"The Padma Bridge will change the face of the country," Khalilur Rahman, a pickup-van driver in Khulna, said.
He had just completed a journey from Dhaka to Khulna with his cargo of gas cylinders yesterday, the first day the 6.15km Padma Bridge was opened for traffic, and he was ecstatic. "This is probably the happiest day of my life. I have never had such a smooth journey on the road as I did today. I didn't even feel like I crossed the great Padma River," he said.
Although Khalilur had been making the trip for years, yesterday was different and so will be the days ahead of him.
The long 12-13 hour journeys for people in the south to reach the capital are now a thing of the past.
For instance, now one can reach Dhaka from Satkhira in around five hours. Previously, the wait at the ferry ghat, the only means to cross the Padma River on the way to the capital, alone would take four hours.
It used to take an average of 2-3 hours to cross the mighty river Padma on the ferries, but now it has been trimmed down to less than 10 minutes.
Motor vehicles can cross river Padma from Jajira in Shariatpur to Mawa in just 7-8 minutes using the bridge.
When the first bus to Shariatpur for Dhaka began its return journey from Sayedabad Bus Stand, Anisur Rahman was on board.
Two hours later, when it reached Shariatpur, Anisur was in disbelief.
"I never thought this could be possible in my lifetime. It seems that I have been transported to Shariatpur in my sleep," he said.
"When I was crossing the bridge, it seemed like I was no longer in what people call a poor country. It's such a big, beautiful bridge. I couldn't have even imagined this. It seems so strange, especially when I think about what this will do for our people in Shariatpur.
"I can meet everyone at home every day after my office ends in Dhaka. I know this is true, but it still feels so surreal."
Meanwhile, businesses focused on the south can already imagine their cash registers ringing much more than before.
The wait is over. The bridge is finally here.
The fanfare from Saturday's inauguration of the Padma Bridge had not faded given the anticipation surrounding it.
Long queues, mostly of motorcycles, had formed before the toll booth around two hours before the bridge officially opened.
The blight, however, did not worry commuters too, whose anticipation and excitement overshadowed everything else.
Ashkiul Islam, a passenger, said, "I left Sayedabad for Khulna at 8am. Once we reached the toll plaza of the Padma Bridge, we got into heavy traffic and waited for more than an hour. Later, I reached Khulna around 1pm," he said.
Returning to Dhaka, truck driver Rahmat Mia said, "It took me six hours to reach Khulna from Dhaka. But if there wasn't heavy traffic at the toll booth, then I could have reached it in 3.5 hours to four hours. Previously, it would take me 12-15 hours," he said.
A snapshot of the first impact of the Padma Bridge could be seen in Shimulia Ferry Ghat in Mawa, one of the busiest naval routes, which wore a deserted look on Sunday morning.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority's Shimulia River Port officer Shahadat Hossain said, "Launch and speed boats have been operating as usual since morning; however, the number of passengers is quite lower than usual."
Back at the bridge, it seems it had already begun paying for itself, and then some.
In the first eight hours of its opening, the bridge authority collected Tk82.19 lakh in toll, with 15,200 vehicles crossing it in that time.
All the way
For a long time, 21 districts in the southwestern part of the country had remained disconnected from the capital.
On 25 June, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina changed that, writing one of the region's most significant chapters.
The south can only grow from here on in. The only way is up.
Yakub Ali, a vegetable seller, is all ready to reap the benefits of the bridge.
He regularly buys vegetables from Mirasha farmers markets and sells those in Dhaka.
"The longer I waited at the ferry ghat, the less price my vegetables would fetch. There was a lot of loss. But today, I don't have to wait. I am leaving and will reach Dhaka by afternoon. I believe there will be no more losses."
Abdul Haque, former president of the Bangladesh Reconditioned Vehicles Importers and Dealers Association, said the bridge would cut both costs and time.
"Earlier, we had to go around from Goalundo, which added 70-80 kilometres to our journey. This will no longer be the case," he said.
"We will also benefit because this bridge will be an opportunity to improve the Mongla Port. The Chattogram Port is too busy now, so use of the Mongla Port will increase," he added.
The bridge is expected to expedite transporting goods to and from Mongla Port in Bagerhat and Bhomra land port in Satkhira, facilitating export trades and easing supplies of essentials in the domestic market.
Around 160 tonnes of shrimp are shipped to Dhaka every day from the Khulna region, while jute worth about Tk500 crore is exported through Mongla Port annually.
Furthermore, with the launch of the Padma Bridge, the Bhomra land port in Satkhira is also expected to see a surge in export-import activities with India.
In an earlier interview with The Business Standard, Ejaz Ahmed Swapan, a trader of Bhomra port, said, "Garment items, coconut husks, jute products and some products of Pran-RFL Group and Bengal Group are being exported from Bangladesh to India through Bhomra port.
"Within a year of the inauguration of the Padma Bridge, Bhomra port's revenue earnings will soar thanks to the bridge and a new Customs House," he added.
At present, the annual revenue collected through Bhomra land port is Tk800-1,000 crore. But the change has been evident on the first day of the bridge. On Sunday, the shift was palpable.
Thirty-five cargo trucks reached Dhaka from Bhomra land port in just 5.5 hours. Traders were delighted to see the travel time cut short from the earlier 7-10 hours.
Maksud Alam Khan, general secretary of the Bhomra C&F Agents Association, said the cargo trucks left the port for the capital at different times from morning.
"These trucks contain raw materials of fruits, dried chillies, stones, ceramic and cosmetics. The trucks reached the capital in five and a half hours after leaving Bhomra. Our suffering has ended for Padma Bridge," he told The Business Standard.
Alam also said most of the products such as wheat, husk and maize imported from India are distributed in nearby Kushtia, Meherpur and Jhenaidah.
"Very few trucks used to go to the capital. This is because there is no scope to import all the goods as there is no customs house in Bhomra port. Although the import of 57 products is allowed, only 30-35 products are imported," he said.
He also noted that the Bhomra land port customs house is scheduled to open next December hoping imports to increase after its launch.
Indeed, the Padma Bridge will unlock numerous potentials of the southern regions. According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the size of gross domestic product in the country would increase by 1.23% with the opening of the Padma Bridge.
It will also massively boost industrialisation in the south.
Avijit Chowdhury, executive member, Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, said, "Barguna is an area which has a strong economic focus on fish. Those fish, however, take a long time to come to Dhaka. This will not be the case any longer. At the same time, there are discussions on starting a food processing industry here.
"Southern regions have not been industrialised only because of a lack of proper communication channels. Now, things will change," he said.
The bridge won't be a shot in the arm reserved only for the fisheries industry, which earned over $477 million in fiscal 2020-21 by exporting 77,000 tonnes of processed shrimp and marine fish. The agriculture sector, among others, will also see a lift.
But, even discarding the economic hopes, the bridge is a win. Just ask the people.
The people's victory
When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Padma Bridge, she declared, "The bridge belongs to the people of Bangladesh."
On Sunday, the people fully expressed their gratitude.
Mohammad Babul Sheikh, 42, was at a loss for words. He was still overcome with emotion.
"I am taking a cargo of fish to Dhaka. Even a few days ago, the journey would take at least 11 hours. But this is no longer the case. I cannot express my joy honestly," he said.
Elsewhere, Rebecca Begum, a resident of Angaria Union in Shariatpur, thought she had been dreaming.
"I was waiting for the Padma Bridge inauguration. I even bought my ticket to Dhaka three days ago and boarded the first bus at 8:30am today. I can't express it in words," she said.
"I felt like I was in a dream and it was a dream that came true when I finally crossed the bridge and reached Mawa. I went and returned so fast that I barely had time to process the journey! I will go to my sister's house for a week and see the bridge of my dreams again. I can't think of anything else."
She, however, said, there was one regret. "I could not touch the bridge. I feel bad about that."
Mihir Chandra, who came to Dhaka from Shariatpur on the first bus over the bridge, also did not touch the bridge.
Instead he had a quick breakfast in Dhaka, did some shopping and was back home in Shariatpur for lunch.
"When I got out of my car, I actually had to pinch myself. I wanted to see if this was all real. I can't really say anything else. I can't express myself," he said.
While many could not fully articulate what they had been feeling, one thing was clear: the Padma Bridge was about to transform the fates of millions.
It was for Bangladesh, by Bangladesh.
Our Shariatpur and Khulna correspondents contributed to this report.