With Padma Bridge, Bangladesh’s Iron Lady Sheikh Hasina makes a statement to the world

Bangladesh's rising per capita income, and Hasina's deft handling of the pandemic and climate change issues are also winning her accolades

Sheikh Hasina was the one who decided to go ahead with the $4 billion Padma multipurpose bridge project with Bangladesh's own resources after the World Bank dilly-dallied

When Bangladesh opens the now-completed 6.15 km railroad bridge on the mighty Padma in June, South Asia’s youngest nation will be making a huge statement to the world.

The completion of the Padma Bridge, Bangladesh’s biggest infrastructure project till date, is Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s singular biggest achievement in her ‘Golden Decade’ in power. She was the one who decided to go ahead with the nearly $4 billion project with Bangladesh’s own resources after the World Bank raised a huge stink over alleged, and later unproven, corruption charges.

Showing the world its place

Few Third World leaders would have dared to do what Hasina did. She first promised a thorough enquiry into the corruption allegations but she wanted the World Bank funding to materialise to get the project started. When the World Bank dilly-dallied releasing the funds, she asked them to pack up and leave.

China and Malaysia immediately offered funding but Hasina, encouraged by the country’s rising foreign exchange reserves and booming economy, decided to do the bridge with Bangladesh’s own resources. Some say she awarded the work contract to a Chinese company but did not accept Chinese funding, like Pakistan or Sri Lanka had done on major projects, partly to avoid upsetting India and partly to avoid falling into a Chinese ‘debt trap’.

That she took such a bold decision barely a year before the 2014 parliament polls amidst a fierce radical Islamist violent campaign to oust her government, allegedly backed by a covert US effort to bring her down, speaks much of her courage and self-belief.

Against all odds

She won the elections and the Padma project went ahead full steam, amid all the Opposition street protests and fire-bombings and an US-led western outcry over unfair polls and human rights violations.

Her detractors, including Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, said the bridge will never be completed. Now, it is their turn to eat humble pie.

Also read: Sheikh Hasina: Gritty stateswoman who steered Bangladesh to prosperity is 75

The Padma Bridge has been predicted as a game-changer for Bangladesh economy. Economists say the bridge, by connecting 21 southern districts to the national capital zone, may lead to an 1.2 per cent boost to Bangladesh’s GDP in the next few years.

Her decision to award the Padma works to a Chinese company was a shrewd move – none of the Pakistan-backed Islamist terror groups would dare attack the Chinese. But, even after the Jamaat-e-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists killed Japanese experts who had come to survey the Dhaka Metrorail project, during the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terror strike, work did not stop. The Dhaka Metrorail is now completed and on time, like the Padma Bridge, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence.

Hasina’s penchant for massive infrastructure projects to kick-start and raise the tempo of economic development is at the heart of her strategy to fight Islamist radicalism and ensure Bangladesh does not go down the self-destructive path of Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Firm, but nimble

But her government carefully weighs each project on the basis of local need and does not hesitate to change funders, locations or drop projects if they were not required. China is Bangladesh’s biggest source of development assistance but Hasina’s government did not hesitate to call off the deep sea port project at Sonadia that China was keen to fund. Instead the port is now coming up at a different location – Matabari – with Japanese assistance. Contrast this to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and one would know how different Hasina is from the Rajpaksas.

Projects like the Padma Bridge or the Matabari port would be in heavy use and generate returns for the national economy, the moment they are opened. So, those who wildly predict Bangladesh is heading for a Sri Lanka type of collapse are way off the mark.

Finance minister AFM Kamal reminded detractors that Bangladesh’s inward forex remittances for a month is good enough for annual foreign debt servicing. While Sri Lanka’s total foreign currency reserves dropped below the $2billion mark in April (and has dropped further now), Bangladesh raked in $2.09 billion in inward remittances in April alone. The annual volume is between $25 billion and 30 billion.

Also read: Is Hasina testing waters for a return to 1972 ‘secular Constitution’? 

Bangladesh’s growing economic strength is evident from its per capita income and per capita GDP growth that is soaring past even big neighbour India. In 2013, Bangladesh’s per capita income of US$783 was half of India, now it is US $125 more and IMF predicts the gap will further widen in the next three years.

Ahead of India and Pakistan

In most indices of both economic and human development, especially in those related to female empowerment, Bangladesh is ahead of India and far ahead of Pakistan. In fact, some of Hasina’s older comrades, veterans of the 1971 Liberation War, say they are waiting for a day when Pakistan will come begging for loans. Bangladesh recently provided US$250 million to Sri Lanka to tide over her forex crisis.

“Pakistan is in a similar situation and we wait for the day they come begging,” said a senior Awami League leader, not willing to be named. This is not surprising, given the Pakistani military brutalities in 1971, when 3 million Bengalis were massacred and quarter of a million of its women dishonored. Very few families escaped the horrors, which is why Bangladesh has moved the UN to recognise the 1971 genocide and pressed hard for a formal apology from Pakistan – without success so far.

But Hasina’s government can claim credit for success in all spheres of governance which is not top-down. The Nikkei Recovery Index recently rated Bangladesh’s management of the COVID pandemic as the best in south Asia and fifth in the world, with Pakistan and India on the 23rd and 70th spot respectively.

This belied doomsday predictions of millions of deaths by Hasina’s critics. Considering Bangladesh does not yet produce any COVID vaccine and that India had to suddenly stop promised supplies due to a severe second wave at home, completing two doses of vaccination for more than 75 per cent of its population within 18 months is a huge public health success story. And, what’s more, the vaccines were doled out free.

The Hasina government has been praised by the UN for its forward-looking strategies in handling climate change.

Long way to go

Hasina herself knows and admits there is a long way to go. But her vision is clear and goals well set by 2041, Bangladesh wants to be a developed nation, having already graduated from the stable of Least Developing Countries (LDC). The question that many however chose to ask – what after Hasina?  A valid question which she, more than anyone else, needs to find an answer to – sooner than later.

(The writer is a former BBC correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)