Phulbari and broader issues | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 26, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:10 PM, August 25, 2013

Phulbari and broader issues

---Shahid Alam tells you what you need to know

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Energy Challenges and Phulbari Crisis Philip Gain, ed Society for Environment and  Human Development (SEHD) Energy Challenges and Phulbari Crisis
Philip Gain, ed
Society for Environment and
Human Development (SEHD)

Philip Gain, Director of the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), adjunct faculty in the department of Media and Communication, Independent University, Bangladesh, and editor of Energy Challenges and Phulbari Crisis, lays out the antecedent to, and intention of, the book in the Preface:  “This compendium…is an outcome of SEHD's investigation and involvement in the controversial Phulbari open-cut coalmine.  The aggressive approaches of the Bangladesh government and that of an arrogant British company [Asia Energy that changed its name to Global Coal Management PLC] for an open-cut coalmine caused uproar among the local people in the Phulbari mine area in Dinajpur…. First…the local people were deceived in not being clearly told by the government and the company that an open-cut mine was being planned.  Second, they did not see the pragmatic approaches for compensation and how to handle an open-cut mine in a densely populated and an agriculturally very productive area.”  Being an activist organization in the context of Phulbari, SEHD launched an investigation in early 2006, then had a series of reports published in the local press, and subsequently came out with a documentary film entitled “Phulbari”.
Some of those writings have been reproduced in the anthology, including those by Philip Gain and Anu Muhammad. However, as the book's title indicates, it is more than just about the Phulbari incident and its aftermath.  It also deals with issues of energy that have been affecting Bangladesh's population, politics, and economy for a continuous number of years.  Badrul Imam's “Energy Crisis and Options in Bangladesh:  An Overview”, Ijaz Hossain's “Energy Efficiency Potentials in Bangladesh”, and Sajed Kamal's “The Untapped Energy Mine” explore the various aspects of the energy problems facing Bangladesh, and suggest tapping into scantily-used alternative energy sources to alleviate, if not totally solve, the thorny issue.
Imam's is an informative, analytical presentation of a specialized subject.  He begins with a crucial observation:  “Bangladesh has significant reserves of natural gas and coal…. Yet the country is passing through an acute energy crisis.  The crisis is perhaps more of a reflection of the inability to exploit the available resources rather than a lack of them.”  He continues:  “One drawback of successive governments of the past was that the policy makers never contemplated the danger of being a gas based mono-energy nation, although this was known that the country was not floating on gas…. The need for the diversification of energy sources used in the country has now been understood but not before the crisis grew large enough to damage the economy significantly.  Bad governance in the form of corruption…and poor management…often also contributed to the constraints in healthy growth of the energy sector in the country.”  Imam suggests that the country needs to tap into “multiple sources in its energy mix with coal as major contributor along with gas.”  And, of course, this suggestion places it, advertently or inadvertently, at loggerheads with the critics of the Phulbari project!
Hossain stresses that energy efficiency, a critical aspect of the use of energy, has received scant attention in Bangladesh.  To illustrate, he states:  “At present the energy consumption situation in the public sector industries is highly inefficient.  Most power generation units in the public sector and fertilizer industries are operating at half the efficiencies of state-of-the-art technologies.”  And focuses on the familiar:  “The haphazard growth of many urban areas has been such that many feeders are overloaded causing high distribution losses.”  Hossain then outlines the primary reasons that hamper energy efficiency:  tendency to purchase the cheapest devices and equipment, subsidized energy prices, pilferage of energy, very low maintenance budgets for industrial machinery, and policies that encourage energy waste.  He strongly argues for the expansion of rail and water transports to not only ease the pressure on the existing demand on road transport fuels, but also on traffic congestion itself.
Kamal's article argues for tapping into the abundant solar energy that is potentially available to Bangladesh as a viable and relatively cheap source to be explored and utilized.  He is strongly critical of the open-pit coal mining project that “will displace an estimated 130,000 people, disrupt 500,000 people, and destroy 650 square kilometers of highly fertile multi-crop land.  It will deplete groundwater --- expediting desertification, pollute soil, water and air, and ruin the rich bio-diversity evolved over centuries.  The coal export facilities to be constructed will also cause extensive damage to the Sundarbans….”  Kamal comes across as quite the idealist, writing more from the heart, with anecdotal references being a pivotal part of it, and presenting a relatively superficial, rather than intensive, study.
Gain provides an overview of the Phulbari crisis in “Phulbari, Asia Energy and Grassroot Revolt”.  He finds insidious motives behind the project that will enormously benefit Asia Energy (since renamed) and segments of officialdom and political elements of Bangladesh, while bringing disaster on the area's population and the country's environment.  He writes more as a passionate activist, as the article “Phulbari Coal Project:  ADB Backs Out” testifies, but does not fail to register the terrible human consequences that the project will potentially entail.  The background to the actual Phulbari bloody incident, and the events during the occurrence, as well as its aftermath, are recounted by a number of authors, as a consequence of which we find one of the drawbacks of the anthology.  The same details are presented in multiple articles, the repetition being a potential cause for reader irritation.  A more careful editing could have removed the aggravation.
One of the articles that has carried the repetition, written by a leading activist protesting the planned Phulbari coalmine project, Anu Muhammad, provides a comprehensive account of the aftermath of the event as it stood on 22 November 2012.  “Phulbari Coal, Corporate Lobbyists and Peoples' Resistance”, by his own divulgence, was composed on that day, just prior to him leaving Dhaka for the contentious area.  He is exasperated that the government has not yet fully implemented the agreement that it had signed following the bloody incident that took place on 26 August 2006.  He contends that the “people will not accept anything less than full implementation of Phulbari agreement that calls for expulsion of Asia Energy and a ban on open pit.”  He reiterates the arguments given by several Bangladeshi and international experts against the Phulbari project:  that technically it is not feasible, environmentally it leads to catastrophic consequences, and socially and economically it is quite disastrous.
Roger Moody, in a comprehensive study (“Phulbari Coal:  a Parlous Project”), assesses the numerous pitfalls associated with the project.  Noteworthy is this observation:  “The integrated Phulbari coal mine, coal rail-river transport and coastal coal offloading project, is of such dimensions that it would prove highly challenging even for a “developed” country:  it poses not only numerous socio-environmental problems, but also demands a highly sophisticated degree of regulatory adhesion, long-term monitoring and component implementation.”  The warnings are too serious to ignore. Energy Challenges and Phulbari Crisis contains some studies in depth, but mostly reads like a plea from passionate activists that the Phulbari project will only line the pockets of a few national and international persons and organizations, but ultimately will prove to be a disaster for the people of the locality as well as for Bangladesh.

Prof. Shahid Alam is Head, Media and Communication, Independent University Bangladesh (IUB)

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