What’s wrong with a thousand Padma Bridges?

Infrastructure development brings a multiplier effect on the economy

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir believes that a thousand structures like the Padma Bridge won’t satisfy the people of Bangladesh. While speaking at a press conference in BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s political office on July 5, Alamgir dragged the country’s longest bridge into the obstructionist politics of the BNP. 

Thankfully, the Padma River doesn’t need 1,000 bridges. The two major crossings on the river are on the Mawa-Jazira and Daulatdia-Goalondo routes. The Padma Multipurpose Bridge, the first of its kind on the river, has been built on the Mawa-Jazira route. A second Padma Bridge on the Aricha-Goalondo route between Manikganj and Rajbari is also necessary. Existing upstream bridges include the century-old Hardinge Bridge and the Lalon Shah Bridge.

While the Bangladeshi government certainly went overboard with its celebrations of the bridge’s opening, I am here to point out the sheer bankruptcy of the BNP in terms of vision. The problem with the BNP is that it wants to profit from under-development, poverty, illiteracy, religious extremism, and terrorism. That is sadly Begum Khaleda Zia’s politics.   

Alamgir’s remarks also beg the question: So what if Bangladesh had 1,000 structures like the Padma Bridge? Is that really a terrible idea? 

Alamgir drew irrelevant comparisons with Ayub Khan, the man who ruled over West and East Pakistan between 1958 and 1969. Alamgir is doing a disservice to his party, which claims to be the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Which nationalism does BNP play? 

Infrastructure forms a vital element of state building and state capacity. The quality of infrastructure differentiates a country from others. If one looks at Bangladesh’s history, Khaleda Zia’s BNP comes off as the worst performer in terms of infrastructure development. 

After independence, Bangabandhu touted the idea of Jamuna Bridge. Under Ziaur Rahman, the most significant infrastructure projects included the creation of export processing zones (EPZs) to stimulate private industry in exports. HM Ershad advanced Bangabandhu’s dream of Jamuna Bridge by securing funding from Japan and the World Bank; in addition to raising funds from domestic sources through a special levy on utilities. The Japan-Bangladesh Parliamentary Association, which included Japanese prime ministers and lawmakers as its members, played a vital role in promoting the building of Jamuna Bridge.

The 1980s saw the development of feeder roads -- a network of two lane highways crisscrossing the country which connected rural and urban areas. The onset of decentralization spurred the development of the road network. This contributed to the future economic successes of Bangladesh, including self-sufficiency in food production.

The bridge on the Jamuna was finally opened in 1998 during Sheikh Hasina’s first term. Khaleda Zia’s two terms in government did not see the unveiling of any mega-structure. In her last term, Khaleda Zia can perhaps boast of a few flyovers in Dhaka. One of these flyovers in Khilgaon sparked safety concerns due to alleged cracks in its structure. 

Truth be told

In sharp contrast, Sheikh Hasina’s second stint in power has seen many infrastructure projects, including flyovers in Dhaka and Chittagong; a metro system for Dhaka; ports and power plants. There is ample scope to criticize project planning and allocation. For example, a deep sea port in Chittagong has still not yet been built. An alternative Padma Bridge on the Aricha-Goalondo route could have been more lucrative. The Dhaka-Chittagong Highway needs to be expanded to eight lanes. Flyovers have been poorly planned. Some projects are a waste of money.

Infrastructure development brings a multiplier effect on the economy. The US expanded its interstate highway system under the Eisenhower administration, which contributed to economic growth in the 1960s. The Biden administration has embarked on an ambitious infrastructure plan with bipartisan support in Congress. India has also benefited from the expansion of infrastructure in its attempts to catch up with China’s phenomenal expansion of infrastructure in the last forty years.    

What I, and many others, don’t get is why the BNP does not want to see any development at all. Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman had their chance to prove themselves as development oriented during their last term. They failed. Now they want another term. For many Bangladeshis, enduring more of Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman will never be the solution. 

The voters of the country have to be given new choices. The BNP likes to paint itself as the best of the worst; but we would like to be better than that. Khaleda Zia’s BNP is not the least bad option. If Begum Zia’s record is anything to go by, the BNP is a very bad option.

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.