No one takes liability for failure of Tk 1.36 bn-project

Establishments at the Bahadurabad terminal, Jamalpur, are left unused.
Abdul Aziz

About three and half years ago, the executive committee of the national economic council (ECNEC) approved a Tk 1.36 billion development project to restore connectivity between the people of Mymensingh, Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions through the Balasi-Bahadurabad river route on the Jamuna River.

Under the project, several infrastructures including jetties, two wicket gates, bus terminals, toll booths, barracks for law enforcers and vessel masters, fire service stations, power sub-stations, guest houses, mosques, restaurants, toilets and passages have been built around both terminals of the route. Flower gardens were created there to make the place attractive.

Most importantly, dredging of the 26km waterway on the Jamuna to ensure the river's navigability. Inauguration of the river route was scheduled to be held in June this year. A recent visit, though, found the terminals barren as several trials of ferry operation on the route were completely unsuccessful.

People of the regions were enthusiastic about the river route because it would lessen journey time between the north-west and central-north regions. Road communication between the two regions is currently connected only by the Bangabandhu Multipurpose Bridge. While the Balasi-Bahadurabad project is proving to be unfeasible, the local people are blaming the authorities concerned for initiating the project without proper feasibility studies.

Bahaduraban union parishad member Md Muktadir told Prothom Alo, the project seems wastage of millions of taka. “Why did they build the terminals if the ferries cannot operate on the route?” he questioned.

Jamalpur’s Dewanganj municipality mayor Md Shahnewaz Shahanshah, also shared his grievance. He said, the project not only wasted taxpayers’ money but also caused sufferings for the local people.

A vast amount of land was acquired for the terminals. Dredging the river damaged crops. Despite the sufferings, local people wished the project success. Who is responsible for the failed project? Why was the project taken without proper feasibility study?

In April, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority formed a committee to dig in the problems of ferry service on the route. Later the committee reported that the 26km river route would require dredging to remove around 3.2 to 3.3 million cubic metres of sediment every year because of the changing course of Jamuna. To keep navigability for the ferry service, six to seven dredgers should be kept on this route round the clock. Overall, maintenance of the route would cost Tk 500-600 million (Tk 50-60 crore) annually.

When asked, state minister for shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told Prothom Alo that he was not in charge during the initiation of the project. The project was initiated to reduce traffic movement on the Bangabandhu Bridge.

He added that no feasibility study was conducted before. On emergency grounds the project was launched on the basis of a departmental survey only.

Asked if the project wasted a huge amount of money, Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury replied, “Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed not to take any project without proper survey as loopholes emerge in several projects.”

Shipping ministry officials, however, said that they were taking steps like conducting a feasibility study to identify a suitable ferry route along the river banks. The possibility river commute by speed boats and launches were also under consideration.

The BIWTA committee has already identified Kholabari, Anandabari and Jaigabari (prioritised) as three alternatives of the Bahadurabad terminal.

According to Balasi-Bahadurabad project office, the then chairman of BIWTA Shamsuddoha Khandaker first inspected the particular route on 7 February 2013, following instructions of the shipping ministry. Within one month of his visit, a ministerial meeting–led by the then shipping minister Shahjahan Khan, decided to start the waterway route. On 12 March, Shahjahan Khan, road transport bridges minister Obaidul Quader, national parliament’s deputy speaker Fazle Rabbi Miah and local lawmakers inspected the route.

In 2016, the chief of planning ministry’s physical infrastructure division led a field visit by representatives from some government wings including shipping, roads and highways, local government, railways and BIWTA. Later, the team submitted a field report to the planning commission. On 24 October 2017, ECNEC passed the Tk 1.36 billion project.

After investigating the faults of Balasi-Bahadurabad route, the BIWTA committee reported that the development project, having no feasibility study, did not consider the ever changing river courses. Local people’s opinions were not reflected in the project design. The project was launched on the basis of a departmental report only. The river courses changed the direction of the water channel dredged under the project. The committee apprehended that the river courses would change the channel’s direction more than once in a year.

BIWTA executive engineer Nizam Uddin Pathan, director of Balasi-Bahadurabad project, however, did not take responsibility for the project failure. He said project officials only implement project plans approved by the policy makers.

When asked about why the project was initiated without examining its feasibility, former shipping minister Shahjahan Khan placed a counter-question, “How does a project come up without a feasibility study?”

Talking to Prothom Alo over phone, he said BIWTA can explain well about the failure to start the ferry service despite completion of the project.

He added, “I initiated three projects to preserve memories of the 1971 Liberation War. After my tenure, the shipping ministry cancelled those projects. The ministry officials can fix the future of the route.”

When asked who is liable for the wastage of taxpayers’ money, Shahjahan Khan cut the phone call.

*The original report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman.