One year of Padma Bridge: A new dawn begins to shine

The Padma Bridge will add 1.23% to Bangladesh’s gross domestic product and another 2% to the regional economy of 21 southwestern districts. If put together, economic gains from the bridge would be more than $10 billion during its economic life, more than three times its construction cost.

It would be an important catalyst in the implementation of the government’s Vision 2041, becoming a high-income country. It will create 7.5 lakh new jobs in 17 special economic zones planned in 21 districts, contributing greatly to poverty reduction.

These are the numbers projected by economists to highlight the significance of the landmark 6.15km road-rail bridge, the biggest road transport infrastructure in the country. But those do not speak of the impacts on life, society and the psyche of the people enlivened by the strength of greater connectivity in its entirety.

On this day last year, the long-cherished dream bridge opened to traffic amid much fanfare, cheers and festivities. The day before, 25 June 2022, was the grand ceremonial opening by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, attended by high-profile personalities, professionals, officials and foreign dignitaries.

The bridge connected the country’s last geographical divide and facilitated utility services like gas transmission lines, fibre optical ducts and high-voltage electricity lines to reach the other side of the Padma.

One year into the bridge connecting people on both banks of the mighty Padma river, changes are visible all around — in the ease of travelling and doing business, transporting goods, sending critical patients fast to Dhaka, specialist physicians willing to join hospitals in Barishal or Satkhira, truckers getting rid of nightmarish waits at ferry ghats.

Overnight stays for ferries are things of the past. The bridge stirs the sleepy southwestern region with life. The land is gaining more value in price, EPZs receiving more investment proposals and Mongla Port handling more cargo.

Many new features are emerging too: the hospitality industry is garnering traction and attention as the region is getting more tourists now.

Even a bigger change is on the horizon, rail service across the bridge to begin at the end of this year, linking districts. It will reduce the distance between Dhaka and Jashore by 160 km by train and cut travel time to 2 hours and a half.

The total 215 km rail track will link at least five districts, including Munshiganj on the north side and Barishal on the south side of the bridge, for the first time in the country’s railway history.

The bridge is a massive engineering wonder, using 5.62 lakh tonnes of locally manufactured cement and 2.15 lakh tonnes of domestic steel in the entire project including the main bridge.

Patuakhali is going to have the country’s ninth, but the region’s first export processing zone near the two seaports – Payra and Mongla – to lure investors to the benefits of direct road connectivity to the Chattogram Port via Padma bridge.

The work on the planned handloom estate, which will showcase the regional weaving heritages and specialities like muslin, jamdani and monipuri has gained pace. Even before being built, the Sheikh Hasina Tantpally has already generated enthusiasm in the sites selected in Shariatpur and Madaripur districts. Apart from handlooms, there will be shops, hats, sheds, dormitories and rest houses, which will give a boost to local businesses and livelihoods.

Munshiganj is having more housing projects, wayside resorts and restaurants. Cement, steel and bricks produced in Munshiganj are now easily shipped to districts across the Padma. The rail track will connect Dhaka to Jashore via four districts – Munshiganj, Shariatpur, Madaripur and Narail. The shipping ministry is weighing on the prospects of an eco-park or a container port at Shimulia, BIWTA chairman Commodore Arif Ahmed Mostafa said.

Shariatpur is hoping to be an economic hub, with agro-based economic zone and agriculture university projects gaining pace and new apparel industries, like Mirha and Naba Fashion in Gosairhat upazila, coming into operation and transport entrepreneurs pouring in about Tk200 crore in new vehicles. Five new workshops have been set up to make bodies of new buses. Six new transport companies have already ordered 300 deluxe buses.

Padma Bridge has greatly benefited fresh kitchen item growers and traders of the southern district of Satkhira. Waiting for 7-8 hours for ferries is now a fading memory for vegetable trader Ansar Ali of Satkhira. He does not need to worry about fresh items going bad as trucks reach Dhaka’s Karwanbazar in 5-6 hours.

Satkhira’s delicious local varieties of fish now reach the kitchens in Dhaka fresh and fast. During the season, 8-10 trucks, each carrying 5-15 tonnes of fresh local fish varieties, leave for Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet from Satkhira’s Binerpota bazar alone, said Bishwanath Mondol, a leader of the fish traders association. Satkhira is a fish surplus district of the south and ships over 52,000 tonnes of fish to Dhaka and other parts of the country every year, district fishery officer Anisur Rahman said.

The bridge infused life into Khulna’s economy.

The Mongla Port is now getting busy as it gets new exporters choosing to use this port taking advantage of Padma Bridge. Apparel was exported for the first time in July 2022, a month after the Padma Bridge opened. On 6 June, a Singaporean ship left Mongla for Poland carrying apparel produced in 10 factories.

Reconditioned vehicle importer Ahsanur Rahman Arzu said Mongla Port is their choice because it takes 3 hours for an imported car to reach Dhaka, while it takes 6-7 hours from Chattogram. The Pama Bridge brings Dhaka closer to Mongla than to Chattogram port. It has reduced the distance from Mongla to Dhaka to 170km, while the Dhaka-Chattogram distance is 260 km.

Journey by bus was never so smooth and comfortable from Khulna to Dhaka before the Padma Bridge opened, said Mizanur Rahman, who works in a private bank in Khulna and travels to Dhaka every Thursday to spend the weekend with the family. Airlines have reduced flights as they are now getting fewer passengers.

The huge bridge reduced the time and cost of transporting goods to Dhaka and other destinations from Benapole and Naoapara land ports. Benapole C&F agent Nasir Uddin recalled the hazards of getting serial ferries and paying extra transport costs before the Padma Bridge opened.

Bridges Division Secretary Md Monjur Hossain believes that the gains from the Padma Bridge have already exceeded expectations. The usage of the bridge has been reflected in the toll collection, which has totalled Tk794.53 crore from 56.54 lakh vehicles that crossed the bridge till 23 June from 26 June 2022 when it opened to traffic.

“The first year’s instalments of the loan of the bridge, built with our own money, have already been repaid to the government,” he said, stating that contribution from the railway ministry will ease the repayment further.

“One year is a very brief period to assess the economic impacts of a huge infrastructure like this,” the bridges secretary told The Business Standard on the eve of the bridge’s one year, referring to reduced time and cost of transportation, expansion and ease of business of the south-western districts with the rest of the country, expansion of industries there and substantial increase in land prices there.

The man behind the mega project, Md Shafiqul Islam, the Project Director, seems content with the revenue collections and the number of vehicles crossing the bridge. “It gives us immense happiness that we were able to complete this huge construction work. People are getting benefits using this infrastructure,” the official told TBS on a happy note, stating their seriousness in the maintenance and supervision of the landmark bridge.

Though designs are typically meant to support for 70 years, the Padma Bridge can easily last 100 years if maintained appropriately, Professor M Shamim Z Bosunia, chairman of the expert panel overseeing the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project, earlier told TBS, referring to the Hardinge Bridge, a rail bridge on the Padma, that is now over a century old.

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