Amid multifaceted austerity measures to combat the prevailing financial crisis, the government has taken up a project involving Tk 10.23 billion to widen four regional highways in the electorate of finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal.
The project came at a time when the nation is preparing for another national polls either at the end of 2023, or at the beginning of 2024. Individuals concerned said the road widening project would provide an advantage to the finance minister in his run for reelection from the constituency.
It is quite surprising that the finance ministry, on the other hand, is pushing to axe subsidies in various sectors, though the nation has already been grappling with high inflation. In the aftermath, the fuel price jumped to an unprecedented level while the prices of gas and bulk electricity also soared. The authorities are now preparing a hike in electricity price at the retail level.
The executive committee of the national economic council (ECNEC) approved the road widening project in a meeting on 22 November. According to sources, at least three secretaries in the meeting expressed their views against taking up such a project in the current situation. Many others were in favour as well.
The project, however, secured final approval.
The statement of finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal could not be known despite repeated attempts. Planning minister MA Mannan told Prothom Alo in this regard that they have just approved the four-year project. The entire amount will not be cleared at a time.
He also said the project has no connection with the dollar crisis. “We did not stop all types of work despite the economic crisis.”
Earlier on 17 May, the planning minister told reporters that the authorities would approve no project, except for the emergency ones, to help combat the economic crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war. There are instructions from the prime minister in this regard.
The government has also adopted various austerity measures to deal with the crisis. One of them is - splitting development projects into three categories and disbursing full funds for urgent and important projects. The number of new projects is now very low as the government discourages taking up new projects and sends back project proposals in some cases.
Also, the enrollment of elderly persons, widows and assaulted women into the government pay scheme has been suspended due to the crisis.
Four roads to widen
The electorate of AHM Mustafa Kamal is comprised of Cumilla Sadar Dakshin, Lalmai, and Nangalkot upazilas. One of the four projects includes a 4.38 kilometre stretch of Suaganj-Pipulia road. Its average width is 4.5 metres and it will be widened to 5.5 metres.
The second one is Banggodda-Dhalua-Biruli-Boxganj road with a stretch of 21 km and an average width of 4.78 metres. It will be widened to 5.5 metres. The third one is Cumilla(Balutupa)-Koneshtola-Suaganj-Bijoypur-Adinamura-Amratoli road with a stretch of 35 km and a width of 3.94 metres. It will also be widened to 5.5 metres.
The fourth one is Sadar Dakshin-Hajotkhola-Kolomia-Shanichu road with a stretch of 23.7 km and a width of 3.16 metres. It will be widened to 5.5 metres under the project.
In all, 84 km of highways will be widened. According to the development project proposal (DPP), 210 acres of land, including residences and crop fields, will be acquired at a cost of Tk 7 billion to implement the project.
The roads and highway department (RHD) is implementing the project. Suniti Chakma, executive engineer of the Cumilla RHD office, said there is a nominal amount of arable land among the lands selected for acquisition. There are basically residences and shops on both sides of the highways.
He, however, could not say how much agricultural land will be acquired under the project.
Those who oppose the project
Outgoing cabinet secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam is among three secretaries who opposed the move after the project proposal was placed at the ECNEC meeting.
Sources said these secretaries argued the government is maintaining austerity to overcome the ongoing crisis. It is not important to widen the road at this moment. The roads are neither the national highways nor new ones. Those are upazila level roads.
Some raised questions about acquiring 210 acres of land for widening roads. They suggested roads now can be repaired instead of widening. Such a project can be taken once the economic crisis is over.
However, a section of people including SDG affairs main coordinator Juena Aziz, road and transport secretary Amin Ullah Nuri backed for the approval in the ECNEC meeting.
After taking opinions from all, the project was approved in the ECNEC meeting.
Preferring not to be named, a secretary said their arguments were not taken into consideration.
The government will entirely finance the project. The work of the project will be finished by June 2026.
According to DPP, this is a service providing project. Toll will not be collected from the roads and bridges constructed under this project. There will be no financial benefits from this project.
About the project, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) executive director Ifthekharuzzaman said the government is now talking about measures of austerity. People are being reminded that every day.
He said it is a violation of the government's own policy to undertake such a project amid the economic crisis.