Confusion over Padma Bridge financing

Nilratan Halder
Finally, the government has conceded to the World Bank’s all four conditions it set for its agreed financing. But it has come three weeks after the $1.2 billion WB credit was officially cancelled by the global bank on June 29. Had this step been taken by the government in May following receipt of the World Bank (WB) letter, things could be quite different. Now the nation will have to keep its fingers crossed. In the earlier article on this subject, this scribe mentioned how the situation could still be salvaged, citing the example of Cambodia where deals were renegotiated to give a second lease of life to a project. Now the nation, in fact, the international community will be looking forward to the outcome of a fresh drive Bangladesh has launched for persuading the WB to reconsider its decision.

Sure enough, the government could have done well without losing precious little time in opting for the stitch that could have saved it nine. The bad blood created involving the row between the Bangladesh government and the WB in the process could as well be avoided. Instead, the various stances of the administration bordering on frivolity and fickleness of minds rather than a consistent and a coordinated approach to the issue were conspicuous. These still are. The display of histrionics by some of the people who hold important positions were amusing but they nevertheless made people angry because of the naivety. Accusations made in retaliation against the top officials of the bank too were not expected to go well with this and other international lenders.

Discordant note has, of late, been sounded by the communications and railway minister who, complaining that he has been kept in the dark, has expressed his displeasure at the official statements now at variance and making people confused. He is clearly irked by the finance minister’s posture one that contradicts the prime minister’s go-alone policy on the bridge. An exasperated communications minister has begged to be left alone on this issue and has desired not to talk any more on the issue before works of the bridge gets going. Can a minister with the portfolio of communications — one that should be in charge of such a project — maintain silence? Are people to sense a rift in the cabinet? Or, is this part of a damage-repair work undertaken by a team in an effort to spare an embarrassment for the government?

Yet the important point now is not whether it was a diplomatic obfuscation but if the reversal can be reversed to the nation’s advantage. Denial of facts and reluctance to accept truth may be politically expedient for sometime but ultimately they exact a far heavier price than it would have done initially. However, mature politics can make the most of the situation even when apparently all hopes are seemingly lost. In that task, the first criterion would be a check on the so many versions by the so many spokespersons of the government. There have been shifts in government positions much too often to leave people confused and unconvinced about its intention. For a while painting Malaysia as a financier for the Padma Bridge project got currency, then the name of China figured and lastly the raucous call for accomplishing the job by self-finance rose to its crescendo.

Drumming up national sentiment or passion is one thing, carrying out a programme involving a mega project like the proposed Padma Bridge is a completely different proposition. Involved here is more than $3.0 billion and the major portion of it was agreed to be provided by the WB, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Islamic Development Bank (IDB) together. With the WB withdrawing itself, other lenders also followed suit. But the interest shown by the JICA President who recently visited Bangladesh in mediating between Bangladesh and the WB shows some light at the end of the tunnel. The JICA chief came here before heading for the WB in Washington. Also the next annual meeting of the bank will be held in Tokyo, Japan in the second week of October.

This shows that one lobbying group within the administration, after flirtation with several alternatives, has once again concentrated on making the WB convinced of the usefulness of its fund for the country. It has been able to give the responsibility of soliciting the case in its favour to the JICA president. This is a positive development. If the ploy works, the financing fracas may still be salvaged. This will amount to be a diplomatic coup after all. The reversal suffered in the first place will be replaced by euphoria. Even the communications minister cannot be vocal about mobilising funds internally. He is right to claim that if donors finance the bridge, responses from different organisations with contributions should be discouraged immediately. Indecision on the part of the government and uncertainty about the availability of fund for the project are inseparable. So, the communications minister seems to have chosen the best possible option — not to open his mouth on the issue.


Leave a Reply