It was about four months ago that I went to visit Padma Bridge for the first time. It was spring at the time, and a pleasant breeze was blowing. Around 20 minutes after driving on to the Mayor Hanif flyover, the breathtaking approach road to the bridge came into view. We paid toll at two or three points. Just before halting our car on the damp parking area at Mawa, Padma Bridge came into sight. We had been seeing the progress of the bridge pillar by pillar in the news over the past few years, but actually seeing it right there before my eyes was quite a different experience. I viewed it from the river banks, went closer by trawler and viewed it from there, a shoal had risen in the middle to the river, and I viewed it from there too.
Then one day the Padma Bridge was lit up. Like everyone else, I too was entranced by those lights sparkling like diamonds upon the river. On Facebook I congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and was joined there by friends of both the BNP camp and the Awami League camp. Who wouldn't want to felicitate her for the firm determination she had in constructing this bridge!
I have seen the Bosporus Bridge that had linked two continents, I have seen the Tower Bridge spanning the Thames in London and I have been on the historic Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The significance, the heritage and the impact of these bridges are beyond compare. But none of these are of my country. Padma Bridge is ours, made with the money of our people, it is in our country and so in our hearts too. This is the largest and most attractive structural creation in our country. Standing in front of the bridge, you forget about the huge expenditure that went into it, the delays and the controversy of political ownership claims. The only thought that comes to mind is Bangladesh's competence, confidence and achievement.
The bridge is to be inaugurated tomorrow. This bridge connects the capital with the entire southern region. The Mongla and Payra ports will be busier, Benapole and Bhomra land ports will be more active, and this bridge will be a big socioeconomic boost to the country. That is why this is good news for each and every one in Bangladesh. But in our political lingo, there is no joy in this unison. There is a narrative being fed out there that even Padma Bridge has friends and foes and so the enemy is not happy or excited about the bridge. Is that actually so?
Padma Bridge actually has no enemies. During the Awami League government rule, the pre-feasibility of the bridge was carried out in 1998-99. Then after BNP came to power in 2001, it took the bridge planning work ahead in various ways. Significant among these was finalising the Mawa-Zajira route from among the many possible routes and also completing the feasibility study. Reports of these tasks carried out under JICA's financial and technical support, were reported in the media at the time. According to a bdnews report of 15 May 2005, the prime minister at the time Khaleda Zia made an announcement that work on Padma Bridge would commence shortly. Towards the end of her rule, in 2006 land acquisition, rehabilitation and environment management plans were taken up.
So why would BNP be opposed to this bridge? I remember that there had been a movement at the time, demanding that the bridge be constructed on the Patura-Goalanda route. The logic offered at the time was that that the Mawa-Zajira route would benefit the pro-Awami League elements more. But even so, the Mawa-Zajira route was finalised during the BNP rule as this was deemed to be the best route.
Then coming to power in 2009, Awami League took up the construction work. When the World Bank cancelled funds for the bridge in 2012, the very next month Sheikh Hasina took this up as a challenge and declared that the bridge would be constructed with our own funding. In December 2015 she officially inaugurated construction of the bridge.
The construction of Padma Bridge is an extraordinary memento of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's confidence, firm determination and high ambition. When the World Bank withdrew funding of the bridge on allegations of corruption, the other donors and banks moved away too. The Awami League government's communication minister, accused of the corruption, was made to resign and the concerned secretary was even arrested. BNP and other opposition political parties, as well as the civil society, let loose a volley of criticism against the government. This criticism may have been unwarranted, may have been in excess, or may even have been fuelled by hatred. But reality is that when allegations of corruption had arisen in the immediate past BNP government's time, Awami League and various civil society organisations had also castigated the government in no uncertain terms.
There was nothing new to criticise Awami League about allegations concerning the Padma Bridge corruption issue. But the fact remains, no one was opposed to Padma Bridge. No one ever said that Padma Bridge should not be constructed or that it was wrong. Criticising the corruption does not make anyone opposed to the bridge.
In the past, on the day that the foundation of Jamuna Bridge was laid, Awami League had called a nationwide hartal (general strike). Yet is was Awami League that later completed the work on the bridge, inaugurated it and named it after Bangabandhu. Whether it is Jamuna Bridge, Padma Bridge or any other long-term and high-cost construction, the work is more or less continued throughout the terms of various governments. Through direct and indirect taxes, it is the people of all levels that generate the funds for any construction, not Awami League or BNP people. Like any other bridge, Padma Bridge too belongs to every person, every party and every quarter.
Alongside this happiness, we will all join together to extend assistance to the people suffering in the floods. In calamities, festivities and achievements, we will all stand together
The prime minister and Awami League may have some hurt in connection with Padma Bridge. After the World Bank moved away, many statements were made, accusing the government. There were doubts and taunts expressed as to whether the government would actually be able to complete this project, and all this may have been done in excess. The government may even be angry if anyone was behind the World Bank's refusal to provide credit for the bridge. But without investigating whether anyone was actually behind this, it is hardly logical for the government to base their accusations on mere guessing.
We request the government, instead, to include everyone in the joy of Padma Bridge. Not a single person of Bangladesh should be deprived from the joy of the partnership, ownership and festivity of the bridge.
Padma Bridge has created a solid linkage between the various regions of our country. This linkage is perhaps not possible in Bangladesh's politics and society. But surely we can all join in the happiness of this bridge opening. BNP has boycotted the inauguration ceremony of the bridge because their leader had been insulted. Hopefully they withdraw their decision and congratulate the prime minister for Padma Bridge. We hope that on 25 June the prime minister declares that each and every person of Bangladesh is the owner and partner of the bridge. The happy face of the prime minister during the inauguration will appear on the Facebook timeline of all of us common people.
And alongside this happiness, we will all join together to extend assistance to the people suffering in the floods. In calamities, festivities and achievements, we will all stand together.
* Asif Nazrul is professor of law at Dhaka University