Dhaka, Bangladesh – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has inaugurated a landmark bridge over the turbulent Padma River after years of delay due to allegations of corruption that forced the World Bank to walk away from the nearly $4bn mega project, which will connect Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka to the underdeveloped northwestern region of the country.
The opening on Saturday of the eponymous Padma Bridge – Bangladesh’s longest bridge to date which has been dubbed a “symbol of national pride” – marks a momentous occasion in the South Asian nation’s history.
The construction of the 6.15km (3.82 miles) bridge began in November 2015 to connect 21 districts of the country’s southwestern region with Dhaka via road and rail, thereby cutting travel time considerably.
It usually takes 15 to 22 hours to cover a distance of 180-300km (111-186 miles) between the districts of the northeast region and Dhaka.
The double-layer steel truss bridge incorporates a four-lane highway on an upper level along with a single-track railway on the lower level.
With a construction cost of $3.87bn, this is one of the largest mega projects Bangladesh has ever undertaken and the entire amount is financed by the Bangladesh government.
In 2012, the World Bank had withdrawn from a $1.2bn loan agreement for the project following allegations of corruption. Following suit, other donors, including Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), also pulled out of the project.
Hasina, who spearheaded efforts to build the bridge, famously declared that her government would self-fund the project.
Her decision faced a battery of scepticism from the country’s economists as well as political opponents since Bangladesh did not have any experience in building such mega infrastructure without financial support from multilateral donors.
“Some people said we would always be beholden to others, but our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman taught us the importance of self-respect,” Hasina said, addressing a sea of people on Saturday.
Sheikh Rahman was Bangladesh’s founding father who led the movement to secede from Pakistan in 1971.
“This Padma Bridge is not a pile of brick and cement, but a symbol of Bangladesh’s pride, honour and ability,” she said.
“We have shown the world that we can.”
An engineering marvel
Terming it as an “engineering marvel”, experts say the construction of the bridge is a great feat as the Padma is the most “treacherous and unpredictable” river after the Amazon River of South America.
China’s state-owned Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group (RMBEG) was tasked to lead the construction of the bridge with the help of about 1,200 Bangladeshi engineers.
With steel piles being driven 122 metres (400 feet) deep into the river bed, Padma Bridge has the record of having the deepest piling among all the bridges in the world.
The bridge project director, Shafiqul Islam, told Al Jazeera that the water that flows at Mawa point (one end of the bridge) every 20 seconds is equal to the total amount of water used in Dhaka city a day.
“After Amazon, Padma has the strongest current [roughness in water] in the world. So we had to go for piling that is the thickest and deepest in the world,” he said.
Mentioning another unique feature of the bridge, Islam said, modern friction pendulum bearings (FPB) have been used to support the steel superstructure and the concrete pier foundation.
“Such bearings have never been used anywhere in the world before and they can withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake,” he said, adding that the bridge bearings can sustain more than 10,000 tonnes, exceeding the limit of any other structure in the world.
Islam said as they faced a plethora of engineering challenges, the cost of the project rose to almost three times the initial estimate of $1.2bn.
“Besides, the devaluation of Bangladeshi currency Taka has played a major role in raising the cost, as more than half of the project’s expenditure has been paid in foreign currency.”
Why a significant structure?
Located some 68km (42 miles) from Dhaka, the Padma Bridge will work as a gateway to the country’s southwestern region and will significantly reduce travel time between Dhaka and major southeastern districts, including Khulna, Jessore and Barishal.
It will also slash the distance between Dhaka and Bangladesh’s second-largest seaport, Mongla, by 100km (62 miles).
The mighty Padma separates the southwest region from Dhaka and people are forced to travel on ferries or launches that make slow journeys. Perishable goods transported to Dhaka from southwestern districts by truck often rot because on the long trip that can sometimes take 22-24 hours due to the long tailback in ferry stations.
According to a study by the government-run Bridge Division, the Padma Bridge will save a total of 187,727 hours of waiting for ferries per day for 2,620 vehicles. It is estimated that with the opening of the bridge, about 24,000 vehicles will cross the river every day – a significant jump from the current number of 2,620.
The study also pointed out that the economic impact of the bridge will help increase the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of the southwest region by 2.5 percent and the overall GDP of the country by more than 1.23 percent.
Economist Selim Raihan, who conducted a study on the economic impact of the bridge, said its main benefit is that it will connect southwestern districts – known for fishing and agriculture – to the economic lifeline of Bangladesh – the Dhaka-Chattogram economic corridor.
“As communication and transportation over Padma River had been solely reliant on ferries, much industrialisation didn’t take place in the southwestern districts so far,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Readymade garment sector – Bangladesh’s most prominent industry and main export earner – has remained completely absent from those districts.”
“I believe, investors and industrialists will be interested to invest there that will spark a massive economic growth.”