I first visited Bashkhali in 1991, immediately after a deadly cyclone devastated the area. I could not walk without touching a dead body or its parts; I could not see even an inch of area which had not been destroyed by the natural disaster. In this coastal area, people live on and struggle with the Bay of Bengal; they live with its resources and also with its rage. With the growing risks of climate change, there is the possibility of even more destructive natural disasters, along with increasing sea levels. Since the lives of its inhabitants are highly vulnerable here, for them development means protection and safety; it means creating livelihoods that will be less vulnerable; it means a life without fear and uncertainty. Instead, the people of Bashkhali are confronted with a project which gives rise to more risks, fear and uncertainty. They were terrorised by the possible consequences of a coal-fired power plant, and felt outraged by the harassment and lies of the officials of the plant. They gathered to express their fear; they were answered with bullets.
We feel sad, we feel angry too. If development means destruction of people's shelter, biodiversity, killing of river, forest and the people, we will continue to oppose this; we will call upon everybody on this earth to make this opposition stronger, to create momentum to bring a real change in development thinking. We will give strength to collective voices to bring the real vision of development to the political agenda.
The recent tragic incident, which I may call 'development killing', in Bashkhali is a manifestation of state-business nexus. Ignoring public opinion, there was an unholy alliance between state officials and corporate groups. The killing of unarmed innocent people was perhaps an unexplained expression of their 'way of doing things'.
The incident centred around a 1,224 MW coal-fired power project, jointly owned by S. Alam Group - a Bangladeshi business house - and two Chinese companies, SEPCOIII Electric Power and HTG, with whom they signed an agreement in 2013 to set up the plant. On February 16, 2016, the government of Bangladesh approved the deal and set a price to purchase electricity from the group at a rate of BDT 6.61 per unit. The group started to acquire 600 acres of land for this plant.
Surprisingly, all these steps were taken without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public consultation. There was no environmental clearance. Furthermore, residents of the area were sceptical and afraid, because of their experience with coercion and fraudulence in land purchasing. Lack of transparency and irregularities were quite noticeable from the very beginning of the project. The local administration had shown a total of only 150 households in the project area, but in reality the area has at least 7,000 households, 70 mosques, graveyards, a technical education institution, around 20 cyclone shelter houses, one high school, eight primary government schools, two Alia Madrassa, five Qawmi Madrassa, five markets, and one government hospital. Hiding the real numbers is a familiar practice to rationalise the project and also to ease the handover of khas (government) land to the private company.
Most of the people in this area are poor but hard working people engaged in salt farming, and various fish and agro-cultivation. For months, hollow promises packaged with assaults and threats had ensued. People had tried to negotiate over the choice of location of the plant, appealing to the authorities to spare them from a deadly project. On March 23, a peaceful gathering was organised in the area, with the presence of officials from the administration, in which around 30,000 people had participated. They demanded that the project be shifted elsewhere and their grabbed land be returned to them. However, it seemed as if nobody from the government or the concerned company really bothered to pay heed to their concerns, as they proceeded with the coercive measures.
On Aril 3, police arrested seven people from the village, accusing them of obstructing the company's work. That triggered discontent among the common people, bringing them together in a protest meeting on April 4, 2016, under the banner of “Boshot Bhita Rokkha Committee” (Committee to Protect Households). Meanwhile, some locals, allegedly paid by the company, called for a counter programme in the same location to wreck the event. Moreover, as an eyewitness described, while the angry protestors continued to gather on the spot, hired goons arrived there with 30 to 40 motorcycles. They began to fire on the unarmed villagers. Instead of stopping and arresting the armed miscreants, the police allegedly joined them in firing upon the poor, unprotected people. A large number of protestors were shot on the spot, and at least five were killed.
People did not gather to beat anybody or disturb peace. Their demands were simple: first, free the arrested villagers; and second, stop harassment of inhabitants by middlemen and goons who forcibly try to purchase and grab lands. They also wanted a transparent hearing process on the pros and cons of constructing a coal-fired power plant in the area. They had arguments on the possible environmental and social impacts of the power plant in the area; they were demanding satisfactory answers on why the location of the plant should not be shifted.
The role of the police and government administration appears questionable at best. Even after killing people, they filed cases against the villagers, continued arresting and terrorising them. They even arrested people with bullet injuries admitted to the hospital, and put them in handcuffs. Male villagers are forced to sleep in the open to avert arrest, and also to guard the area against any terrorist attacks.
We would like to ask, if the state chooses to call it 'development', how come there is no space for public opinion? Why such atrocity? Why is the government so afraid of protests? Where is the EIA and clearance? What sort of democracy is this in which the police administration and armed goons jointly assault unarmed people?
As long as the assaults, threats, land grabbing and eviction continue in the name of development, discontent will prevail. If the interest and consent of people are not prioritised, they will reject every so-called development project. People gave lives in Phulbari to save the country; they have been waging struggles to save the Sundarbans and have showed their readiness to sacrifice their lives to protect the future generation in Bashkhali.
The attitude of hiding, twisting and denying facts must be changed; the government should move quickly to conduct an independent inquiry to ensure exemplary punishment for those responsible for killing innocent villagers. It should also abandon this practice of pushing through questionable projects. Finally, the government must scrap projects of environmental destruction, along with projects embroiled in irregularities and corruption, and which pose a threat to human livelihoods, including coal fired power plants in Bashkhali and Rampal.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University and Member Secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil- Gas- Mineral Resources, Port and Power.