It was like “a dream comes true”. Overcoming all the obstacles, including uncertainty regarding its international funding, the vision that one day Bangladesh would be able to begin structuring Padma Bridge with its own finance was considered as an unbelievable imagination by many. However, Padma Bridge is no longer a dream. It has now become a visible reality as the first span of the country’s dream multipurpose structure was installed between Pillar No 37 and Pillar No 38 at Zajira point of the Padma River on September 30. When the World Bank came out with an allegation of corruption conspiracy in constructing the Padma Bridge, all hell broke loose. From the rural tea stalls to television talk shows, it turned into the only topic of discussion in the entire Bangladesh. In a statement issued on June 29, 2012, the World Bank said that it had credible evidence confirmed by a variety of sources that points to conspiracy among the government officials of Bangladesh, SNC-Lavalin — one of the five companies short-listed for the construction supervision contract of the bridge project— executives, and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project. The World Bank alleged that the Canadian company staff had planned to bribe Bangladesh officials in a bid to win a $50 million contract to supervise the Padma Bridge construction. The World Bank threatened cancellation of the International Development Association (IDA) credit unless all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption scheme are sent on leave and special enquiry team is formed within the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to handle the investigation.
Being completely embarrassed by the accusation, Bangladesh government met the World Bank demands and sent all the government officials who were suspected of the alleged corruption plan on leave until the investigation is completed, followed by a special inquiry and prosecution team within the ACC to handle the investigation and granted access to all investigative information to an external panel of internationally recognised experts who advised the World Bank and co-financiers on the credibility of the government’s investigations. Senior government officials, including the then bridges secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan were arrested and communications minister Syed Abul Hossain had to step down. PM’s Adviser Moshiur Rahman was also sent on forced leave. But, later the investigation by Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission found no proof of the allegation. Although talks had revived but Bangladesh ultimately withdrew its request for funds in January 2013. The World Bank, however, rejected Bangladesh’s findings and withdrew the promised fund of US$ 1.2 billion for the project. Five years later in 2017, a Canadian Court did not find any single evidence of Padma Bridge Bribery Conspiracy and acquitted three former top executives of SNC Lavalin and dismissed the case at the request of the prosecution which proved beyond any doubt that the World Bank had brought allegation of corruption conspiracy against Bangladesh based on hearsay and gossips!
Actually the Bank had done such a deed about which there was no real evidence neither for the accusation against the Bangladesh officials nor for cancellation of the project. The case against the Canadian company rested on whether they were trying to corrupt the selection process in their favour. WB said nothing specifically that where the actual corruption was. To cover what had been done the World Bank appointed a three-person committee to investigate the matter. This group essentially wanted something to justify the action of the Bank if the Bank’s participation was restored. The PM refused to give it to them. Unable to save face the Bank decided to permanently pull out of the project to the dismay of the JICA and the ADB! It seemed that the World Bank in other way blamed that they couldn’t prove the allegation as the Bangladesh government didn’t provide necessary documents, but the same organisation once had claimed that it had credible evidence confirmed by a variety of sources that points to the conspiracy. How ironic is it that throughout the process of accusation the World Bank couldn’t justify their claim and they refused to face the scrutiny to stand for their own accusation.
The World Bank, a major post-Second World War financial institution, provides conditional loans to its members to implement different development projects. It has no agreement or overarching protocol to which all its members are parties that precisely articulates its underlying core lending principles and policies. This flexibility allows the World Bank to be arbitrary, discriminatory and maintain double standards in considering loan applications and setting loan conditionality. This attitude also brings geopolitical and geostrategic consideration of its major western shareholders as the decisive factor in decision-making. And being the largest shareholder with a de facto veto power on the decision-making, the US enjoys and exercises extraordinary power over the World Bank, which is used as an institutional tool to advance US interests and serve the cause of allies. Bangladesh has become the victim of this formidable political pressure and influence which presumably compelled the World Bank to decline the Padma Bridge loan on flimsy pretext of perceived corruption that judicially proved to be non-existent.
Both the charges of corruption as well as the cancellation of credit line of US$ 1.2 billion hurt Bangladesh in many ways and should not be allowed to pass unchallenged. WB’s rejection on the ground of alleged corruption was perceived as it was yet to release any part of the loan for the project. Due to the arbitrary decision of the World Bank Bangladesh has counted financial loss and its image has been ruined internationally. Although neither the World Bank nor SNC Lavalin are involved in the project anymore, the government of Bangladesh is nonetheless moving ahead with the Padma Bridge, and has contracted with a Chinese firm for the construction. Since the World Bank withdrew its involvement, the estimated cost of the bridge has climbed up. The budget of Padma Bridge project has finally increased to Tk. 28,793.38 crore which is almost three times higher than the original estimate. The project, when approved in 2007, was supposed to cost Tk. 10,162 crore, but in 2011 it was revised upwards to Tk. 20,507 crore. And the expected completion date is being pushed back to 2020 though it was first scheduled to be completed in 2015. Thus Bangladesh government is spending additional amount of public money for the project as it is delayed. A timely implementation of the Padma Bridge project could boost up the country’s GDP, but it is now dragged into a dilly dallying process and hampering the overall progress. As Bangladesh is constructing the Padma Bridge with its own funding, it is ultimately creating enormous pressure on our internal economy. And Bangladesh is facing all these after-effects as the project is delayed due to the irresponsible accusation of the World Bank.
Another important fact is that Bangladesh had to suffer from image crisis in the world arena due to baseless accusation by the World Bank. There were allegations about corruption in different sectors of Bangladesh, but all these were limited to the country. But when an international organization like the World Bank accused Bangladesh of corruption, it created certain negative impacts and damaged the reputation of Bangladesh worldwide. As a developing country Bangladesh has been seeking foreign investment in Bangladesh. The country tried hard to convince them so that they come in a large number to invest and it also took a number of steps so that they feel comfortable to finance here. But due to the unexpected accusation of the World Bank these foreign investors fell into dilemma whether their investment in Bangladesh would be safe or not. Consequently many investors stepped back.
World Bank began its mission to fight extreme poverty, but in the 1990s the Bank added another aim to fighting against corruption as a core principle. In 2013, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim referred to corruption as “Public Enemy Number One,” suggesting that a willingness to confront corruption is crucial in working to end extreme poverty. Cancellation of this project sent signals to all recipients of the World Bank funds that the World Bank is serious about its fight against corruption and is willing to stand against corrupt governments. But, the fact of irony is that recently Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), who came to Dhaka in 2012 to monitor the progress of the alleged Padma Bridge corruption investigation, is back on the spotlight for his alleged behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to help high profile suspects escape trial. The leaked documents of European Investigative Collaborations, which include over 40,000 cross-checked documents, says Ocampo has been making lots of money since leaving the ICC. The prosecutor must be a person ‘of high moral character’, says the ICC’s Statute, but EIC documents reveal that while he was in office, Ocampo held offshore bank accounts and companies in tax havens. Leaked Investigative documents linked the former prosecutor in a scheme to aide some individuals from trial, Kenyan 2007-08 post-election violence cases being one of them. It opens the door to be suspicions about his morality. When a corrupt official investigates corruption, any accusation of corruption becomes nothing but a joke. Besides it also creates question over the commitment of that particular organisation as they rely on such people to take important decisions regarding development projects of different countries.
When the World Bank accused Bangladeshi officials of corruption, it seriously hampered the image of Bangladesh. The way Bangladesh has bounced back from that situation and decided to construct the all-important bridge has certainly created a bold statement about Bangladesh’s ability to emerge. But if we dig a little more deep, we find two significant factors. First one is the economic loss that Bangladesh has to count for this accusation. Bangladesh government should think about a recovery if there is any chance to get any compensation for the unwanted loss of its image. The second factor is that we have to rethink about our whole system that is struggling to fight against the corruption. The long practice of corruption in our different sectors and the public experience regarding this has helped World Bank to create a perception in favour of their illogical allegation. In the last 46 years, respective governments have repeatedly failed to act against the corrupt people in Bangladesh. No country is free from corruption and no country can bring an end to it. In this regard important thing is that how different countries of the world are trying to reduce corruption. Being a lower-middle income country, Bangladesh is aiming to become a middle-income country initially and then a developed one. On the way to this dream many development projects will be implemented and many foreign investors will come to invest here. Bangladesh government has to develop a perfect system with the help of mass people so that no one can dare to bring any false accusation against us in the future.