years after Ms. Hasina laid the foundation stone. The bridge will connect nearly 30 million people living in the country’s less-developed southwestern region with the capital Dhaka and other areas.
Seen as a symbol of Bangladesh’s resolve and its successful development journey, the infrastructure project was self-financed by the Bangladesh government despite the apprehensions of experts. The bridge was constructed at a cost of $3.6 billion. Besides its potential to transform trade and communication in the region, the government estimates that the Padma Bridge will boost the country’s GDP by 1.2 per cent
A few days ahead of the inauguration, the Bangladesh government issued a clarification, dismissing reports linking the construction of the bridge to the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a statement that followed a media invite for an event, the foreign ministry maintained that the Padma Bridge was financed by the government without any loan assistance from abroad. A construction firm from China was involved in the construction of the bridge for Bangladesh.
Story of the Padma Bridge and its significance
Project timeline: Since its formation in 1971, building a bridge over the Padma to narrow the gap between developed and non-developed regions has been Bangladesh’s most ambitious project. In 1998-99, a pre-feasibility study was first conducted under the leadership of the then PM Sheikh Hasina. The project was started again after Ms. Hasina returned as the PM in 2009. In 2012, the World Bank cancelled its $1.2 billion funding, saying it had “credible evidence” of high-level corruption among Bangladeshi officials. “The World Bank cannot, should not, and will not turn a blind eye to evidence of corruption…In light of the inadequate response by the Government of Bangladesh, the World Bank has decided to cancel its $1.2 billion IDA (International Development Association) credit in support of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project,” it said in a statement in June, 2012.
Following the setback, the Bangladesh government took matters into its own hands and decided to self-finance the ambitious project. In 2014, a deal was signed with China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group, a state-owned entity in China. The construction began in the same year.
Features: The Padma Bridge, the longest in Bangladesh so far, was handed over to the government earlier this week. The main structure, 6.15 km long and 22 m wide, has a four-lane highway and is accompanied by a 3-km-long viaduct and around 12 km of access roads to connect neighbouring districts.
It connects the Mawa bank to the north and the Janjira area south of the Padma river, which is known for the vast volume of water it carries most of the year which makes it look like a sea. According to the project website, the Padma Bridge will connect Louhajong in Munshiganj district to Shariatpur and Madaripur districts, linking the southwest with the northern and eastern regions.
The lower level of the bridge has a railway track, which is expected to be opened by 2024. This railway line will drastically reduce the travel time between India and Bangladesh — giving a significant boost to trade and commerce between the two countries. At present, the Maitree Express completes the 400-km journey from Kolkata to Dhaka Cantonment in 10 hours. Officials say after the inauguration of the railway line, the distance will reduce to about 250 km, which the Maitree Express can cover in around three hours.
Bangladesh’s clarification about the bridge
Last week, a group called the ‘Bangladesh-China Silk Road Forum’, or BCSRF — launched in 2019 to “focus on lasting links between the two countries under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China” — sent media invites regarding a panel discussion on June 22. The topic of discussion was ‘The Padma Bridge: An Example of Bangladesh-China cooperation under Belt and Road Initiative’, with the invite mentioning the Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka as the chief guest for the occasion. The BRI, launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, is a multi-billion-dollar initiative aimed at financing and building infrastructure projects, especially in developing countries, to enhance its influence across the world.
However, Bangladesh did not seem pleased with these developments that took place hours before the inauguration of the Padma Bridge, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) issuing a statement decrying attempts to link the Padma Bridge project with the BRI. “[The] Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically asserts that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge has been entirely funded by the Government of Bangladesh and no foreign funds from any bilateral or multilateral funding agency have financially contributed to its construction,” the statement read. The ministry acknowledged that both Bangladeshi and foreign companies were engaged inthe implementation of the project.
Against this background, a Chinese embassy spokesperson stated that the bridge was built entirely with Bangladeshi funds. “We are proud that a Chinese construction company was involved in building the Padma Bridge…The company [China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Corporation] which had built a bridge on our mother river [Yellow River] decades ago has built the first longest such bridge [over the Padma] outside China,” the Chinese official said.
As per agency reports, the ministry even summoned the head of the Embassy, Mr. Hualong Yan, who was informed about the “government’s annoyance.” Bangladesh reportedly told the envoy that the Chinese firm involved in the project acted as a contractor only. The Chinese embassy informed event organisers, following which the panel discussion was cancelled.
Over the years, China has increased its investment rapidly in Bangladesh after the two countries began their strategic partnership in 2016. Bangladesh is one of the largest recipients of funding for infrastructure projects under the BRI, with over $26 billion in Chinese investments and $38 billion in funding commitments.
Though the South Asian country is eager to develop its infrastructure, it has adopted a cautious and selective approach to handling its economic relationship with the BRI amid growing concerns over the Chinese debt trap. The initiative has attracted allegations of debt-diplomacy, especially after Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota Port as a debt swap to China in 2017. Malaysia has also deferred several projects under the BRI, citing cost revaluation.
Further, the BRI has been a major bone of contention between India and China as one portion of the corridor passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Bangladesh and India share close bilateral ties. To strike a balance and not to upset its neighbour, also its “most important partner”, Bangladesh is therefore treading the path cautiously.