Those who were in their early teen in 1970-`71might not clearly remember the patriotic slogan of the masses witnessing the birth of the Bengalee nation. The slogan comprised the words, 'Tomar Aamar Thikakana, Padma Meghna Jamuna' (The identity of you and me is borne by Padma, Meghna and Jamuna). This very slogan followed the Bengalees' war cry 'Joi Bangla'. Although this slogan became a party slogan later, in the late sixties and onwards, firebrand college and university youths had no proper option to 'Joi Bangla'. The two slogans normally went side by side, at times following one another and vice versa.
The rivers the Padma, the Meghna and the Jamuna have defined Bangladesh down the ages. They are among the major rivers of the country. Of the three rivers, the Padma, also called the Ganges upstream, is considered the longest, flowing across India and Bangladesh. Due to both natural process and obstructions to its flow caused by human interventions, the mighty Padma was once almost declared a river in its death throes. Thanks to the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty reached between India and Bangladesh, the Padma got a new lease of life in 1996. On the other hand, except the monsoon period the Jamuna lacked its original grandeur. But the river's formidable width, despite featuring large mid-water 'Chars', emerged as a great barrier to connection between Dhaka and the whole northern and northeastern region. Thus the 4.8 km Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge (Bangabandhu Bridge) came into being to the great relief of the time-wasting and ferry using general masses and the business communities. From the beginning, bridge had both railway and road communication modes. The country had its second long bridge built across the Meghna. The bridge is popularly known as Meghna Bridge. Due to Japan's all-out cooperation in building the bridge, starting in 1991, it's also known as Japan Bangladesh Friendship Bridge. The 900-metre bridge has eventually been recognised as a vital communication means across the Meghna serving hundreds and thousands of road users in the country's eastern part.
Besides its location in the central part of Bangladesh, and its being part the Ganges, the original flow of the two major rivers in South Asia, the Padma has emerged as part of the Gangetic civilisations thriving on the two segments of Bengal. Although the eastern part of Bengal can boast of its other major rivers, none of them could play the critical role the Padma had played in the all-round development of the alluvial land. Since the medieval ages the Padma River has been integral to the chores of mundane and spiritual lives of people living along its banks, and the merchants dependent on it in transporting their merchandise from one destination to another. At the height of the land's socio-economic development and prosperity the Padma river routes, especially the journey across it, emerged as a great prerequisite for the area's uplift. Despite the drying up of the river through the recent decades due to the cross-border water sharing dispute, the Padma remains a major factor in the country's economic uplift. The separation of the country's two major regions due to the lack of smooth ferrying of people and goods has been a hindrance to the nation's equitable development. All this is set to be removed in a week's time with the ceremonial opening of the 6.15 kilometre Padma Bridge, the country's longest. Upon including the 3.14 km viaducts on the low-lying river banks, the total length of the Padma Bridge comes to 9.29 kilometres.
After its opening, the Padma Bridge is set to emerge as the longest bridge over a river in the sub-continent. India claims its Dr Bhupen Hazarika Bridge (9.15 km, opened 2017) to be the longest in the country. It has been built across the Lohit River in Assam, and connects the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Padma Bridge is a multipurpose one with upper and lower parts. With the upper segment having a state-of-the-art road, the lower part will see a dual gauge rail line.
Due to the large river being an impediment to establishing smooth connections between the country's two vital regions, dreams of bridging the seemingly insurmountable gap has long been preoccupying many. Many others blew away these dreams as mere utopian thoughts. To them, it was an absurd idea to take any technology-dependent step to connect the Padma banks. The only way to do this could be by pressing into service traditional ferry-boats or mechanised ferry services. It was the latter, on which the cross-river travel aspirants had been dependent for nearly a century. A historic break with the semi-primitive way of Padma crossing is set to occur on June 25. On that day the longest bridge over the Padma will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The prelude to the full-scale start of the bridge's work witnessed a series of commotion. Finally, its work began on November 24, 2014. During the eight long years, people dependent on both sides of the mighty river waited in bated breath for its completion.
Like with the association of the names of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln and the celebrated Black American poet Langston Hughes with the Mississippi, the name of the Poet Rabindranath Tagore remains associated with the river Padma. The 19-year-old youth Lincoln guided a flatboat down the Mississippi up to New Orleans in Louisiana, in 1828. The future President started his journey, along with a young trader, from Rockport in Indiana. The two youths had to cross 1,222 miles travelling by the river, with Abraham Lincoln as the oarsman. The nonstop river journey comprised a milestone in the future President's life. It enabled him to feel the vast land and its people with his finer senses. The Mississippi recurs in the poems of Langston Hughes in its different hues of beauty and its symbolic essence.
The young Rabindranath Tagore, during his intermittent stays on his ancestral boat as a 'zamindar' engaged in collecting taxes from their subjects, had tried to discover the soul of the Padma and the people living on its banks. Few poets in the world could muster the ability to delve into nature surrounding an ever-changing river, here the Padma, so passionately. Tagore vividly portrayed the lives of the poor farmers living on the river's banks. Those sketches appear in some of his widely admired short stories and novels, apart from his collection of letters. On the other hand, he didn't fail to record the panoramic changes in the beauty of the vast river. These portrayals are recorded in the poet's myriad songs and poems.
Against this background, lots of people fancied the Padma Bridge being named after Tagore. It could aptly be called 'Rabindra Setu'. This name was suggested long before the final choice of 'Padma Setu'. However, 'Padma Setu' reflects the people's unalloyed love for the river. Scores of people lauded the Prime Minister's polite refusal of the suggestion from different quarters that the bridge be called 'Sheikh Hasina Setu'. This refusal profusely speaks of the wisdom befitting the daughter of the country's supreme independence leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Due to the countrywide atmosphere of gloom caused by the recent Sitakunda blaze, any abridgement of the jubilation will only give the event a unique solemnity. However, the view of the seemingly infinite Padma during full monsoon is a spectacle worth nurturing for life. This writer had his first encounter with the river, also called Kirti-nasha' (destroyer of human edifices), around a decade back. By that time he had already stood meditatively on the banks of the Mississippi, the Potomac, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Ganges etc. None of them stands anywhere near the grand Padma.