Within 24 hours of its grand opening, a controversial bridge in Bangladesh became a spectacle of chaos.
On Saturday, tens of thousands flocked to the grand opening of the Padma Bridge, which cost the government nearly $4 billion and took seven years to build amid allegations of rampant corruption and corner cutting over quality.
Among commuters over the weekend were some who decided to urinate from the bridge in the capital Dhaka, while a bus driver tore through a brand new toll booth barrier. Officials then beefed up security at the bridge and arrested one person on Sunday after videos of people unscrewing nuts and bolts, allegedly with their bare hands, went viral.
The two viral TikTok videos, which have since been taken down for unknown reasons, show the creators unscrewing the nuts and bolts as they highlight poor construction standards: “This is the Padma Bridge made of billions [of Bangladeshi taka],” he said. “Its unhinged screws are in my hands now.”
In the second video, the creator removed a bolt and put it back. “I did not need a wrench to take it off,” he said.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Dhaka confirmed a 10-day remand for 31-year-old Mohammad Bayezid, who posted the first video on Sunday. The second TikTok creator has not been caught.
At a press conference on Monday, a CID official said it wasn’t possible to unscrew bolts using just their hands. “The TikToker arrested for unscrewing the nuts and bolts has used tools,” he said.
The TikTok user has been booked under the Special Powers Act, which criminalises sabotaging or damaging government undertakings, and has previously been used to curb press freedom. CID officials warned that anyone else unscrewing bolts will be arrested. On Monday, another person was fined $10 for stopping his car and shooting a TikTok video on the bridge.
The project director, Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, told media during the inauguration that the bridge, the longest in the country at 3.82 miles, can withstand major natural calamities. But on Monday, workers were seen tightening bolts on the bridge.
The Padma Bridge has been applauded for connecting 21 underdeveloped districts in Bangladesh to the capital Dhaka. At Saturday’s inauguration, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called the bridge Bangladesh’s “pride, a symbol of our capacity, our strength and dignity.”
“No compromise was done in regards to the quality of the Padma Bridge construction,” she added. “It was built to the highest standards.”
The bridge is among the biggest infrastructure projects in Bangladesh’s history, financed entirely by the government, but serious allegations of corruption have hounded its construction from the start. In 2012, the World Bank cancelled a $1.2 billion loan meant for the project, alleging high-level fraud involving senior executives from Canadian engineering company SNC-Lavalin. The Asian Development Bank subsequently pulled out as co-financiers of the project.
The government has denied any devious dealings behind the bridge, and in 2014, the government’s Anti-Corruption Commission cleared the project of all charges. In 2017, a Canadian court also cleared the SNC-Lavalin executives.
Rumeen Farhana, an opposition lawmaker, told parliament earlier this month that the Padma Bridge is a “textbook example of corruption” by Hasina’s Awami League party. “The Padma Bridge would be the ‘Golden Bridge’ of Bangladesh like the ‘Golden Toilet’ in Lithuania,” she said.
Lithuania’s Golden Toilet, built at the height of the global financial crisis in 2009 as a tourist attraction in the capital Kaunas, became a symbol of embezzlement and abuse of power.
Hasina is the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Since assuming power in 1996, her regime has been riddled with accusations of authoritarianism, human rights abuses and large-scale corruption. Previous corruption charges against Hasina have either been dismissed, withdrawn by the accuser, or discontinued.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but a World Bank report found that the country’s growth rate could increase more than 2 percent if corruption were reduced to the levels of countries like Poland and Hungary.
The construction of Padma Bridge, built over the Padma River—touted as the most turbulent in terms of deadly currents after South America’s Amazon river—was led by China’s state-owned Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group and employed some 1,200 Bangladeshi engineers. It is estimated that it will save nearly 200,000 hours of wait time for ferries every day.
Another dark chapter in the bridge’s history unfolded in 2019, when rumours that children were being sacrificed to build the mega bridge led to a spate of vigilante mob lynchings, killing eight people.
The victims were targeted over false rumours on Facebook that the severed heads of kidnapped children were being used as sacrifices in the construction of the bridge. Among the victims was a mother of two, accused of being a child kidnapper, who was beaten to death in front of a school.
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