Bridge to better growth for Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hoping the World Bank will finance its plan to build a bridge across the Ganges, the biggest infrastructure project in the country's history.

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On a hot and humid day, Kazi Mahmudullah is waiting restlessly at the Mawa port for the next ferry to take him across the river Ganges, known locally as Padma.

Hundreds of trucks, buses, cars and other vehicles jostle to get on to the ferries.

About 40km south of the capital Dhaka, this is one of the most important river crossings in Bangladesh.

Mr Mahmudullah, who works in the solar power industry, has to endure this tussle whenever he visits one of his project sites in southern Bangladesh.

"It takes two to three hours to cross the river," he says.

"There aren't many ferries and we have no other alternative than to wait. If there was a bridge then we could cross the river in 15 minutes."

Even ambulances, fire engines and rescue vehicles going from Dhaka to the south or vice versa have to wait for the ferries.

Bridge to growth

Having a bridge over the river Padma has been a dream for Bangladeshis for decades.

It will not only make their journeys easier, it could also transform the lives of 30 million people living in the under-developed south.

While ferries and other boats are able to carry dozens of vehicles, many of them are unsafe because they are old and poorly maintained, while strong currents and gusty winds also cause accidents.

The bridge would also help connect Bangladesh with neighbouring India and potentially with Burma on the eastern side.

The scope for regional trade is huge and Bangladesh could benefit by offering transit to other countries.

Ferries carrying vehicles Analysts estimate that the bridge could boost economic growth by 1.2 percentage points

The $3bn (£1.8bn) bridge would be the biggest infrastructure project in the country's history and has been being planned for more than a decade.

It will feature a four-lane highway, a railway line and communication networks.

Official estimates say that it could boost Bangladesh's economic growth by 1.2 percentage points.

Corruption worries

But the attempts to build the bridge received a jolt when the World Bank, the project's lead donor, cancelled its $1.2bn contribution in June this year.

The World Bank said it was pulling out of the project because the government had not cooperated in investigating allegations of corruption.

The Bank said it had "credible evidence" pointing to a "high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials", executives of a Canadian engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, and private individuals.

Two former executives from SNC-Lavalin, accused of bribing officials in Bangladesh, are facing investigation in Toronto.

The company bid to supervise the contractor of the project but did not win.

Start Quote

Mashiur Rahman

I am prepared to face a public inquiry”

End Quote Mashiur Rahman Chief economic adviser to the prime minister

Officials say the World Bank wanted certain conditions to be met before it could revive the loan, including the removal of some Bangladeshi officials linked with the project.

One minister involved with the bridge project has already been removed and some officials have been transferred.

However, some senior officials have strongly denied corruption allegations and say the World Bank got it wrong.

"I have seen some of the emails they [the World Bank] had exchanged with some of the secret informants here," Mashiur Rahman, chief economic adviser to the prime minister tells the BBC.

"The emails indicate to me that whatever information they got was distorted, mostly self-seeking and misleading."

Mr Rahman was one of the officials the World Bank wanted to be sent on leave until the investigations had been completed.

"I am prepared to face a public inquiry. If there is an open public inquiry and if the World Bank releases whatever facts [and] advice they have, then the false stigma of the country will melt away," he asserts.

Despite repeated requests, the World Bank office in Dhaka did not respond to comments made by Mr Rahman.

Conditional offer

The government tried to find alternative funding for the bridge project, but the proposals were expensive and not feasible.

Analysts said the ruling Awami League was under pressure as failure to secure funding for the bridge would cost the party votes at elections, likely to be held in late 2013.

In the end, the government went back to the World Bank in September. The Bank agreed to resume funding once the government had implemented agreed measures to address corruption.

In addition, the World Bank said Bangladesh had agreed to introduce new procurement arrangements for the bridge project with more oversight and transparency and to conduct a full and fair investigation of the corruption allegations.

Country's image

Many in Bangladesh hope the government will have learned its lesson from the episode.

"The World Bank applies standards which are applicable to all countries," says Akbar Ali Khan a former World Bank official.

"They had not done anything unique for Bangladesh. That's why the Bangladesh government had to ultimately agree to the World Bank's conditions."

Mr Khan also urged the Bangladeshi authorities to take immediate steps to tackle the wider issue of corruption to improve the country's image.

"We have a problem of perception of corruption in Bangladesh for a long time," he says.

"Unless the government moves quickly to establish an independent anti-corruption commission, make it effective and punish the corrupt people, then the image is not likely to change."

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