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Collateral damage

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


Top donors' cancellation of loans for construction of a bridge on the Padma River in Bangladesh is old news. A fascinating side drama is now unfolding that threatens to bring collateral damage larger than the fact of loan cancellation itself. The ruling Aawami League government taking to the maxim offence is the best defence has seemingly pitted itself against the international community. While the corruption allegations that underlay the loan cancellation continue to fester away, a combative partisan counter-attack is confusing targets and goals alike.

The first and foremost confusion is about the apparent nature of the choice before the nation: World Bank loan versus own financing. The rhetoric of own financing currently swirling around gives an impression of being able to tap into accumulated or potential savings. But clearly this is not the case. As per the government's statements, own financing would in a large measure entail resorting to the money and capital market or alternative loan arrangements. The choice thus is really is not between a loan (by the World Bank-led consortium) and dipping into one's own pockets. At bottom, the choice is between two different kinds of burdens -- the burden of a loan by the World Bank-led consortium and the burden of alternative financing through bonds and other instruments including curtailing other types of priority expenditures. The much hyped contributions by the people here is more accurately a matter of symbolism rather than a major source of actual financing needs. The choice then is really a matter of professional comparison of the two types of burdens that include interest burden, size of user fee, foregone income (in case of build–operate–transfer options).

In developing a viable proposal for rescuing the Padma Bridge, the government is not being helped by the furiously competitive sycophancy that has seemingly been let loose by the government's own rhetoric. While the common citizen has a genuine interest in participating in credible nation-building efforts, the spectacle we are being treated to are more cases of what in popular Bangla idiom is known as porer dhone poddari. Already students of one public university have raised questions as to how their VC could declare a donation despite their severe cash-strapped status. And now we have seen the ugly spectre of violence in another public university by ruling party student activists squabbling over cash collection ostensibly for Padma Bridge. If anything, such sycophantic frenzy is merely producing a questionable political spectacle rather than contributing to the development of a viable strategy to move ahead on the stalled bridge programme.

The uncertainty over the Padma Bridge due to loan cancellation by the World Bank is certainly not the end of the world as far as Bangladesh's long-term developmental viability is concerned. The government is understandably aggrieved because one of its electoral commitments has become uncertain. But neither desperation nor ill-conceived quick-fix solutions are the way forward. There is plenty of goodwill for Bangladesh within the international arena. Indeed, on many of its social and economic achievements, Bangladesh continues to enjoy admiration within the global imagination. Harnessing this goodwill goes entirely to our advantage whether it is for a new strategy for the stalled bridge or simply to address the myriad challenges of graduating to a middle income status. The choice really is not one of bowing to international counsel or standing on one's own as some feverish voices would have it. Self-reliance can become an empty rhetoric if it merely becomes a trade in blame game devoid of credible strategising. We have to stand tall not by making others look short but by the maturity of our own strategies and initiatives. This is why one is astounded and worried by the extremely cavalier tone in which specifics of the bridge strategy are being commented upon at highest levels. For example can one seriously go ahead on such a large infrastructural project on the basis of having mobilised only the first year's fund requirement without clarity and assurance on the overall financing plan?

Government will be wise to take a pause on the bridge issue and avoid rushing into ill-judged and hasty initiatives. Padma Bridge is not a do-or-die electoral compulsion however much sycophantic voices shout otherwise. The collateral damage in a worsening relationship with the international community and greater instability in public finances is a far more immediate concern. The way forward lies in restoring public confidence on the corruption allegations and initiating a credible strategy to re-start the bridge proposal. World Bank's loans are certainly dispensable. But not so our maturity and integrity.

The writer is Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), and former Adviser to Caretaker Government.


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