FE: How do you feel when your efforts come to fruition after a long time with the opening of the Padma Bridge on June 25?
M Shafiqul Islam (MSI): Well, we have tried our level best. Our success should be assessed by people. But one thing we can say that we all were sincere at the highest level. Also we have got all-out cooperation from all quarters. It is a success for all.
FE: How did you get involved with the bridge project?
MSI: It happened all on a sudden. I was posted as the PD (project director) of the Dhaka-Chattogram four-lane project when the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project was facing challenges. My posting for the four-lane project was totally against my will, though I knew the RHD authority posted me there in consideration of my past experience, as the four-lane project was also on the government's priority list.
On one occasion, I was walking along the corridor of the ministry. I came to know that the post of PD of the Padma bridge project was lying vacant. Just instantly it came to my mind, 'if someone can do the Padma Bridge one day, why not me?' I took an immediate decision, even I did not talk to my family. I walked into the Communications Minister's room as he was sitting alone. I expressed my interest to Communications Minister Abul Hossain without any second thought. The minister was also anxious then about the fate of the Padma Bridge. As soon as he got to know about my interest, he left his chair and hugged me in joy. He asked me three times: 'Really, do you want?' He was excited as I was among the few acceptable RHD engineers at that time, but none was interested in the trouble project. He then accepted my proposal and assured me of his full cooperation. So this was the history.
FE: After joining as the PD, what were the challenges you faced?
MSI: At the beginning, no one was interested in the Padma Bridge Project. Even I could not find my friends or known people around me. Whenever I asked one to visit my office, they replied 'no, no, no, we will not go to your office'. No one was interested in working for the project also. Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury Sir also asked me who forced me to work for the project, when he first saw me after my appointment.
So my work started totally in an unfavourable environment amid lots of uncertainty. Without thinking whether the project would be successful or not after the World Bank left, I just moved forward. No thought ever came to my mind that my decision was wrong.
FE: How were those overcome?
MSI: Two things we focused on at that time - one was trust building and another was fair evaluation of tenders for the bridge project. The advantage of the project was that we had a good design and tender documents readily available when the World Bank-led financing arrangements were withdrawn. Also the government's guideline was there to start the project from where the project was left by the WB. These two helped us restart it.
But I was not sure that any internationally reputed company would participate in the tender, though prequalification bidding began much earlier? The companies that showed interest were sceptical about the ability of the government to pay them in the foreign currency. They were also sceptical about fair evaluation of the tenders as well as our capacity of tender evaluation. They also thought that the Chief Engineer of the Jamuna bridge was a Britisher. Then how would a black-skin person manage the trouble project?
At that moment, we requested design consultants Maunsell AECOM to do the tender evaluation, as we cannot do the technical evaluation of the Padma bridge without a qualified company. Acceptance of Maunsell AECOM helped us earn the confidence of international companies as they needed to spend millions of taka to participate in the bidding.
FE: The project faced a lot of construction-level challenges as well. How did the project office face them?
MSI: There was always a mental pressure there to complete the bridge construction work in the earliest possible time, the handling of which was more challenging than others. Political pressure was the main reason. The contractors demanded extension of construction time of the project for various reasons. We then tried hard to convince the government to give the time as it was necessary to understand the complex design, study the extensive work to be needed to start the bridge construction and get due results. We extended the deadline three times to overcome all those challenges. The government also was convinced and cooperative to give us time.
FE: There were many other challenges arising out of design, coronavirus, etc. How were those handled?
MSI: From the Holey Artisan attack to the Covid-19 pandemic, we had faced different types of challenges. To solve the soil design problem, we had to consult many international experts, panel of experts and CSC (construction supervision consultant). This cost a good amount of time. I had to make all final decisions. When the first trial soil test on the foundation was found successful, I had no other choice but to go for the second test on recommendation of the PoE. So 18 months in total were spent only to confirm the design of piling work.
None working for the project had the previous experience of working in a mighty river like the Padma where the current and siltation are also unpredictable and unmanageable. If one metre of dredging is done, a double layer of silt covers it the next day. So from international contractors to consultants from both home and abroad and the project staff all learned in every stage of the project. Foreign consultants had the theoretical knowledge but they did not have the practical knowledge. So, the Padma Bridge project was a learning case for them.
FE: Now what will you say about the Padma Bridge work and its standard?
MSI: To maintain the quality of the Padma Bridge work, we tried to follow the international standard. We did not bring any change in the project, except the word "GOB'' that replaced the words "World Bank". Every coma, full stop and semicolon in the paper on the project's initial design were followed to maintain the international standard. The bridge is built with a life span of 100 years. If the maintenance is followed in accordance with the manual, the life of this bridge will be more than 100 years at the grace of Almighty Allah.
FE: If you compare your starting point of work for the bridge project with your present situation at the end of the tenure, how will you evaluate it?
MSI: Frankly speaking, I don't have any extraordinary feelings as I am still under pressure for completing the project. All's well that ends well. Last-minute work, inaugural function, etc., need to go well. Still river training work is not completed. The river is difficult to manage.
FE: Whom will you thank for success of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project?
MSI: We have got an excellent team comprising the experts, consultants, engineers, technicians and others. The unflinching support of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other government offices for the project that got the highest priority was also a cause behind successful implementation of the dream project. Our engineers and other staffers who gathered experience in every stage of the project are an asset for any future project of the country.