MAC: Mines and Communities

Phulbari Day and the Coal Policy

Published by MAC on 2007-08-26

Phulbari Day and the Coal Policy

by Anu Muhammad and SM Shaheedullah


26th August 2007

TODAY marks the first anniversary of the resistance, waged collectively by all people - young and old, men and women, the Bengalis and the indigenous - against the infamous Phulbari coal project characterised by fraudulence and designed to plunder natural resources under people's ownership, simultaneously causing devastation of human life and environment. This day, last year, nearly 80,000 people marched into the small town of Phulbari demanding cancellation of the project and withdrawal of the multinational company Asia Energy, owned by British, Australian and German interests.

The day's programme was concluded after declaration of a future programme in front of the barricade put up by the law enforcers that had basically cordoned off the Asia Energy office. The demands included immediate deportation of the company, abandoning of the project and social boycott of the company's local staff. When people were returning at the end of the day's programme, personnel of the Bangladesh Rifles opened fire. Three teenagers - Tariqul, Amin and Salekin - were killed on the spot. Among over two hundred wounded, ten had gunshot wounds, with three of them in a critical condition. One of them, Bablu Roy, has returned home recently having spent about a year in Dhaka hospitals. He is now permanently traumatised and distraught. It is circumstantially apparent that government forces opened fire without any provocation from the public and perhaps at the instigation of Asia Energy with the aim of striking terror to quell the movement.

This scheme of Asia Energy failed as it should.

Once people embrace a cause close to their hearts nothing can stop them.

Following the carnage of August 26 afternoon, BDR, police, and government forces created a regime of terror throughout the area. It was the women and children who were the foremost to come out to the streets in protest. They gathered in large numbers and initiated a strong resistance which gradually grew into a mass uprising. Thousands of people from six sub-districts took up ceaseless programmes displaying unity and solidarity. When people all over Bangladesh took up the cause and started action programmes, the movement transformed into a national movement.

Eventually the government of the day had to bow down to people's power and sign an agreement on August 30, 2006 with the people steering the movement. Life returned to normal after this event.

Terms of August 30 agreement

Following are the clear undertaking of the government made in the agreement.

'The seven-point demands raised by the National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Mineral Resources, Power and Port, Phulbari chapter will be implemented as follows:

a. All agreements executed with Asia Energy shall be scrapped and the company shall be driven out from the four sub-districts including Phulbari and finally from the country. Open cast mining method for production of coal shall not be employed in four sub-districts including Phulbari and, for that matter, anywhere in Bangladesh. Other method(s) to be employed for coal production shall be subject to people's consent.

b. Each of those killed on August 26, 2006 in the hands of the law enforcement agency will be given a financial compensation of Tk 2,00,000.00.

c. A sum of Tk 9,00,000.00 will be allotted to financially compensate the wounded persons, the losses to shops and establishments, hotels, restaurants, rickshaws, vans, microphones and households. Compensation will be paid after the losses of the affected persons are assessed by a committee comprising the Executive Officer of the sub-district Phulbari in Dinajpur, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Phulbari circle, a representative of the Civil Surgeon and two representatives of National Committee for Protection of Oil-Gas and Mineral Resource, Electrical Power and Port, Phulbari Branch.

d. A one-man Enquiry Committee comprising the Additional District Magistrate alone has been formed to enquire into the killings of August 26, 2006 and to submit a report. Actions will be taken following the receipt of the report.

e. An Enquiry Committee comprising the Additional District Administrator, an Assistant Police Superintendent and two representatives of National Committee for Protection of Oil-Gas and Mineral Resource, Electrical Power and Port, Phulbari Branch will be formed for dealing with the recovery of the dead body or bodies secretly disposed. This committee will conduct enquiries on the basis of specific complaints and submit its report. Proper actions will be taken after receipt of the report.

f. A memorial tower will be built to commemorate the martyrs in a suitable site by the side of new Phulbari Bridge.

g. The Superintendent of Police will take appropriate measures against "dalals" (lackeys) of Asia Energy on the basis of specific allegations.

All cases and general diaries against the leaders involved in the movement against coal mine will be withdrawn and no new cases will be brought against them.'

The government of Bangladesh has fully implemented clauses 'b' and 'c' of the agreement. People have driven Asia Energy out of the four sub-districts including Phulbari but the company is still engaged in hatching various conspiracies. A site has been decided and partial fund for the Memorial Tower has been placed. Other items have not been fully implemented. We hope that the present government will take appropriate steps for implementing the rest of the agreement.

Asia Energy propaganda for open cast mining

Asia Energy is busy making all sorts of endeavours for wining the favour of the media at the time when the review committee recently formed by the government has been working to finalise the policy for extraction and utilisation of coal. Its main target is propagation of misinformation and misconception on the issue through purchasing the support of journalists and consultants through special favours. As a part of this policy the company organised a grand tour of a good number of journalists of the press and the TV channels to a coalmine in Germany. On their return some of them have presented a glossy report in press and TV describing how open cast method of mining has been successful and effective, and suggestions on how Bangladesh can gain by replicating it. Clearly such reports are dedicated to promotion of Asia Energy's Phulbari coal project.

These reports only embody the brief of officials of RHE Company, an associate of Asia Energy. It is not hard to imagine why the views of those organisations and researchers who have been studying the issues in the project have not been collected by the journalists, or not included in their reports. This is because they would contradict Asia Energy's propaganda.

The reasons why open cast coal mining method in Germany is not at all comparable to such a one in Bangladesh are listed below.

1. The geological structure and features, aquifer depths, rains and floods in Bangladesh are sharply different from Germany's and preclude use of open cast mining method.

2. The density of population of Bangladesh is too high for comparison with Germany. In Germany people can easily be moved from an area to be resettled in another without much suffering and cost while in Bangladesh migration on a large scale is impossible because of total lack of vacant or lightly used space.

3. Bangladesh is crisscrossed by a network of rivers, canals and water bodies and underlain by continuous aquifer and this is not the case in Germany. So in our country pollution in one area spreads fast in all directions to cover an extensive area. The mobility of dispersion increases manifold during floods. In Germany, the pollution resulting from open cast method of coal mining will not spread and affect a large area. Again, the area of land in Bangladesh which will be dehydrated and gradually turn into deserts on account of continuous pumping of water due to high permeability of soil will be much larger than in Germany where the soil is nearly impermeable and the water bearing aquifer is low.

Because of soil characteristics in Bangladesh the sides of excavation tend to cave in over a large width but the rocky soil in Germany has no such tendency for collapse. Even then, as many as 244 villages around the mine visited by journalists in Germany have been devastated by the effect of mining.

Water near the mine area may look fresh to the viewers but is, in fact, poisonous. And then what is going to be the toll in Bangladesh?

4. The company doing the mining in Germany is home-grown. On top of it, the total ownership of the mine is not vested in the company.

In Bangladesh the entire mine, save 6 per cent royalty, was proposed to be transferred to proprietorship of a foreign company.

In Germany, open cast mining method was used to cater for a large domestic demand and not for export in the interest of a private company as was planned in Bangladesh.

Noteworthy, open cast mining method is not above question even in Germany in spite of the low-scale of negative factors with respect to Bangladesh scale. The toll is quite large in different sectors. The fact of poisoning of water and rendering agricultural land unsuitable for agriculture by the mining despite strict and skilled supervision by the German government and the measures taken to curb pollution at a great cost are not highlighted in the sponsored report. But the data and information are easy to collect.

Abandoning of open cast mining in different countries

Consciousness and concern is growing worldwide regarding the adverse effects of open cast method of coal mining on land, water, varieties of living creatures and natural environment and on people and their livelihood. In some countries the method is being banned by law. This year the United States has resisted open cast coal mining in Canada at a site near their common border on the ground that the mine would wreak havoc to the US population adjacent to the border. During the past one year, Argentina and Costa Rica have banned open cast mining. Again, in consideration of the adverse impact on population, environment, life and livelihood, open cast gold mining by a Canadian firm in Peru had to be abandoned on the basis of the people's opinion obtained through a referendum.

Multinational companies are resorting to diplomacy and misinformation for implementing this method in weak countries whose rulers are plunderers, corrupt and pliable. But mass resistance is growing everywhere gradually.

Framework of coal policy

Our government has formed a committee to finalise the coal policy. A draft has already been prepared. We expressed our view a number of times in the past and still hold the view that coal policy should be part of an integrated energy policy. In developing a policy for or taking a decision on oil, gas, coal or energy, the vital points laid down below must be borne in mind:

1. Mineral resources are non-renewable. Wrong decision once taken cannot be reversed nor corrected later.

2. The resource is very limited. Therefore, the last iota of the resources shall be used for the utmost profitable use.

3. Worldwide escalation of commercial energy demand has created a lack of security and instability in countries like Bangladesh.

Total control over our own mineral resources is, therefore, essential for facing the situation.

4. Many countries of the world are condemned to suffer from the vicious circle of poverty, crime and lack of economic development despite huge wealth of natural resources. This is the outcome of genocide, occupation of land, crowning of corrupt dictators in government -- all handiworks of imperialists in the aid of multinational companies dedicated to plunder and misappropriation of mineral resources of weak countries.

In these countries foreign investment with the object of plunder has resulted in the above vicious circle and its perpetuation.

Therefore, there is no way to escape the vicious circle of poverty and crime except ensuring people's ownership of natural resources and saving the resources from being looted by plunderers, home-grown or foreign.

Remembering these facts and on the basis of experience all over the world, the following principled position is essential for formulating an energy policy:

1. This is common property and since total security is dependent on it, 100 per cent ownership of people over this property, that is full proprietorship and authority of the people over it, has to be guaranteed.

2. Since the resource is limited and non-renewable, we must rid ourselves of the enchantment of profit from export, and ensure the most profitable use inside the country, and energy security. Use of these energy resources in the productive sector for dynamic growth shall be given top priority. Export shall be banned by law.

3. The rich fertile soil, fresh water, geographical variety and variety of creatures in Bangladesh are as precious as the mineral resources. For this reason, selection of the method of coalmining shall be such as conserves, as best as possible, the environment, land, employment, water, life and livelihood. After scrutinising all the relevant factors, viz. dense population, high price of land use, the surface water and underground water, existing makeup of life and livelihood, we are convinced that open cast method of mining will bring disastrous consequences. This method is to be shunned from all angles of view - technical, economical and social.

4. In order to ensure utmost utilisation of natural energy resources the national capacity for exploration and production of the resources shall have to be enhanced. What is required is to abandon the policy of deliberate crippling of national institutions such as Bapex, Petrobangla, Geological Survey of Bangladesh, Bureau of Mineral Development, etc and to invigorate them earnestly and seriously. At the same time, an institution bearing such name as Coal Bangla shall be established for carrying out all exploration and extraction of coal and ensuring maximum utilisation of coal in national interest.

Any shift from the above principled position could put to risk and jeopardy the goal of most profitable use of coal and best energy security. Planning and resource-funding shall be in keeping with the above principled position and for the same reason, immediate voiding of all agreements, memorandums of understanding and actions not in conformity with the above policy is obligatory. Immediate moves shall be taken to scrap the Phulbari coal project and oust Asia Energy associated with various irregularities and fraudulence.

Phulbari Day

August 26 has come to be a symbol of unique struggle for the people of Bangladesh. On one front, the government now faces a gang of national and foreign plunderers whose project of fraudulence, corruption, irregularities are against the interests of people, environment and human development, while on the other, it has to come to terms with an agreement, which is a big victory mark demonstrating victory of people's power over forces of corruption and destruction.

Last year people of Bangladesh shed their blood for warding off the project of plunder and destruction of national wealth. This event is a source of inspiration for not only Bangladeshis but for all peoples of the world captive to imperialist plunder. Now the name Phulbari is synonymous with struggle for emancipation, in different countries of the world. To commemorate the event, a decision to observe this as Phulbari day was taken last year. We have come to learn that the day will be observed throughout Bangladesh. However, suitable programmes cannot be taken up on account of the emergency in Bangladesh. In the days beginning August 26 till August 30 - the day of the signing of the agreement, our limited programme will include laying wreaths in memory of the martyrs, rallies of grief, exhibition of photographs, indoor memorial and prayer meetings.

We expect the government will extend full cooperation in this matter and also observe the day officially to honour our people's struggle for protection of national resources and against corruption and plunder.

We strongly feel that if the government is earnest about fighting corruption, they should publicly announce the cancellation of all agreement and understanding with Asia Energy both above board and underhand, if any, and thus demonstrate respect for the agreement concluded with the people. Ouster of Asia Energy, exponent of corruption, plunder and fraudulence, and mobilisation for raising national capability may mark the beginning of the march of Bangladesh in a new direction. We seek unity and consolidation of people from all walks of life in our struggle.

* Anu Muhammad is member secretary and SM Shaheedullah convener of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port

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