The case against Padma Bridge

Syed Riyadh Hossain
The evolution of modern civilization since time began has witnessed every society conduct its own development of its infrastructure to facilitate efficient and better growth in its economy.

All great leaders throughout history from Pharaohs, Kings, Emperors, Caliphs, Presidents and Prime Ministers have promoted major capital projects they felt would enrich the lives of their people if the project deemed feasible and affordable.

Only after attending to the needs of the people did the rulers initiate more personal projects such as palaces or pyramids which also injected energy and strength into the economy by providing additional jobs. These rulers set out to be astute businessmen first, then statesmen. One without the other guaranteed a society collapse due to non-growth in the system.

Evidence of this two-forked approach by all great rulers is scattered throughout history. For example, they improved irrigation to boost agriculture, which in turn raised more taxes. The greater yield in tax meant more wealth; more wealth meant more resources; more resources meant more power, and more power contributed towards a greater kingdom, and so on.

Better distribution of the wealth among the populace improved their conditions of living, helped establish an educated, creative and civilized society, powerful in military strength. Science and thought flourished freely and in time, mankind benefitted. Today we see the same such practises in the oil-rich nations of the Middle East.

Ironically, the destruction of those advancing societies was halted by utterly crude barbarians who only were mesmerized by the awes of the technology, knowledge and civilization they encountered.

Although the lure of wealth led them to conquer, most intelligent barbarians, like Genghis Khan, who attempted to rule their conquests managed only to retain the ruling and development system their predecessors maintained. In other words they maintained the status quo.

In the light of history, it’s not strange; therefore, that Pandit Jawharlal Nehru heeded the recommendations of Lord Mountbatten and retained the bureaucratic and governance system the British had left behind who in turn had inherited it from the Mughals.

The Egyptians who built their awe-inspiring and majestic monuments had also built the best irrigation system in its time, by channelling precious water from the River Nile Delta to become the richest land in Africa and the envy of the world. Every major conqueror thenceforth just had to have Egypt in their portfolio due to the riches it brought them. The pyramids, too, were projects of infrastructure. Erected in homage to the Gods but boosting the economic system by employing a great number of tradesmen, discounting the slaves.

The Greeks flourished by advancing modern agricultural tools, which subsequently the Romans inherited. They in turn built massive communication systems to boost trade throughout the empire.

Engineering developed rapidly and led to innovative inventions; building bridges and paved roads, many of which still exist today. The Romans built many new infrastructures and improved upon the old, all culminating in a better economy, a better standard of living for the people and thereby increasing its own wealth. Such great policies were replicated by every great empire since and still remain today in many countries. It is clear that societies only advanced and developed when the government did its due services.

The British left us with a great rail network system of rail network that brought the government within reach of the people in every corner of the empire. As a result, all prospered along the railway tracks.

Many great lessons can be learned from the past: many dos and don’ts.

In all of the above examples, every feat of construction was attempted only after it was deemed feasible. Since there wasn’t a World Bank or similar donors available, most project financing came from the ruler’s coffers and with solid reasoning. The financing ensured the lure and promise of more wealth from tax collections and improving the lives of their subjects. Simply, it was good business and ensured the rulers could then afford whimsical luxuries and showcase their success through massive opulent palaces or monuments.

Eventually, every great palace or project built on the whim and the tyranny of the ruler lead to their downfall jumping to modern times in Bangladesh, the Awami League government, elected in 2008, and ambitiously dusted-off the old concept of building a bridge over the Padma River – the biggest project in the history of Bangladesh.

They signed accords with the World Bank (among other donors) and the initial estimated cost increased almost THREE times from $1.2 billion to $3 billion. An ambiguous vision, no doubt, that would serve motor vehicular and rail movement as-well-as accommodates gas pipeline, electrical power and telecommunications delivery. This is known to the nation.

Without a long-term policy of savings and domestic acquisition of funds, as done with the Jamuna Bridge, the project is doomed even before work has begun building it.

The building of this over-priced monstrosity is totally infeasible, without logic, sense or reasoning, and nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky monument to an enormous ego.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when I read recently of the deliberations on the subject by the cabinet which declared “to build Padma Bridge by whoever gave the money” albeit under the fumbled reluctant protest of the Finance Minister who realises the consequences very well.

I was even more horrified that all the cabinet members – many astute businessmen – either failed to reason the fact the entire project is a guaranteed failure or remained silent – in derelict of their duty to their voters and nation.

The Padma Bridge project at present is an economic time-bomb that will explode in the future wreaking financial havoc, causing enormous losses, profound regret and misery on the people. The figures just don’t add up, even a 6th grader could see that. To understand this very well, one must insert into the mind of the Finance Minister to understand the pitfalls of this program.

To prove this case, engage in some simple mathematics. The bridge is estimated to cost currently US$3-billion. Without even taking into consideration interest charges, exchange rates, additional cost escalations let’s rationalize repayment of the basic loan.

With the 50-years return period stipulated, this bridge will need to earn approximately US$164,384 revenue per day.

With an average toll collection of $10 per vehicle, 16,500 vehicles would be required to cross the bridge every single day of the year for 50 years to ensure repayment of the debt. Who will or can ensure this, if ever?

This bridge cannot guarantee this traffic flow needed even to cover the initial cost, not to mention cost to maintain the future wear, tear and repair of the bridge.

Increasing the toll would be impractical and result in even a lesser traffic flow due to cost-benefit ratio or capacity.

We have not even considered the interest charges that will add into the cost structure nor do we have robust economic development to subsidize this cost without the traffic.

If those living in the North-Western districts think the bridge would develop their area, they are dreaming. It would not be possible to subsidize the costs of this bridge with any growth factors nor would over-taxation of any new industries be able to sustain this enormous financial heavy load, eating away any remote chance of enhanced economic growth.

Building something for the sake of building it just to get your name-plate on it, without solid rationale, is folly of the worst kind. The Three Gorges Dam of China is one such example where the government of China envisioned it over half a century ago but saved it in their hearts only to have embarked when their nation could rationale and afford one of the giant feats in the world which has no rationale feasibility as well. But that is China; can we afford to do the same?

If projects are all important for the development of Bangladesh, there are countless of good ones from which to choose and where the investment in infrastructure and agricultural projects would lead to guaranteed growth, not losses.

It both bemuses and grieves me to see the centennial paradigm folly of political experts and their logics.

Perhaps its now time for the people to respond and scream ‘stop!’ and say no to this folly before this nation is plunged into even great debt and hardship.

People in Bangladesh today; however, seem to be filled with apathy. They have lost their zeal to protest, stand-up for their rights, what is right and proper, what is good for them, their family, and nation.

While the majority remains silent, stupidity flourishes and resulting in- you get the government you deserve.

Padma Bridge is the nightmare of all nightmares from which the nation will never awaken.

The author is a graduate of St. Edwards University in Austin, TX, USA, an aspiring politician and promoter of the political party: Independent Bengal Muslim League, claiming himself to be “a new alternative front against the old political stalwarts in Bangladesh”.

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