Work continues on Padma bridge. Photo taken at Mawa ghat area on Tuesday
Work continues on Padma bridge. Photo taken at Mawa ghat area on Tuesday Ashraful Alam

Work on Padma bridge was scheduled to be completed by June next year, but the project time is being extended again due to the coronavirus outbreak. This will cause costs to mount and the bridge’s economic benefits to lessen, said experts.

The Padma bridge project completion date has already been extended twice. And expenditure has spiraled too. The bridge was supposed to have been completed by December 2015, but this date was extended to December 2018. Then as river training and other tasks were not completed on schedule, the time was extended again to June 2021. The Chinese contractors, though, had already said that work would not be completed before 2022.

It is only after the coronavirus pandemic subsides that the bridge’s opening date will be determined, along with an estimate of the additional costs. The Padma bridge is one of the government’s top priority projects. Expenditure on the project totals Tk 301.93 billion (Tk 30,193 crore). Around 79.5 per cent of the project was completed in May this year.

Nothing can be said until coronavirus subsides. Once it subsides, the entire project will be reviewed and then perhaps the time will be extended.
Shafiqul Islam, Padma bridge project director

After evaluating the progress made so far on Padma bridge, the Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Department (IMED) of the planning ministry announced this delay. In the report prepared on 2 June about the bridge, three weaknesses of the project were highlighted. These were, the project work will not be finished in time, time and costs had increased as the project was hampered by changes in the pile design, and the maintenance costs will be relatively high due to the steel infrastructure.

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The IMED report also mentioned three risks to the project. One was the deceleration of work due to the coronavirus outbreak, another was the possible threat to the environment due to river training which changed the natural course of the river, and the last was that the strong current of Padma was a risk to the project.

IMED secretary Abul Mansur Md Faizullah told Prothom Alo that the report had been sent to the bridges division. The steps taken by the bridges division will be followed accordingly.

Work delays from January

Sources in the bridges division said that delays on the project began back in January this year. The coronavirus outbreak has started from the beginning of January in China and some 250 Chinese engineers who had gone home for the Chinese New Year, could not return to work in time. Only after the pandemic lessened somewhat in China, could they return in the last week of February and the first week of March. They resumed work after 14 days quarantine on the project site. And then coronavirus broke out in Bangladesh and there was a crisis in local labour. Around 1000 workers did not join work in fear of the virus.

Meanwhile, China Major Bridge Engineering Company manufactured large steel infrastructure and brought these to Bangladesh. Other equipment and materials were also brought in from China. No materials were brought in for almost two months because of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The Padma bridge project director Shafiqul Islam was not hopeful of the project completing on time. Speaking to Prothom Alo on the possibility of the project finishing by June 2021 as scheduled, he said, “Nothing can be said until coronavirus subsides. Once it subsides, the entire project will be reviewed and then perhaps the time will be extended.”

1.5 per cent progress in 3 months

Padma bridge is the country’s fourth largest project. Till February this year, 78 per cent of the project had been completed. Then another one and a half per cent was completed in May, June and July, bringing the completion up to 97.5 per cent. Till May this year, around Tk 240 billion (Tk 24000 crore) was spent on the project. Because of coronavirus, it was possible to spend around Tk 5 billion (Tk 500 crore) in these three months. However, 85 per cent of the work on the actual bridge has been completed.

Expert in large infrastructure and former secretary M Fouzul Kabir Khan told Prothom Alo that the extension of time and increase of costs will certainly curb the project’s economic benefits.

As the project was scheduled to be completed in June 2021, Tk 50 billion (Tk 5000 crore) has been kept for the purposed in the 2020-21 fiscal’s Annual Development Programme (ADP). Previously, every year the project directors would have to return a sum of the allocation due to failure to utilise the funds completely.

Three cost hikes

So far the project costs have been increased three times. On 20 August 2007, during the caretaker government rule, the (Tk 101.62 billion) Tk 10,162 crore Padma bridge project was passed by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC). Then during the first term of the present Awami League government, the World Bank and other donors moved away from the project due to corruption speculations surrounding the project. The government decided to implement the project with its own resources.

The project was revised on 11 January 2011 and costs were hiked to Tk 205.07 billion (Tk 20,507 crore). A railway line was added and the design changed, doubling costs. Then on 5 January 2016, costs were increased again, this time by 40 per cent for river training, change in the pile design and other tasks. The project costs then totaled Tk 287.93 billion (Tk 28,793 crore). Finally on 21 June 2018, construction costs were inflated again to a total of Tk 301.93 billion (Tk 30,193 crore).

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Expert in large infrastructure and former secretary M Fouzul Kabir Khan told Prothom Alo that the extension of time and increase of costs will certainly curb the project’s economic benefits. The expenditure on the project will have to be covered by toll collection. Already the costs have been tripled. Heavy vehicle toll has been estimated at Tk 1500. This can’t be increased to Tk 4,500. So over the next 40 years the costs won’t be covered.

He went on to say, higher expenditure means less benefits. The extra expenditure is being made now, but the financial benefits will take a long time to appear. If the expenditure is increased in such a manner, the project’s net present value turns negative. If it is negative, then such a large infrastructure is dropped for being a national asset. He urged that the government, on priority basis, prepare a post-corona special work plan for the Padma bridge project.