The fate of the country's most desirable and much-discussed Padma bridge project has been hanging in the balance for the last two years. The stalemate has been continuing since the bidding process involving the US $ 2.9 billion Padma Multi-purpose Bridge Project began in April 2010. In the latest of the series of events, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has filed a First Information Report (FIR) against seven persons excluding two big names over a corruption conspiracy in the process of appointing a consultant for the biggest ever infrastructure project in Bangladesh.
Initially, the trouble relating to the Padma bridge was centred on the World Bank's cancellation of the first bidding. Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA), the executing agency of the bridge project, invited bids for construction of the 6.15-kilometre bridge on April 10, 2010. But it had to cancel the bidding in October that year even after short listing of companies on pressure from the World Bank on the ground of a change in the bridge design. Afterward, the project ran into further trouble over selection or rejection of some companies which were short listed in the fresh bidding until June/July.
The Padma bridge deadlock entered its final phase, when the Washington-based lending agency urged the government to act on a specific graft allegation against the firm of former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain in September 2011. Initially the allegation against him was he involved his firm to work as a silent agent in the bidding process. Later the bank alleged his involvement in having a deal with the Canadian firm SNC Lavalin which later was selected as a construction supervision consultant (CRC). During the last 16 months, there had been a lot of discussion, gossip, hearsay etc., on the fate of the mega-bridge project, but the uncertainty over the project was not over. The complexity remains as usual as it was last year.
However, further ACC investigation into the graft conspiracy allegation continues. Time now can say whether the Padma bridge project could be implemented or not. But the reality is that the people of this country, irrespective of political affiliation, want this bridge to be built, their long-cherished dream. All the people expect that the deadlock will be over and the bridge will be built for the sake of the country and its economy. They criticise the government for not handling the World Bank's allegation as expected.
In the absence of expected good governance practices, everything was messed up. There should have been political, diplomatic or legitimate ways to deal with the WB's allegation, so that the people could see the bridge to be implemented in time. By the way of not practising good governance fully, the government shattered not only the hopes of the people but also breached its important polls pledge.
All know that the present Awami League government wanted to inaugurate the Padma bridge before its next election-due in 2014 to meet their election manifesto. It was designed to show the people tangible progress in building the bridge before the next general election. But for the mass people, politicisation of the bridge project was not more important than the bridge itself. They wanted the bridge to get its shape even waiting for a much longer time than the government's declared four years.
The people started dreaming of the Padma bridge with the progress in feasibility study and a detailed design. The international consultants on different occasions have shown how the state-of-the-art bridge was being designed for them. The steel-truss-composite bridge was designed to have a four-lane road on the top and a railway line below. Over 2.0 km viaducts at Mawa and Jajira sides would provide tourism facilities giving the entire project area a panoramic view. So far the longest in the country, it has been claimed to be the world's deepest foundation bridge. If constructed, it would not only benefit the people living on two sides of the Padma river but also created hopes about establishing a direct rail link with the capital city of Dhaka and other parts of the country. Besides, many features of the longest bridge like its connectivity with the Asian Highway, the Trans-Asian rail link, the Mongla port also made it the most attractive bridge project. The Padma bridge, indeed, will help people shake off the curse of living in an economically backward region.
The BBA under the Communications Ministry, responsible for constructing bridges, including the 6.15-kilometre infrastructure over the Padma river, had reported completion of short listing of companies for all related work by the middle of 2011. Though the World Bank took some time to give concurrence to the BBA's selection for the main bridge work, it finally gave nod to it in July that year, two months before the allegation of graft in the bidding process was raised. The BBA continued its review of the companies competing for other related work like river training, construction of two approach roads etc. before raising of the specific allegation.
During the time, the BBA had had some problems with the World Bank which was the coordinating financier of the multi-donor project. There were also some conflicts with two other financiers of the project-Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). A number of reports were published in the media stating conflicts over preparing their respective lists of black-listed companies before the bidding process and taking a decision of constructing superstructure or substructure of the bridge.
But nothing was so frustrated than the issue of corruption allegation raised by the World Bank later on.
The World Bank initially had been getting some email allegations on the fraud in the bidding process. But its impartial investigation unit Integrity Vice Presidency (INT) found some evidences by interviewing the companies which participated in bidding for the construction work. The INT representative shared the findings with the Finance Minister, in fact in two letters sent to him on different occasions. In such a situation what the people saw was that the government did not pay heed to any of the evidences.
The former communications minister also then tried to prove his innocence in several ways blaming rather the World Bank. Though it was evident by that time that the coordinating financier would not review the decision of suspending its $ 1.2 billion fund until and unless Abul Hossain was removed from the cabinet, the government took three months to take the decision. Finally when the government removed him from the Communications Ministry, it, however, had given him the charge of another ministry. The government also took action against other accused officials much later than those were expected. Bridge division secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan was awarded the economic zone under the Prime Minister's Office rather than taking steps to ensure fair investigation into the allegation. All these were enough for the people or financiers to understand seriousness of the government to address the graft allegation.
When the time came to prove the government's commitment, it did not get the confidence of the people. It did not take timely decisions and could not prove its foresightedness in taking such decisions. For that reason, it took time to start investigation into the corruption allegation. After three months of inquiry, the ACC's findings frustrated all. People would not know anything about the meetings of Abul Hossain, Abul Hasan Chowdhury and Nixon Chowdhury with representatives of the Canadian firm SNC Lavalin from the ACC's inquiry until the World Bank informed us.
On the other hand, we see the Canadian Royal Mounted Police working on the World Bank's allegation found evidences and brought charges against two company officials.
From the day one the WB raised the allegation and the government was denying it. The scenario changed when the World Bank finally cancelled its $ 1.2 billion loan agreement at the end of June this year, frustrated over the government's almost no action. Realising the complication in managing the fund, the government finally agreed to the bank's all conditions and was able to bring it back to the Padma bridge project.
Finally, the government sent all accused people-Abul Hossain, Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan and PM's adviser Dr Moshiur Rahman-on leave, as it realised that managing such a huge fund for the costly Padma bridge project was not an easy task.
Now the ACC started looking into the graft allegation in selection of construction supervision consultant (CSC), for which SNC Lavalin was selected. It interrogated Abul Hossain again, Abul Hassan Chowdhury and other accused including BBA officials. It investigated the reason why the evaluation committee on CSC had been changed four times. Now the ACC found evidence of corruption. Due to not having practice of good governance in the government mechanism, the conflict still persisted in dealing with the allegation. Though Abul Hossain finally admitted in front of the media about holding a meeting with SNC Lavalin representatives, efforts were there to save him and two others from the case.
Now it is apparent that bad governance led the Awami League government to miss its major election pledge. In such a situation it might be difficult for the government to lay foundation of the Padma bridge during its tenure. But settling the case is also important for them, if it wants to get people's support in a fair election. It has to understand that there is a need to take action against accused persons for the sake of good governance.
The writer is FE special correspondent