Mohsin Jomaddar's grocery store is about a 10-minute drive from the Madaripur-Shariatpur end of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, just next to the expressway built as the approach road from the bridge.
Mohsin has an interesting story about how he came to start his shop on his family's land there in Madaripur, after closing down a grocery store he ran in Dhaka's Uttara for 10 years.
Mohsin's move back to his native Madaripur about four years ago is among much anecdotal evidence of growing micro-economic activities caused by the Padma Bridge project. One of the biggest catalysts for these activities seems to be the steep rise in land prices.
Even though Mohsin had contemplated closing shop in Dhaka because of the high living expenses there, the dramatic increase in land prices in his native Madaripur was among the pivotal factors that convinced him to pull the trigger on moving back finally.
Just before moving back, he helped sell his brother-in-law's land around the area for Tk16 lakh per bigha. Now, only five years later, the price has quadrupled, at least!
Per bigha land now sells for Tk60 lakh, maybe even a crore, depending on the location. Mohsin plans to sell some of his land to fund a dairy farm to run alongside his new shop in his native town.
The promises of the "dream bridge", as the Padma Bridge has been called for its tremendous potential, seem to be materialising for Mohsin precisely as advertised.
Always deemed an essential development need, the people of southwest Bangladesh especially wanted it built for decades. Perhaps no Bangladesh government since the 1980s came into power and did not promised a Padma bridge.
The long aspired mega structure, designed to connect the southwest to the north and eastern regions of the country – which is cleaved by the gargantuan Padma River – is now a reality, waiting to be inaugurated on 25 June.
Part of one of the largest river systems in the whole world, the Padma River's ever-changing nature made the construction of this bridge exceptionally challenging, making the completion of the structure particularly remarkable.
The reason why the bridge is considered such a crucial development, however, is the enormous positive impact it will have on the economy and people's lives. The country's GDP is expected to rise by 1% once the bridge becomes operational.
New hopes for farmers
About 40 kilometres from Mohsin's store, a native of Shariatpur's Zajira upazila, Mohammad Russell will benefit not because of the resultant land price hike but more directly from the bridge itself.
A farmer who sells his produce in the local wholesale vegetable market, Chashi Bazar, Russell is planning to take his products directly to Dhaka instead of selling to "aratdars" – the middlemen.
"We will benefit 100% from the bridge. I can partner with another farmer and hire a truck. We will sell directly to buyers at Karwan Bazar [in Dhaka]," he told TBS.
This will allow Russell and others like him to profit more and bypass the price manipulation by a syndicate of middlemen.
"The aratdars agree on a price among themselves, let's say for tomatoes, in the morning. And you have to sell for that price," he said.
Russell grows cucumber, aubergine, lau (bottle gourd), chichinga (snake gourd), korola (bitter melon), onion and lots of other vegetables.
The market governing committee president, Abdul Jalil completely agrees with Russell. "Bigger producers have about 30 to 40 maunds (approximately 1.1 to 1.4 tonnes) of vegetables per week ready for sale. They can't sell all of these. If, say, two or three of them can hire a truck and take those to Dhaka, they will probably sell all," said Jalil, a farmer himself.
Jalil believes this will benefit everyone. "Maybe they sell tomatoes here for Tk10, but they will sell them for Tk20 at Karwan Bazar. The buyers will probably get them for lower than what they would have paid the conventional aratdars," he said.
But it will also benefit aratdars, Jalil believes because, while they might lose some leverage if some of the farmers cut out the middlemen, they will nevertheless benefit from the Padma Bridge by achieving a quicker transport time, an advantage that any supplier of perishable goods will value highly.
At least one aratdar, however, is not convinced that the Padma Bridge will be as amazing for his business as touted. Wahidul Alam from Mymensingh, who currently travels 16 to 17 hours to reach his district with the truckful of vegetables he purchases here, will cross the same distance in just about five to six hours. "Well…theoretically," says the shrewd aratdar.
Wahidul has two specific problems with the proposed scenario. First, the toll is too high. He pays Tk1,600 in freight cost when crossing the river on ferries, as he currently does. But the bridge will charge his truck Tk5,500.
Second, what about all the traffic in Dhaka once you get off the bridge? This makes him very sceptical about using the bridge, and he suspects he might end up going through the old route even after the opening of the bridge.
But Jalil, the market committee president, doubts that. He thinks Wahidul will eventually use the bridge, despite the cost and bad traffic, because it will ultimately be easier, even if not as easy as people hope.
Booming real estate on the Mawa side
While the Shariatpur-Madaripur side of the bridge is experiencing increased economic activities, the impact on people's lives and the economy on the other side – the northeast side of the bridge – is much more clearly visible, with the expressway breathing new life into the economy of Munshiganj, where land prices have shot up to five to 20-fold.
Interests in land buying and selling in the upazilas adjacent to the Dhaka-Mawa-Bhanga Expressway – particularly in Louhajang, Sreenagar, and Sirajdikhan – have risen remarkably. Signboards of housing projects have been mushrooming up on farming lands, showing substantial investment in housing businesses.
Ten years ago, the price of road-level land was Tk40,000 to Tk50,000 per decimal (1/100th of an acre). But now, even low-lying farmlands – that will need filling up to get to the road level – are selling for Tk3 lakh to Tk4 lakh.
The expressway, which will allow faster travel time between these upazilas in Munshiganj and Dhaka, is one of the main catalysts for economic activities. Cosmetics-product businessman Shamim Bepari of Sirajdikhan upazila, who needs to travel to Dhaka regularly, says the new expressway changed everything for him.
Before, it used to take him hours to get to Dhaka. But now he can reach the capital city in 35-40 minutes, thanks to the expressway.
"Because the Dhaka-Mawa-Bhanga Expressway has been operational for a few years now, we have been enjoying the benefits of the bridge even before it could open for traffic. This is also why the land prices are increasing continuously," said Bepari, who lives about 41 kilometres from the Mawa Ferry Ghat.
Arif Hossain of Sreenagar upazila, just about 20 minutes from the ferry terminal, is among the many locals who took advantage of the soaring land prices.
"All the land next to the expressway has been sold. Away from the expressway, you can get land for Tk3 lakh to Tk4 lakh in village areas, but those are low-lands. I bought and levelled up some low-lying farmlands, which I then sold for Tk7 lakh to Tk8 lakh. Real estate companies from Dhaka are selling these now for Tk15 lakh to Tk30 lakh per decimal," said Arif.
A number of real estate companies have bought up land adjacent to the expressway. Large billboards and signboards for housing projects show names of developer companies such as Modern Green City, Amin Mohammad Group, Shopno Dhara, Pushpa Dhara, Bikrampur Model Town, Ideal City, Matribhumi City, South Dhaka, Dhatri Properties Ltd, Marine Group, among others.
Executive Director of Modern Green City Lion Nusrat Jahan Nafsi told The Business Standard that land prices have increased manifold in the last six years since her company first began purchasing land there.
Compared to 2005, when the construction of the bridge began, the prices for land have gone up as much as 20-fold.
Because of the development of the expressway, other roads have also developed, improving the quality of life for locals, said Sirajdikhan Upazila Assistant Commissioner (land) Tasnim Akhtar.
Additional reporting by Md Moinuddin Ahmed