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OP-ED: Many rivers to cross

  • Published at 02:11 am December 6th, 2020
padma bridge
The Padma Bridge under construction MEHEDI HASAN

Why Bangladesh has no choice but to be more ambitious

The Padma Bridge and the first branch of Dhaka’s Metro Rail project are currently due to be open to the public in 2022.  

Even if dates get set back a bit, I am sure once open, both projects will prove popular. 

As night follows day, people will also ask why these projects were not more ambitious. 

Why does the bridge not have another rail line? When can we have another crossing there, and so on. Less so in the case of the Metro Rail perhaps: One new rail line in a city without decent buses or drivers who make room for ambulances, could never be expected to solve Dhaka’s traffic crisis overnight. But it will still herald the hope of more serious investment in public transport infrastructure. There will be queues.

Much more is expected to be delivered by the 6km road-rail bridge at Mawa. If you recall where it was eight years ago after the World Bank withdrew funding, successful completion of this project will draw attention and political plaudits. 

But it is the economic impact of the Padma bridge that is of most long-term interest. As its position will significantly shorten the distance of many road routes and at a stroke halve the time taken for trains to travel from Dhaka to Khulna, predictions of a 1% boost to GDP are if anything, conservative.

By the standards of many major engineering projects around the world, the Padma multi-purpose bridge is not exceptionally expensive and seems good value. Its reported cost of $3.6 billion is less than the cost overrun alone for London’s Crossrail project for instance.

Crossrail, a regional railway expansion approved in 2005 has seen its budget balloon by 5 billion pounds to over 19 billion pounds at present, with its final completion date still unclear. All just to add a few dozen kilometres of track and stations to a city that has had hundreds for over a century. 

Meanwhile the UK’s HS2 national railway project which officially began construction this September has seen cost estimates rise from 56 billion pounds in 2015 to what its spin doctors prefer to describe as “88 billion pounds in 2015 prices,” with over 12 years of construction and inflation still left to go. All so far as most of the public is concerned, just to shave 20 minutes off journeys that are already currently done in under two and a half hours. 

Whilst Mayor of London Boris Johnson once spent 43 million pounds of tax-payer money -- more than 1% of the Padma Bridge’s budget -- on public relations to promote the pointless idea of a 200m pound “garden bridge” across the Thames. As the location had no shortage of bridges or scenery, the idea predictably ran out of cash while still on the drawing board.

By contrast, a first fixed road link at a strategic location and the introduction of modern mass transit in a country without any, are of much more national economic benefit as well as immediate practical use to large numbers of people.

In the Bangladesh context, they should also set a better benchmark for investment in transport. Good examples are vital to change a culture of low expectations. 

The planned Bhola-Barisal bridge and proposals for a high-speed Dhaka-Chittagong railway hold out the hope of more major building projects in the next 10 years. After decades of back and forth about deep-sea ports, this is a welcome change and not a minute too soon.

The pandemic has left globalization-led growth in crisis. Global consumers are changing how they shop, ship-breaking yards are filling up with cruise boats and surplus capacity, and major trading partners like India and the UK are fretting about their own slowed growth. 

With Bangladesh left out of the huge Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, there is no clear rising tide towards which to sail. Internal growth over and above the demographic dividend is essential to keep the economy growing while the world gets out of the doldrums. 

Big projects can play their part by improving economic capacity and efficiency, but to sustainably boost productivity and create a virtuous cycle of attracting FDI, investment in education and skills training must grow also.

Perhaps the most useful inspiration big national engineering projects can provide then is to make people less willing to accept low standards in their daily lives.  

Bangladeshi manufacturers routinely make and export pharmaceuticals and solar cells to the highest international standards. The country has no shortage of capable entrepreneurs and workers. It is low expectations of -- and for -- the masses that gets people used to a failure to uphold existing regulations unfixed potholes, shoddy buses, leaky ferries ...

No technical advances or major investments are required to fix such problems and stop corners from being cut. Higher expectations of standards for maintenance delivers its own dividends and should go side by side with Grands Projects in growing the economy. 

In terms of purchasing power parity, Bangladesh is barely a fifth of the way towards reaching the world average for per capita GDP (about $17,000 PPP or $8,000 in nominal terms). There is a long way to go, but little time to make the right strategic choices.

By 2050, Bangladesh will have around 220 million people to sustainably feed, educate, and nurture, in the face of climate change. There is no choice but to be more ambitious.

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.

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