Bangladesh continues to develop, but in an unplanned, unstructured manner
Given that Bangladesh is a nation ostensibly speeding towards middle-income status and graduating from least developed to developing country, there are multiple mega-projects in the pipeline.
From nuclear power plants, to elevated expressways and multi-line MRTs, to high speed railways, to incredible high-rise buildings, there are quite a few admittedly “vanity” projects lined up for the nation of 170 million.
Having said that, as a proud citizen of this nation, it would please me to no end when these projects are completed and rightfully featured in international publications and lauded globally as shining examples of a “Golden Bangladesh.”
Yet, that pride comes with several caveats. Despite the glorious achievements when completed, all of the projects are Dhaka-centric in a possibly flawed “all roads lead to Rome” dynamic. In my humble opinion, the movement of people should not be geared towards getting more people into Dhaka -- but getting more people out.
The reality during this recent Covid-19 lockdown is ample proof that people live in Dhaka only because of their jobs. If these jobs could be transferred to the local communities, then a lot of people would not live in Dhaka in the first place.
Infrastructure brings investment, and if we could forego hyper-expensive development in Dhaka and put that money in the other cities and townships across the country, we could potentially drive employment opportunities in those areas.
Opportunities would move people out of Dhaka and shift comparable economic opportunities to other areas of the country.
For example, Chittagong has been delegated as the commercial capital of Bangladesh but this has been in name only.
The city has seen all the major multi-national companies that were previously located there vacate the city because senior management had to continuously be in Dhaka every week to run their business. Large local Chittagong-based companies suffer the same fate.
In fact, at least given the state of our infrastructure, all export-oriented companies should have ideally been located in and around our two port cities to facilitate export.
This move may have initially irked our business leaders who preferred to live in Dhaka, but in a quick few years, it would have driven supplemental investment in the two cities to bring on the same standard of living available in Dhaka -- namely educational institutions and communication networks.
Unfortunately, in the 50 years since independence, we are yet to see the communication network between Dhaka and Chittagong or Mongla improve, let alone keep up.
It may be argued that we are finally seeing development in that area now (at least towards the Chittagong side), but it would not be unfair to suggest that we are at least 40 years behind the curve.
Investment at what cost?
What we have seen as a major investment outside Dhaka is in a nuclear power plant in Rooppur under the tutelage and finance of the Russians. The crux of the problem is that nuclear power is no longer cheaper to produce than regular power.
What makes matters worse for us though, is that given the hyper-inflated costs, our nuclear power plant will produce power at a healthy premium to coal burning or gas plants. Moreover, nuclear power plants have never turned a profit globally, rather, have perennially run at losses.
What’s even worse, many developed countries are actively de-commissioning their existing nuclear facilities in the name of safety and costs in the shadow of the Fukushima disaster of 2011 in Japan (a country that is vastly more technologically advanced than Bangladesh).
Realistically, Bangladesh is too small and too densely populated a country to accommodate the adequate safety protocols required for a nuclear power plant.
IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safety guidelines dictate at least a 30km blast radius -- well beyond the 800m exclusion zone radius that the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is being built around.
IAEA suggests a protective action plan to evacuate the 30km area within one hour (15 minutes for areas within 5km) in an emergency situation. This 30km safety radius spells the entire areas of Pabna, Bheramara, Lalpur, and Kushtia.
In that backdrop, Rooppur could be the most expensive vanity project that Bangladesh has ever taken on. Even more so because we are neither technologically nor technically adept to manage and maintain the plant ourselves without foreign intervention.
Telling is that while the government has lauded the Rooppur plant as one of the “safest,” the fact remains that an indemnity law has also been passed to legally shield and absolve it from responsibility for any future accidents or economic losses.
Never on time, never within budget
Unsurprisingly, all 10 mega-projects that the government has undertaken have had to be re-scheduled from the original timeline several times over, accounting for significant cost inflations.
For example, the Padma bridge, inarguably this nation’s proudest infrastructure project, had missed several deadlines and is finally expected to open next year in June … at three times the original project cost.
In this manner, other infrastructure projects have been inexplicably delayed multiple times, resulting in inevitable cost escalations that push final costs up by more than twice the original costs (which in turn has been identified by the World Bank as already three-four times what a similar infrastructure project would cost in India or China).
Delays seem inevitable whenever any large infrastructure project is undertaken, and every delay is coupled with a larger price tag that seems payable on demand.
It begs to be asked that if we can have the government contractually protect itself from legal repercussions in case of a nuclear catastrophe or loss of lives, by that same logic, why can’t we impose penalties on contractors who cannot keep up with the timelines and within budget?
Unless, of course, as the case may very well be, it would be some kind of a “conflict of interest” for the powers that be to do so?
Dhaka will inevitably collapse
As it stands now, we are spending billions of dollars in foreign and local loans to build an immense capital city. Money that will have to be paid back by the general people.
As much as we yearn for it, unless we allow for at least three or more big cities in the country that boast industry, infrastructure, and education, Dhaka will inevitably collapse under its own weight.
The cost of living in Dhaka already dwarfs major cities in the world, yet based on global indexes that measure liveability on stability, health care, education, culture, and environment, Dhaka is among the worst cities to live in.
These ill-earned “accolades” -- where citizens pay the highest dollar for the lowest level of facilities -- are no doubt an effect of our chronic deferment over the decades, both of needed projects and deadlines, in support of the profiteering for the selected and politically endeared few.
As more and more people crowd into Dhaka because of the increasingly scarce economic opportunities outside it, this city will find that no amount of infrastructure will be able to counter the population density and the blatant lawlessness that will ensue as a result.
One wouldn’t be too unhappy to be living in a modern, shining city, brimming with possibilities on the backs of expressways and metro-rails that speed people to their ultimate destination -- a city that connects quickly to various constituencies over tolled highways and expansive bridges across mighty rivers.
Yet, one should perhaps be even less averse to be living in a modern and more equitable nation.
Talat Kamal is a PR & Communications Consultant with more than 25 years of experience in corporate and media communications. He can be reached at [email protected]