The Padma Bridge shows the determination of Bangladesh. Why it bears the brunt of Sheikh Hasina’s politics

Anearly ten years to the day after the The World Bank withdrew its funding of the bridge over the Padma River in Bangladesh in 2012, citing “credible evidence” of corruption, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina invites the President of the Bank as well as key opposition leader Khaleda Zia, Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus and other key figures who had opposed its construction until its inauguration on June 25.

It’s unclear if all of these important people will be in attendance, but Hasina is clearly drawing attention to something else. That despite international pressure and national criticism, it has succeeded in creating an infrastructure that will transform the lives of the people of Bangladesh.

It is on this determination that the 2023 election could even turn. Not just on the “bridge of pride”, as Bangladeshis lovingly describe the Padma project, or the plethora of development initiatives that are being undertaken with the help of several nations – including India, China, Russia and Japan – but on the demonstration of a steely will to redesign Bangladesh that could see Hasina become prime minister for the fifth time.

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History of the bridge

After the withdrawal of the World Bank, the government decided to fully finance the two-tier steel truss Padma Bridge at a cost of $3.6 billion. Ordinary people donated 5 taka (Rs 4.2) and 10 taka (Rs 8.4) to a makeshift Bridge Fund. A A Chinese company won the contract and construction began in late 2014.

A visit to the site of the bridge last week by a group of Indian journalists, including ThePrint, demonstrates the incredible engineering marvel that it is – 6.15 km long with 42 pillars that rise like huge trunks in rough waters; a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single railway line on the lower level. It is the longest bridge not only over the Padma but across the river Ganga, which originates in the Himalayas and the first of which is the offspring.

More than anything else, the bridge has stimulated the spirit of dynamism not only in the government, but also in the people. In 2020, according to the IMF, real GDP growth in Bangladesh fell to 3.5%, but increased to 5% in 2021; on the other hand, real India’s GDP growth in 2020 fell to -6.6%rising to 8.9% in 2021. But as it emerges from the pandemic, Bangladesh is poised to outpace the competition and emerge from the least developed country (LDC) status by 2026.

True, he buried former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s derogatory description of the country in 1971 as a “bottomless basket”.

According to the IMF, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP surpassed India’s in 2020 – a remarkable achievement, even though India’s economy is ten times larger and its population six times larger, two key factors in calculating per capita income – steadily dropping from 50% of India’s per capita income India in 2007 to 70% in 2014 and equalize with him in 2020.

The comparison with Pakistan, from which it separated in 1971, is even more staggering: Bangladesh’s per capita income is now 37% higher.

The startling turnaround is certainly visible. Traveling through Dhaka and parts of Bangladesh last week, it is clear that the crushing poverty Kissinger once depicted so graphically no longer exists. This isn’t just true for the capital‘s glitzy neighborhoods like Gulshan, where international brands like Huawei, Farzi Café and Marriott hotels vie for attention. Even in the old town, beyond the offices of the newspapers of Prothom Alo and The star of the day in Karwan Bazar or in the Jatrabari district on the outskirts of Dhaka, where thousands of people live side by side – it’s a bit like walking through the old quarters of Kolkata – you no longer see emaciated figures splitting into Human being.

“There is not a single beggar in all of Dhaka,” Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasan Mahmud told Indian journalists visiting Dhaka over the weekend.

Whether or not that claim is true, Mahmud is certainly confident about his country’s economic prowess. Bangladesh introduced some flexibility in its labor laws when it became independent, which led it to industrialize and reduce its dependence on agriculture. Today the the textile industry contributes 20% to the GDP — it accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export basket — while the services sector follows closely behind.

Women in the labor force are encouraged, along with an NGO-government partnership focused on improving socio-economic parameters such as infant and maternal mortality, health, sanitation, drinking water and education. Unlike India, NGOs are not anathema.

But the politically astute Hasina is acutely aware that NGOs are not going to bring the economic prosperity that Bangladeshis aspire to demand – and which will surely secure her bid for an unprecedented fifth term.

Thus, over the past 14 years, she has opened the doors of her country to all kinds of aid and investment. It has learned the lesson of Sri Lanka, which once sought to woo China exclusively, and has diversified into awarding contracts to a variety of nations.

The Padma Bridge was built by a Chinese company; the Rooppur nuclear power plant is being built by the Russians at a cost of 12 billion dollars; the Maitree thermal project in Rampal is a 50/50 joint venture with NTPC in India; the Dhaka metro is under construction with considerable help from Japan; a A Chinese company is building the tunnel under the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong to connect to the Asian Highway; Dhaka’s renovated airport is financed by the Japanese; a Chinese company will partly build the Payra seaport, while a Belgian company is dredging the 75 km Payra channel.

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The Balancing Act

Significantly, Hasina seems acutely aware of the geopolitics at play in her region. She knows it’s easy to be tempted by China’s economic miracle that propelled her to become Bangladesh’s top trading partner in 2015, overtaking India. The time was where China and Bangladesh signed agreements during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 for a total of 13.6 billion dollars.

Thus, in 2019, Hasina, shortly after her visit to Beijing, announced that China may use Chittagong and Mongla ports. A Chinese-built submarine base, which will house two Chinese submarines, is already approaching nearby. It is well known that the Bangladesh Defense Force uses Chinese frigates, fighter jets and tanks, making it the second Chinese arms buyer after Pakistan.

But Prime Minister Hasina also knows that to become the undisputed queen of the Bay of Bengal, her destiny lies in South Asia.

So in April, she offered India the use of the port of Chittagong so that Indian goods can pass through Bangladesh for use in the northeast, thereby reducing both the cost and the time taken – the the first experimental cargo had reached Tripura in July 2020. Just last March, she and Prime Minister Modi had all but opened the Feni Bridge linking Bangladesh to Tripura. Dhaka now hopes to conclude a free trade agreement with India in the coming year.

But more was to come. The development plan of a offshore port of the island of Sonadia by the Chinese was quietly abandoned. Instead, Japan will likely develop a deep-water port at Matarbari, 25 km from Sonadia.

Now we learn that the Hasina government is canceling the Chinese proposal to build the Dhaka-Chittagong railway. The penny seems to have gone down as the project is not economically viable. In addition, Dhaka, does not seem to have appreciated China lecturing him not to join the Quad (there is no proposal so far) or participate in “block politics”.

As Prime Minister Hasina juggles the competing geopolitics of her region, three things are clear.

First, Bangladesh has turned into an economic success story, fifty years after its independence. Second, Hasina is acutely aware that the road to the hearts and minds of her people – and victory in the 2023 elections – is through economic prosperity. And third, the fiery Prime Minister of Bangladesh is not averse to using the security establishment to keep tabs on civil society and the media to achieve the goal of a harmonious and prosperous nation. .

Disclosure: The writer was among a group of Indian journalists visiting Bangladesh last week on a trip sponsored by the Bangladeshi government.

Jyoti Malhotra is a consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Editing by Anurag Chaubey)

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