On December 10, the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project (PMBP) authorities installed the 41st and last span of the long-awaited bridge, making the dream of millions fully visible for the first time. Even though it signifies a historic milestone in the history of Bangladesh, this megaproject opens up numerous possibilities for further development in the southern region.
The peripheral regions of developing countries are usually found to be always less developed than the central regions and are oftentimes overlooked by policymakers like the North-Eastern India and the Arakan province of Myanmar. But the Bangladesh government justifiably targeted to connect the country's southern part to the burgeoning central regions via the aforementioned project. The two regions with the highest poverty rate in Bangladesh are located in the southern and northern parts of the country. But the connectivity provided by the Jamuna bridge played an important role in reducing poverty rates and increasing economic activities in North-Bengal and hopefully, the Padma bridge will play a similar part in the lives of people living in Barishal, Satkhira, Noakhali, Khulna, Bhola, Madaripur and Barguna.
The most immediate impacts of this project are likely to manifest in the agricultural sector of the region. While the labourers will get increased wages and employment opportunities, farmers are likely to get better prices for both their produce and agricultural land. Land price of the southern region is likely to rise. Tourism and especially, internal tourism will also flourish as the travel time will be reduced significantly. But many more opportunities for development lie beyond these immediate effects.
Bangladesh is marked by the "East-West Divide", which describes the development disparity between the urbanised and industrialised eastern parts like: Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet and largely rural and agricultural regions of Khulna, Bagerhat, Satkhira, Barishal, Bhola and Barguna, situated in the western half of the country. Padma bridge is likely to be a key to merging this division and ensuring holistic development. Small and medium industries are likely to emerge in these regions expeditiously. Since there are important ports in Khulna and Patuakhali, they can become centres of urbanisation along with Madaripur which will house an extensive road network centred around Bhanga. But none of these are certain. After the founding of the Jamuna bridge, North-Bengal was also a promising frontier for urbanisation and industrialisation. But we have not seen large-scale industrialisation in these areas as an adequate supply of gas could not be ensured and electricity supply remained tenuous due to the weak distribution system. This however does not mean heavy industries will not be established in South-Bengal. The gas reserves discovered in Bhola can be used to fuel industrial growth meanwhile an improved supply and distribution system can satisfy the requirement of heavy industries. Even though developing skilled manpower is a long term process, the government's plans can compensate and accelerate it considerably. Seven Special Economic Zones have already been selected in these regions: Four in Khulna and Bagerhat, two in Barishal and one in Bhola encompassing around 3,000 acres. These, along with the one already established economic zone in Khulna, can attract significant foreign and domestic investment where businesses will have an incentive to train workers.
Padma bridge will also connect these areas with our neighbouring countries through the Asian Highway-1, Asian Highway-2, Asian Highway-41 and the Trans-Asian Railway-1 and 2 which will stimulate further investments, especially from India. This connectivity, along with the ports in these regions can significantly increase government revenue through using port related and road related transport facilities.
Industrialisation coincides with urbanisation. Despite boasting enormous potential, the RMG sector did not flourish in Chattogram and Narayanganj due to a lack of urban facilities like: Highly effective educational institutions, proper healthcare facilities and lucrative entertainment opportunities. Therefore, the most skilled part of the population either chose to commute from Dhaka or to avoid going to these regions altogether. If South-Bengal is to industrialise, such facilities have to be developed.
Padma bridge was a megaproject unlike any other in the history of this country. Due to many technical difficulties like the withdrawal of funds by the World Bank, maintaining the course and flow of the river and the unexpected weakness in the riverbed, the project time doubled and the cost increased with it. CPD found in a study midway through the project that the parts constructed by Bangladeshi contractors were costing more than the other parts. In internationally funded projects, usually, an independent/third party audit committee is maintained to avoid financial discrepancies and wasteful spending and increase efficiency. Ever since it was decided that the bridge would be funded by the government, an expert panel, formerly led by the late Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and other respected members, were introduced along with a third-party consultant.
As every government has a finite pool of resources and committing them towards one project leaves other issues unattended, the Bangladesh government had to cut spending on social welfare and other social sector related activities and even from other projects to fund Padma bridge. The government has 12 more prioritised projects beside Padma bridge and the longer these projects remain unimplemented, the more resources they consume. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the government ensure transparency and accountability by creating multinational committees of experts and independent audit boards to effectively establish these projects. They will certainly have multiplying effects and stimulate the economy but these cannot be accomplished unless they are finished. We have to remember that until the first car crosses the Padma bridge, the public spending there would not start to ensure the desired level of crowding in effect to private investment. The government is well aware of this fact and even the Prime Minister has expressed discontent over the excessive spending on development projects.
The establishment of Padma bridge will be a learning experience for the whole nation. If we can learn from this, establish other megaprojects efficiently and capitalise on the expected effects of them, Bangladesh will be able to have a burgeoning economy and a bright future.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem is Research Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).