Crossing the river Padma has always been a huge challenge over the centuries as it created a perilous barrier for the flow of transports between central-eastern and south-western regions of Bangladesh. Consequently, people have been forced to undertake hazardous journeys on ferries, launches, trawlers, speedboats and indigenous vessels for crossing the ferocious river. The mighty river becomes even more dangerous during monsoon, when people face life-threatening situations while journeying by boat. Besides, the transport vehicles have had to wait long hours in massive queues at the ferry junctions for crossing the river. That wait is now blissfully coming to an end, with the scheduled opening of Padma Multipurpose Bridge today (June 25, 2022). Remarkably, it took six successive governments (four led by Awami League) and over 23 years of painstaking patience to materialise this dream by treading a perilous path.
GENESIS: The planning process for the Padma Bridge had in fact started in 1999 through a pre-feasibility study conducted from May 1999 to February 2001 by a joint venture entity named RPT-NEDCO-BCL. Then the foundation stone of the bridge was laid by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on July 4, 2001. This was followed by an agreement signed for a full-fledged feasibility study by the succeeding Government of Bangladesh and Japan on 4 December 2001. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted this study during the tenure of the BNP-led government between 2003 and 2005. After completion of the study, JICA selected Mawa point of Munshiganj district and Zajira point of Shariatpur for the bridge. The then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia approved the Mawa-Zajira route for the Padma Bridge on July 6, 2004 after slightly amending the alignment of the bridge. The project was accepted based on both technical and economic considerations after completion of the feasibility study in March 2005.
BNP AND CARETAKER GOVERNMENTS: The land acquisition plan (LAP), resettlement action plan (RAP) and environmental management plan (EMP) of the bridge were prepared between December 2005 and May 2006 in line with the recommendations of the feasibility study. And the land acquisition work was actually started in August 2006. Then the caretaker government led by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed promulgated the 'Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project (Land Acquisition) Ordinance, 2007' for the purpose of land acquisition for the bridge. This was followed by approval of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project at an ECNEC Meeting chaired by the Chief Adviser Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed on August 20, 2007. With a cost outlay of Taka 101.61 billion (US$ 1.47 billion), the approved length of the bridge was at that point set at 5.58 kilometres. Besides, there was to be 12.16 kilometres of connecting roads as well as river-dredging across 16.30 kilometres.
An agreement was signed with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) by the caretaker government for providing US$ 17.6 million as loan for the bridge on December 12, 2007. The ADB gave its consent to hiring a consultant on July 7, 2008 in conformity with the proposal of the Bridges Division. This was followed by loan assurances of US$ 350 million, US$300 million and US$150 million respectively from the ADB, the World Bank, and JICA.
AWAMI LEAGUE-LED GOVERNMENT TAKES OVER: Immediately after assumption of office by the Awami League-led government on January 6, 2009, the cabinet committee for government purchases approved the proposal for appointing a consultant to prepare detailed design for the Padma Bridge on January 19. Then a contract was signed for the purpose with the US-New Zealand-Australia based consultancy firm MAUNSELL Ltd.-AECOM NZL on June 29. The firm started work as per contract on February 2 with the target of completing its tasks within 22 months (later shortened), which included framing of detailed design, preparation of pre-qualification cum main tender documents, etc. A project director was appointed by the government soon and a 10-member panel of experts was constituted headed by Professor Dr Jamilur Reza Chowdhury for playing an advisory role in construction of the bridge.
The consultancy firm replaced the 4-lane design of the bridge with a double-decked one, similar to a Danish bridge. The estimated expenditure for the bridge was reset at US$2.40 billion (Taka 169.70 billion) for a structure made of steel and concrete. The railway bridge was envisaged to run below the road bridge and the 2-storey bridge was to have a length of 6.15 kilometres and a width of 23.6 metres. The consultancy firm submitted its initial design along with relevant documents in November 2009. The study was independently checked and the design was finalised by Flint and Neill Limited of UK in 2010. An international tender was floated in March 2010 for evaluating pre-qualification of contractors for the main bridge, the river dredging work, and construction of connecting roads.
WORLD BANK WITHDRAWS: After the finalisation of the bridge's design, loan agreements for its construction were signed with ADB, the World Bank, JICA and Islamic Development Bank between April and June 2011. But soon afterwards, the World Bank (WB) started to raise objections about the mode of execution of the project. Ultimately, the WB withdrew from its commitment to provide US$1.2 billion for the bridge's construction through a press statement issued on June 29, 2012. The government was left high and dry as other co-financiers also followed suit very soon. The press statement of the World Bank can still be found on its website, and its salient points were as follows: "The World Bank has credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladesh government officials, SNC Lavalin executives, and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project....The World Bank provided evidence from two investigations to the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Finance and the Chairman of the Anti Corruption Commission of Bangladesh (ACC) in September 2011 and April 2012. We urged the authorities of Bangladesh to investigate this matter fully and, where justified, prosecute those responsible for corruption. We did so because we hoped the Government would give the matter the serious attention it warrants...… "The World Bank cannot, should not, and will not turn a blind eye to evidence of corruption. We have both an ethical obligation and a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders and IDA donor countries. It is our responsibility to make sure IDA resources are used for their intended purposes and that we only finance a project when we have adequate assurances that we can do so in a clean and transparent way. In light of the inadequate response by the Government of Bangladesh, the World Bank has decided to cancel its $1.2 billion IDA credit in support of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project, effective immediately."
SWITCHING TO SELF-FINANCING: The government faced some uncertainties after the withdrawal of the World Bank from Padma Bridge financing. But when it took the initiative to build the bridge through self-financing, many people including the cabinet members, MPs, government employees and the general public displayed a positive attitude to the move. Many even showed interest to offer grants. The government then opened two bank accounts in August 2012, where scope was created to deposit grants directly. The government employees' associations even announced grants by deducting one day's salary. The ministers and secretaries did the same. However, this initiative for creating a separate fund did not advance farther. The government instead moved towards making budgetary allocations for the bridge.
The Awami League-led government informed the World Bank via a letter on January 31, 2013, that no loans would be taken from it for building the Padma Bridge. Then, work was started from the very stage the consortium of development partners had withdrawn. The only change was replacement of multilateral funding by self-financing. Therefore, the appointment of contractors, construction work, supervision of work, rehabilitation of the displaced, initiatives for environmental conservation etc. were all done by adhering to international standards. An amount of Taka 68.52 billion was allocated for the bridge in the 2013-14 budget. After that, sizeable allocations were made every year that contributed to the ultimate completion of the bridge. Not a single day was wasted following the commencement of construction.
BRIDGE PACKAGES: From its very inception, the bridge project was divided into five packages. These were: main bridge, river dredging, construction of connecting road including toll plaza at the Zajira end, construction of connecting road including toll plaza at the Mawa end, and construction of other structures including Service-2 area (office, 30 duplex buildings, laboratory, mosque, health centre, etc.). Floating of tenders for all these packages was started in 2010 and 2011. The previous creditors including the World Bank used to oversee these tasks. But after the self-financing decision, these tasks were advanced from their existing stages instead of starting anew. New tenders were floated only for the appointment of consultants for construction of the main bridge and river training work.
Abdul Monem Limited (AML) of Bangladesh won the bid for construction of connecting roads at Mawa and Zajira ends as well as the Service-2 area at a cost of Taka 14.99 billion. Their Malaysian associates were HCM Engineering Sdn Bhd. The joint venture started the job in 2013 and completed it in 2016. Four consultancy firms and three NGOs were appointed for supervising various tasks related to the bridge. Of these, the consultancy jobs for supervising the construction of connecting roads and service areas were given to Bangladesh Army and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The Korea Expressway Corporation was appointed as consultants for the river dredging package. An organization named High-Point Rendel of the UK was recruited as management support consultant.
The tender for prequalification of contractors was floated in 2010. Although 42 firms initially participated, tenders were finally submitted by 10 organisations. Of them, only 5 qualified. Among these, the China Communication Construction Company was excluded as it was black-listed by the World Bank. Technical bids were therefore sought from the four remaining firms. The deadline for submission of bids was extended four times as requested by the contractors. Three firms then submitted their bids in January 2014, and all three qualified. The firms were China Major Bridge Engineering Construction Company (MBEC) of China, and Samsung and Daelim of South Korea. They were asked to submit their financial proposals within March 5 , 2014. The submission time was again extended by three weeks as requested by the bidders. The Korean firms requested further extensions, but this time the government did not oblige. Therefore MBEC of China was selected for the job at an estimated expenditure of Taka 121.33 billion. They started the construction work of the bridge in November 2014.
The prequalification tenders for river-training were first floated in July 2010. One firm withdrew after six firms were declared qualified. Then after extension of time twice, five firms submitted technical proposals. This time, one firm did not qualify and another firm withdrew. Sinohydro Corporation of China finally won the bid as the lowest bidder at an estimated cost of Taka 87.07 billion. It started work in December 2014 after signing of contract in November. The broad components of the bridge project were as follows: main bridge; Zajira approach road and selected bridge end facilities; Mawa approach road and selected bridge end facilities; service area-02; management support consultant service; construction supervision consultant-02 (for main bridge and river training works); construction supervision consultant-01 (for approach roads and service area-02); engineering support and safety team (ESST); resettlement; environment; and land acquisition.
BRIDGE SPECIFICATIONS: This longest bridge of the country is a Truss (superstructure of connected elements forming triangular units) bridge that connects Zajira upazila of Shariatpur district with Louhajang upazila of Munshiganj. The bridge is 6.15 kilometres (3.82 miles) long. Built with two layers of steel and concrete, the bridge has a four-lane road on the upper and a single-track dual-gauge railway line on the lower deck. There are 40 central piers and 2 transition piers (landward ends) in the bridge. Each of the 41 spans between these piers has a length of 150 metres, while each pier contains 6 steel piles. The concrete slabs of upper deck have a width of 22 metres and the deck height is 13.6 metre. The viaducts have a length of 3.148 kilometres (road) and 532 metres (rail). The approach roads possess a length of 12.117 kilometre, while the river training works have covered 14 kilometre (1.6 kilometre at Mawa end and 12.4 kilometre at Zajira end).
Constructed at a height of 18.30 metres from the river-surface, any boat can easily navigate under the bridge. The capacity of friction pendulum-bearing on the bridge is 10 thousand tons, which is capable of withstanding 9 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. The bridge has therefore a load limit of 10 thousand tons. Utilities running through the bridge include 760 mm diameter gas transmission line, 150 mm fibre optical cum telephone duct, and 7 high voltage electric line platforms in the river at 2 kilometres downstream of the main bridge.
The total expenditure for the bridge has been about Taka 301.93 billion, equivalent to US$ 3.868 billion. It is estimated that Padma Bridge would make a contribution of 1.23 per cent to Bangladesh's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while the GDP of the country's south-western region would rise by 2.3 per cent. The countrymen are now eagerly waiting to see the materialisation of their age-old dream across a thousand-year-old deltaic habitat.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary, former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly,
and currently a Consultant for FAO.
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