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The Dividing Bridge

December 18, 2015

As Bangladesh celebrates 44th anniversary of victory, construction of country’s biggest infrastructure project , the Padma Bridge, has begun in full swing.

The project remained a bone of contention between World Bank(WB), biggest development partner of Bangladesh , and Government of Bangladesh (GoB) until the latter decided to finance the project on its own. WB pulled itself out of the project over corruption issues, denied by ruling party terming them “conspiracies of its opponents”.

Coincidentally, WB’s current chief economist was on a visit to Bangladesh while the official inauguration of the construction work was kicked off. He lauded Bangladesh for the move and in a press conference said,”Whatever the history, the outcome has been very good as now Bangladesh stands out on its own foot.”

But the bridge is actually being built by the Chinese and one cannot claim that the project will not be marred further by corruption. Like other developing countries, government in this country is no saint. And we are talking about a government whose recent corruption record is horrifying. Just look at the public banks, mercilessly plundered by party loyalists.

In donor-financed projects, donors always stress for third party audit and/or set rigid guidelines to make sure the best use of their money.

In a TV talk show, an economist of a govt-funded think tank argued that self-financing of this mega project would actually ensure the transparency of the project. This tax payers’ money belongs to “people”. In realizing the Padma bridge project, the government is playing the role of an “agent”. So the “agent” is financing the project with the money of the “principal” (people). This “principal-agent relationship” is vital to understand the emptiness of his expectation.

The “agent” will maximize his interest by siphoning off public money instead of maximizing principal’s interest, which is corruption-free completion of Padma bridge, as it is the best “rational” response to a situation where opposition forces and institutions for accountability are weak.

Principal can only get rid of unfaithful and corrupt agent by replacing it through a free and fair election. But over the last few years institutions that ensure proper functioning of democracy have been severely weakened. The ”agent” saw that it might not lose the job in future and indulged further in appropriating public resources. Moreover, due to lack of check and balance mechanism, the ”agent” started to set rules rather than being guided and governed by rules.

Contrary to the expectation of the economist ,self-financing of the Padma bridge is clearly a corruption booster in “amra amrai to” culture (Let’s-keep-this-between-us culture).

There are plenty of reports and analysis in the media highlighting the plus side of this project. The bridge is expected to increase the GDP by 1% and to open up new investment and trade opportunities for the south western part of Bangladesh. However, the negative externalities have not been discussed at great length.

Mostly Dhaka-based and Chittagong-based business houses will spearhead the investment initiatives in these parts. And the FDI will tread on their heels. These business groups are already lobbying the uncontested Member of Parliaments for lands in their constituencies.

This quest for land will further marginalize the petty peasants and landowners who hold small piece of land. So land dispute and regional tensions will rise.
With lack of proper urbanization program on both sides of Padma and absence of an efficient social security system, climate refugees will inundate Dhaka and peripheral suburbs and they will speed up slummasization process of Dhaka.

To protect the bridge, Army desires to erect a new cantonment on the southern bank of Padma. Moreover, the Fauji foundations will bag a significant amount of business opportunities that will spring from the bridge, which will help them to up their ante in any kind of future bargaining with political parties.

New pockets of economic growth centers and growing income gap and grievances over existing political system will be boons for Islamic radicalization in the south-western part. Riding on Islamists’ charitable organizations and capitalizing the anger of hopeless youth, Islamic militancy will flourish in that leftist stronghold. Hidden Maoist movement will gradually take on the form of a permanent insurgency to fight the Islamization process and the industrialization led by the nouveau riche and crony capitalists.

The Padma bridge project already did great damages: internal political differences were internationalized; it drove a wedge between GoB and WB. Despite all the praises and pleasantries, there is still unease in the relations between the two.

After its completion, it may bring to surface the regional tensions as the Dhaka and Chittagong-based business groups will be at the forefront of reaping the benefits of the bridge. Greed and vices of mega cities will rush towards the west while poor fortune seekers will march towards the capital city to fulfill their dreams. The nouveau landless and climate refugees will create new social tensions in capital city and will aggravate the anarchic politics. Amid this chaos and tensions, political Islam may have the last laugh.

Padma bridge will be built, but it will evidently create sore points—-in fact, it had already created some—- in our society and politics. Do we have plans to address them?

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From → Analysis

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