A view of the multipurpose road-rail bridge across the Padma River when it was under construction near Dhaka in August 2020. Now completed, Padma Bridge was the most challenging construction project in the history of Bangladesh. it is the largest bridge in the Padma-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basins of the country in terms of both span and total length. Photo: NurPhoto / Syed Mahamudur Rahman

The two-decade journey of building the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, a historic landmark for Bangladesh and now the longest bridge of the country, finally ended on June 25 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the mega-infrastructure.

The bridge, which is worth US$3.86 billion, is expected to help grow Bangladesh’s gross domestic product by 1.3% annually, and to increase jobs, service-sector activity and tourism in the southwestern districts of the country. This mega-structure is forecast to add 423.62 billion taka (US$4.56 billion) to the GDP in just one year, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

Padma Bridge is the world’s deepest bridge, having some of its piles installed 120-127 meters deep in the Padma River. The largest floating crane carrier in the world was used to place its spans. This 6.15-kilometer multipurpose road-rail bridge carries a four-lane highway on the upper level and a single-track railway on a lower level.

Own funding after World Bank pulled out

The dream of connecting Bangladesh’s heartland to the southwestern districts with a bridge once seemed elusive, especially after the World Bank canceled a $1.2 billion credit in June 2012 connected to the Padma Bridge project – and the other global lending agencies too pulled out of the mega-project – because of an alleged corruption scam against government officials connected to the project.

The government later decided to build the bridge using its own funds. Many analysts were skeptical about Bangladesh’s ability to fund the project without any support from the international financial institutions, but the completion of Padma Bridge and its grand inauguration this month have visibly turned the ambition of millions of Bangladeshis into a reality.

Not part of China’s BRI

It is very well known in the international arena that China has taken up a massive trans-continental project, named the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to connect China with other parts of Asia as well as Africa and Europe via a transcontinental land passage and a maritime network called the “21st-century Maritime Silk Road.”

There were attempts from several quarters to portray the Padma Multipurpose Bridge as a part of China’s flagship BRI. In response, Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry in a recent statement clarified that this mega-project was not constructed by taking foreign funds and is not a part of the BRI; rather the bridge was entirely funded by the government of Bangladesh.

From hours to minutes

Until now, crossing the Padma River was a difficult task. Vehicles had to stay queued up for hours before getting on board ferries and launches. Then the journey to the districts on the other side of the river usually took some three to four hours.

What’s worse, if the weather was bad and/or the weight of vehicle was high, the journey took even longer. With the opening of Padma Bridge, hours-long journeys to districts on the other side of the Padma River have been reduced to only seven or eight minutes.

New markets

Even though the southwestern districts are not too far from the markets of Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka and other surrounding districts in the country’s north, the Padma River has been a major geographical divide for fishermen, fish-growing firms and fish traders to sell their products in these northern markets.

The cost of transportation to the northern markets was high, while the selling prices were low. Hence the lengthy and exhaustive road transport and the associated costs of transportation have forced the fish farmers and traders to sell their products only to nearby districts. The crop and fruit industries in the country’s southwest have been facing similar problems.

Fortunately, these southwestern farmers, growers and traders can now easily access the markets of Dhaka and other surrounding northern districts and can sell their products at higher prices thanks to the Padma Bridge.

For example, traders of ilish, or hilsa, a celebrated and highly demanded species of fish in both Bangladesh and India, are forecast to get at least 20-30% higher prices, increasing the fish industry’s worth substantially.

Opportunity for tourism

The locals in the southwestern districts have always benefited from tourism, but the size of the tourism industry in these districts had always been much lower than their potential because of poor connectivity.

Now that excellent connectivity to these districts has been established thanks to Padma Bridge, increased numbers of tourists each year in these areas are forecast, which would generate employment for the locals and revenues for both the local and national governments.

As such, the existing hotels in these districts are expecting higher profits from increased tourism. Moreover, Draft PaperWork, a business consultancy and provider of documentation services, claims that the hotels, motels and rest-houses that operate in other developed parts of the country are lining up for licenses to open businesses in the southwestern districts.

Political gains for the ruling party

The ruling Awami League party has repeatedly publicized the country’s economic and infrastructural developments of the last decade, including the Padma Bridge project. This campaign could now pay off.

Although many sense the ruling party’s shadow in the current hype and the hype of the past half a decade regarding the mega-project, it is undeniable that the Padma Bridge will spur development of the other parts of the country and not only the southwestern districts.

At least the people in the southwestern districts appear to be convinced that their fate is about to change because of the ruling party’s efforts, or at least that is what Awami League expects them to believe. If this turns out to be the case, the ruling party, which was slightly on the back foot because of the repeated criticism by the West for its handling of opposing voices, may well experience a favorable condition in the general election due at the end of 2023 or early 2024.

Indeed, the sentiments of the people who are associated in some way or the other with the other side of the previously less accessible southwestern districts ran high in connection with the opening of the bridge. Interviews given to a national English daily by several travelers who crossed the bridge on the first day of its opening, sum up the story.

One woman said that she had made a return trip so fast that she barely had time to process the journey, and another man said it seemed to him that he had been transported to his destination in his sleep.

It was as if the bridge, which had been touted in both traditional and social media as the next accelerator of the country’s development, has already won the hearts and minds of the people of the country, especially in the southwestern districts.

Bahauddin Foizee

Bahauddin Foizee is a threat/risk intelligence analyst focusing on the assessment of investment, legal, security, political and geopolitical threat/risk. His articles on these areas as well as on social, environmental, financial and military affairs in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Middle East regions have been widely published.