Govt needs to come up with clear roadmap on Padma bridge
EVER since the World Bank decided to cancel its $1.2 billion credit for the Padma multipurpose bridge project on the ground of ‘credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials’, the Awami League-Jatiya Party government has responded to the crisis with contempt and confusion. The incumbents have, on the one hand, alleged that the World Bank’s decision was part of a conspiracy hatched at home and abroad to undermine the image of Bangladesh and its people and, on the other, expressed optimism that the multilateral lending agency will review its decision.
On Monday, according to reports front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, while the cabinet endorsed the prime ministerial proposal for construction of the multipurpose bridge with domestic funding and decided ‘not to approach the World Bank any further for a review of its decision’, the finance minister had a closed-door meeting with the local consultative group of 39 bilateral donors and multilateral agencies and later said, that the government wanted ‘the World Bank to review its decision.’ Meanwhile, the government sent a delegation to the UN-sponsored Development Cooperation Forum of the Economic and Social Council, apparently to hold negotiations with World Bank officials to revive the credit for the Padma bridge project.
The contradictions are too obvious to ignore and tends to indicate that the policymakers may not yet be certain how they should go about implementation of the project — with or without the World Bank. What is perhaps more worrying is that the government seems to have made the issue more about partisan image than national interest. First of all, any decision on domestic funding of such a colossal project needs to be well thought-out, and certainly not to be rushed into, which the incumbents seem to be doing. Secondly, Bangladesh is a resource-constrained country and simply not in a position to manage $2.9 billion dollar overnight. Thirdly, as economists have already indicated, domestic funding of the Padma bridge construction is likely to result in severe macroeconomic instability; inflation could go up and foreign exchange reserve could go down. The government’s imprudent, and extremely dubious, decision to go for power generation with quick rental plants has already disrupted macroeconomic stability severely. Overall, there needs to be a comprehensive roadmap for the government to follow should it stick to the decision to construct the bridge with domestic funds.
However, even before such a roadmap has been finalised, let alone made public or deliberated upon, ideas seem to be flying in from all directions about ways to mobilise domestic resources for the project. A key functionary of the government even advised the Bangladesh Chhatra League, which has earned notoriety as rent-seeker since the incumbents came to office, to raise funds to this end. There has also been the suggestion to impose a Tk 0.25 surcharge on each mobile phone call. On Monday, the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University announced that there would soon be ‘a meeting to collect money from the teachers, students and officers according to their capacity.’ Late last week, the Bangladesh Insurance Academy also expressed its willingness to invest Tk 110 billion in the project.
Such outpouring of ‘patriotic’ sentiment is indeed commendable; however, it drowns out another key concern: transparency and accountability in public expenditure. The Padma Bridge is not the first project to be riddled with corruption controversy. Similar allegations have also been raised in case of the quick rental power plants and, of late, the space satellite project. Simply put, the government suffers from a serious credibility crisis insofar as management of fund, external or internal, is concerned.
Overall, there seem to be a lot of questions to answer and confusions to dispel before the government goes ahead with construction of the Padma multipurpose bridge with domestic funding. The onus is on the government to prove it is not a partisan ego trip but a question of national pride and priority. Hence, it needs to come up with a roadmap for its plan and make it public; after all, it is the people who will ultimately finance it.
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