By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
A gleaming airport terminal and gargantuan nuclear plant are among big-ticket infrastructure projects that Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League has been inaugurating early and promoting as it campaigns for reelection, although these are incomplete.
Critics of Sheikh Hasina’s government say that its self-praise for building such projects is an attempt to shift scrutiny away from democratic backsliding in the South Asian country, which her party has ruled for the past 14 years.
When she inaugurated a rail project on Tuesday, the prime minister flaunted it as proof that her government delivers.
“The Awami League has brought you independence. It has brought you the Padma Bridge, improved road connectivity, allowed your children to attend schools and universities, and only the Awami League changed your fate,” she told supporters at a rally afterward. “So my appeal to you is to vote for the Awami League government so that it can continue serving you.”
At the time Bangladesh fought to establish its independence from Pakistan in 1971, the Awami League represented the movement toward a free nation.
The ruling party has long used infrastructure projects as tangible proof of prosperity during its uninterrupted rule since 2009. But its arch-rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party has played down the significance of those achievements even though, when the BNP was in power, to a certain degree it also boasted about its own infrastructure-building program.
“There are precedents for this in the past. In 1968, Ayub Khan celebrated a decade of development, and the following year, he suffered a humiliating fall as a result of a popular uprising,” said Zahir Uddin Swapan, a former BNP lawmaker. “This Awami League government will also collapse in disgrace.”
Ayub Khan, a military general, ruled Pakistan from 1958 to 1969. Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, was part of Pakistan during his tenure.
Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a former professor at Chittagong University, said infrastructure projects historically have acted as an easy vote-getter, as he commented on the ruling party’s penchant for talking about them in glowing terms on the campaign trail.
He also cautioned about foreign funds that the government had borrowed to implement them.
“Almost all of these mega projects are being constructed with foreign loans,” he said. “We should think about what will happen to our country when repayment will be due.”
In 2014, the opposition boycotted that year’s general election, leaving the ruling party to win mostly uncontested seats. In polls in 2018, the ruling coalition secured victories in more than 90% of the constituencies amid widespread allegations of fraud.
Citing a lack of confidence in Hasina’s willingness to conduct a free election in the upcoming polls, the BNP has threatened to boycott the election again and demanded that an impartial interim government be appointed ahead of the vote, scheduled for December or January 2024. Her party has steadfastly rejected the demand.
Western countries have pressed Hasina’s government to hold free and fair polls, with the U.S. threatening to impose visa restrictions against people suspected of tampering with the vote. Citing human rights concerns, the United States has also imposed sanctions on officials connected with the Rapid Action Battalion, a police unit accused of committing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance under Hasina’s government.
Works in progress
In 2022, the year marking Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of nationhood, Hasina inaugurated the Padma Bridge, the country’s largest-ever infrastructure project, to much fanfare. The U.S. $3.6 billion project was touted as a symbol of pride for the South Asian nation of 160 million people.
The 172-km (107-mile) rail project, which she inaugurated on Oct. 10, is an extension of the bridge project and will cost another $3.5 billion, with more than half financed through loans from China.
Citing project officials, the Dhaka Tribune reported in May that the rail project was only 75% completed.
In December 2022, Hasina also opened a stretch of the Japan-funded metro project in Dhaka.
She is set to inaugurate another stretch of the $2.82 billion project by month’s end, according to officials.
In September, Hasina inaugurated the Dhaka Elevated Expressway, an elevated highway meant to ease Dhaka’s traffic congestion, although only 60% of the 19.73-km (12.25-mile) highway has been finished. A Chinese engineering company is building the highway at a cost of $789 million.
On Oct. 5, Hasina joined Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually at a ceremony to mark the formal handover of uranium to Bangladesh for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, a $12.65 billion project built and financed by Russia.
Although Bangladesh officials hailed the country’s entry into an elite club of nuclear powers at the time, electricity generated from the plant will not be included on the national grid until 2025.
Two days later, Hasina inaugurated a wing of the new terminal at Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, although the passengers will not have immediate access to the terminal.
The Japan-funded project comes with a price tag of $1.7 billion.
By the end of this month, The Bangladesh leader will inaugurate a tunnel under the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong, a major city.
The underwater expressway, named after Hasina’s father, is being built by a Chinese company at a cost of $1.1 billion, half of which will be financed by China.
Officials expect the tunnel to be fully open by April 2024.
Muhammad Faruk Khan, an influential Awami League lawmaker, said yet-to-be-completed projects would still serve the public.
“We are opening the mega projects before their full completion because we want to inform the people ahead of the elections to what stage the government has implemented the projects,” he told BenarNews on Friday.
“At the same time, the people will get some level of benefits from the projects after the partial opening,” he added.
Swapan, the BNP leader, however, cast doubt on whether the public would be persuaded by the glitz of the new developments.
“They want to show what they have done by inaugurating the partially built projects,” he said.
“But the people of the country will not take that into account,” he told BenarNews, adding, “Without democracy, no development projects can protect an undemocratic government from the wrath of the public,” he said.