Bridge over the River Padma

In Bangladesh, corrupt politicians are nothing new but the World Bank’s decision to pull out of a loan is unprecedented.

It’s a drama involving corrupt politicians, bribing Canadian executives and $1.2bn of World Bank money to build a bridge over the Padma River in Bangladesh.  

Abul Hossain is a small man with deep pockets who is a self-proclaimed holy man. He also happens to be Bangladesh’s ex-communication minister accused of asking for bribes from two executives of Canadian construction giant SNC Lavalin.

Eager to get the contract to build the bridge, the two executives dressed in their finest suits obliged to the then-communication minister’s demand. Except someone, somewhere, blew the whistle, and told the World Bank.

The bank took the allegation seriously. After all, this is the largest loan disbursed for a project in the bank’s history, so it took action.

The 2 SNC Lavalin executives are being investigated by Canadian authorities for corruption.

And the bank’s vice president of integrity flew to Dhaka to ask the prime minister and her finance minister to take action against the politician involved in the bribes.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina responded by removing Abul Hossain from the communication ministry. Instead he now is now a cabinet minister for Information and Communication Technology.

On Monday, the world bank and the Asian Development Bank announced that they would pull out of the project because of credible evidence of corruption by senior Bangladeshi officials.

In Bangladesh, corrupt politicians are nothing new but the World Bank’s decision to pull out of a loan is unprecedented.

All of this comes as no surprise to the people living on the banks of the Padma River. For years, successive governments promised the construction of a bridge.

30 million people are cut off from the rest of the country by a river that looks more like a sea. Our cameraman Shaon and I took the boat to travel across the river.

It takes two hours to travel across the six kilometres river. The currents are strong and the boat is overloaded with people. As the boat rocked from side to side, we both felt seasick. We weren’t the only ones.

I asked the guy sitting next me what he thought about the whole bridge corruption debacle. He said: “We’ve been waiting for a bridge for years. We can wait a bit longer, but there are certain things we can never get used to.” He then pulled out a bag to vomit.

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