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Tuesday, June 7, 2011
OP-ED

How Padma Bridge will be built

Photo: STAR

Everywhere I go in Bangladesh, people tell me how happy they are that Padma Bridge will be built. Their happiness is understandable: the bridge will bring exceptional economic and social benefits for the people of Bangladesh, and is a critical link for the broader ambition of a trans-Asian Highway. Such are the expected benefits that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project can -- without hyperbole -- be described as "transformational" for the country.

Two questions invariably follow the initial expressions of satisfaction: When will construction begin? When will it be finished? To these, a third question must be added: how will corruption be prevented in constructing the bridge? Let me answer these queries from the perspective of the World Bank, which serves as the coordinating agency among the external co-financiers.

When will construction begin? The answer is that it already has. Some of the most important construction work occurs long before piles are driven deep into the river bed. Land must be acquired, compensation paid and families resettled for the estimated 76,000 Bangladeshis directly affected by the massive civil works, which include the bridge itself, and also 12 kilometers of river training works, approach roads and adjacent toll plazas.

To create five resettlement sites, land must be raised by over five meters using dredged material from the river in order to construct schools, clinics, markets, municipal lighting and housing plots. Large-scale earthworks are also needed to create raised construction yards where components are manufactured and assembled to construct the bridge. This critical work has been underway for the past seven months. More than 60% of physical work for the resettlement site has been completed. Down at the river, you can see structures rising at the resettlement sites and talk to families who have been compensated for their land.

When will construction be finished? The answer depends on the efficiency and transparency of project implementation, which would suffer if tainted by corruption. Large infrastructure projects can be a magnet for corruption throughout the world. Bangladesh suffers from governance weaknesses and entrenched corruption which undermine the efforts of many dedicated Bangladeshi individuals to reduce poverty and accelerate development.

At the World Bank, we recognise that we are working with Bangladeshis to fight poverty within a challenging governance environment. In everything we do here, we seek to strengthen governance and reduce corruption risks at the country level, across our portfolio and in individual projects. The Padma Bridge -- combining large-scale infrastructure with a weak governance environment -- is the definition of a high-risk, high-reward project.

How will corruption be prevented in constructing the bridge? The World Bank has worked closely with the government and other co-financiers to put in place exceptional measures to reduce corruption risks under the project. Most of these measures affect how government bids out and awards large contracts under the project. They include a special prequalification and two-stage bidding process for exceptional scrutiny of quality and integrity; a strict mapping of individuals with access to procurement information; financial and conflict-of-interest disclosure by public officials involved in the project; bidder disclosure of agents; reinforced bid evaluation committees; strict enforcement of public right to information; expanded grievance mechanisms; oversight by an independent expert panel; and appointment of a project integrity advisor reporting directly to the prime minister on governance concerns.

The World Bank has taken the unusual step of reviewing all bids (usually done by the evaluation committee alone) and expanding our legal rights to inspect and audit bidders' accounts and records in an attempt to minimise the risk of corruption under the project.

With these measures in place, we still cannot entirely eliminate the risk of corruption under the Padma Bridge Project. Our goal is to minimise corruption risks, but take action against any evidence of corruption to ensure construction of a high-quality bridge. Credible allegations of fraud and corruption will be investigated, and substantiated evidence will be acted upon.

When our Managing Director, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, visited here last month, she stated that the World Bank will have "zero tolerance" for corruption under the Padma Bridge Project. I believe this stance is shared by most Bangladeshis. It's your bridge and -- with a nearly $3 billion price tag -- you deserve the best bridge that money can buy. It should be beautiful and functional, creating economic opportunities, fostering regional cooperation and transforming peoples' lives for generations to come.

The Prime Minister, the Honourable Sheikh Hasina, has called for efficient and transparent implementation of the Padma Bridge Project, and has embraced the need for exceptional measures to reduce corruption risks. She has taken a courageous and principled stance on behalf of the Bangladeshi people, and we are committed to working with her government and other stakeholders to deliver on her vision.

If procurement and contracting are done fairly and transparently, then bridge construction will move faster. If procurement processes become tainted, they will be halted and repeated with greater oversight, adding to the time needed to finish the bridge. While speed is desirable, the quality of preparation for what will be the largest infrastructure asset in Bangladesh should not be compromised.

Thus far, the Bridge Authority and the co-financiers have followed an agreed timetable without major delay. Indeed, progress to date has been surprisingly good for a project of this remarkable size and complexity. This speaks of the sincerity and dedication of many involved in the day-to-day implementation of the bridge, including public officials, civil society organisations, co-financiers and affected households.

Some people believe that the World Bank imposes conditions that make it difficult to complete priority projects. This is an outdated image of the World Bank if ever it was true, and is certainly not the case for the Padma Bridge project, where government is unencumbered by donor-driven conditions. All we ask is that the government implement the project efficiently and transparently for the good of the nation. I believe the people of Bangladesh want this too, and deserve a world-class bridge built to the highest quality standards in record time. Together we can achieve this.

The writer is Country Director, World Bank Bangladesh.

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