It was a cloudy morning in Mawa. Monsoon rainclouds were looming on the horizon, as the much-anticipated Padma Bridge awaited its inauguration. But even the monsoon would not have the audacity to cause rain to fall on today's parade, at least not until the bridge had been inaugurated.
Because it was a day unlike any other – a momentous occasion in the history of Bangladesh – one that celebrates the sheer grit and determination of its leader in Sheikh Hasina, the resilience of its people, and serves as an appropriate response to naysayers, some of whom had cautioned against the construction of the bridge while others hoped for its failure.
But putting an end to all fiction and speculation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina finally inaugurated the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, twenty-four years after the Awami League government first took the initiative to build the bridge in 1998. She also unveiled a mural containing a painting of the visionaries of the bridge: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sheikh Hasina herself.
"The Padma Bridge has been completed. Bangladesh's economy has not collapsed. The country is moving forward at a breakneck pace. We have proved to the world that we can," the premier said during her speech at the inauguration ceremony of Padma Bridge Saturday.
"Padma Bridge is therefore not only a bridge to prove one's self-esteem and ability of the Bangalees, but also revenge for the insult that was done to the entire nation. The people of Bangladesh are the source of my courage. I salute them," she said.
Sheikh Hasina expressed her gratitude to all engineers, officials, and employees involved in the construction of the Padma Bridge, local and foreign experts, consultants, contractors, engineers, technicians, workers, and members of the army.
She remembered Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and prayed for the salvation of his departed soul. She also wished eternal peace for the souls of those, associated with the construction of the Padma Bridge, who died.
She also thanked the people living on both sides of the Padma Bridge whose lands and houses have been acquired for the bridge.
As people often say, the harder the climb, the greater the view. That's what must have been going through the mind of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she alighted from the Mercedes Maybach after paying the first toll on the bridge and looked around, at the horizon of the mighty Padma River, as the Bangladesh Air Force serenaded the monsoon clouds in the red and green of Bangladesh.
The dreams of her father, the hopes of millions of citizens of Bangladesh and the perseverance of her and her colleagues and well-wishers had finally borne fruit.
The construction of the multipurpose Padma Bridge was a remarkable feat in a great many ways. Firstly, building a bridge across the second-most turbulent river in the world with high sedimentation rates required the deepest piling (128 metres) in any river bridge the world had ever seen. This feat – in and of itself – was equivalent to an engineering marvel.
On top of that, the bridge would connect South Bengal to the rest of the country and reportedly increase the GDP growth rate of the country by 1.23% in the coming years. Most importantly, it would save countless lives that would have been lost awaiting the arrival of ferries. Despite its arguably somewhat excessive costs, the Padma Bridge would be remembered as a landmark achievement in Bangladesh.
But unlike what the cynics would suggest, it wasn't only the government officials or party leaders who were ecstatic about the inauguration of the bridge. From Mirkat Sheikh who came all the way from Bagerhat to Abdur Rahman, a 51-year-old resettled citizen who had to give up his land to facilitate the construction of the bridge, everyone was eagerly waiting to witness first-hand the momentous inauguration of the bridge.
As Mirkat said, "I am a village doctor, I travel to Dhaka very often. It used to take me at least 5-7 hours to reach the capital. But now it will take only three hours."
"Now I can come back home from Dhaka the same day," he added.
The unbridled excitement of the laypeople could not be better manifested than the swarms of people literally storming the protective barriers to walk on the bridge for the first time. But then there were those who hired launches and trawlers simply to celebrate the opening of the bridge.
One such daring individual was Mintu who, along with his friends, had crossed through the barbed wires to get on the bridge.
"When we saw one or two cars going onto the bridge, we knew that by hook or by crook, we had to get on the bridge today," said Mintu.
But as Mintu and his friends crossed halfway through the bridge, the police charged at them with sticks and forced them to get down.
Despite being beaten back by the police, Mintu had no regrets as he said, "If we could not get on the bridge today, I would die of heartbreak!"
The celebrations were not restricted to the areas around the bridge, but had spread out to the entirety of the country in different ways.
District administrations, local organisations, political parties and educational institutions brought out rallies, organised meetings, cultural programmes, concerts and celebratory events to mark the historic day. The whole inauguration ceremony was broadcast live across the country, using projectors as crowds of people cheered on enthusiastically. In some cities, symbolic Padma Bridges were built for people who could not attend the inaugural ceremony.
The completion of the bridge was also hailed internationally. From Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to Japanese Ambassador Ito Naoki to the US embassy, everyone lauded Bangladesh's unilateral efforts to bring this mammoth mega project into reality. Even the World Bank – which had accused project affiliates of bribery and embezzlement and scrapped funding for the project in 2012 – hailed the Bangladesh government's commitment to the construction of the bridge.
That's not to say the road has always been this rosy and the effort has been so acclaimed. Quite on the contrary, from the Padma being the second-most turbulent river in the world to the risk of self-financing a mega project – the journey was rather exasperating as well as exhausting, as pointed out by the Prime Minister herself in her emotional yet poignant inaugural remarks.
Moreover, there wasn't any shortage of such entities thanks to whom, the completion of the bridge – from planning, feasibility testing and land acquisition to the eventual construction of the bridge – went through many trials and tribulations and had been delayed for so many decades.
Firstly, had it not been for the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the subsequent troubled period in Bangladesh's political landscape, we probably could have celebrated this day long ago. Apparently, Japan was even supposed to test the feasibility of a bridge over the Padma River. But none of that would be followed through for more than two decades because of Bangabandhu's life being put to an untimely end by a dark conspiracy on August 15, 1975.
Twenty-three years later, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League took the initiative to build the bridge and even laid the foundation stone of the project in 2001. But then the BNP government assumed power in 2001 and the project was put on hold indefinitely until 2007, when the erstwhile caretaker government finally approved the project. In April 2011, the World Bank even signed a deal with the newly-elected Awami League government approving $1.2 billion to finance the project.
It was a surprise, though, when the World Bank accused the project affiliates of bribery and conspiracy and took itself out of the financing of the project, despite the Awami League government's firm refusal to acknowledge that any conspiracy of corruption had been committed. In July 2012, in a rather bold declaration, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that Bangladesh would go on to self-finance the construction of the Padma Bridge.
As expected, only a handful of people thought such a daring dream would ever come to fruition, that too in a least-developed country like Bangladesh often reliant on foreign aid and loans for development.
But against all odds and despite multiple delays, revisions, design flaws and subsequent cost escalations, Sheikh Hasina and the people of Bangladesh were in triumphant mode today as the first convoy of motor vehicles crossed the mighty Padma from Mawa to Jazira.
In the end, the Padma Bridge means a lot of different things to a great many people. To economists, it is a symbol of regional connectivity and economic progress with trans-Asian potential. To the people of South Bengal, it is a symbol of comfort and ease of communication. But most importantly, as the Prime Minister pointed out in her inaugural remarks, it is a symbol of self-reliance and a manifestation of the resilience of our everlasting, indomitable spirit.