Coal aggression and civil disobedience

Mowdud Rahman | Published at 04:59pm on December 17, 2017

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Relatives wail after the killing of three members of a family in police firing at Gandamara of Banshkhali in Chittagong during protests against the construction of a coal-fired power plant there on April 4, 2016.

THE use of coal in power generation is relatively new in Bangladesh. While many countries like France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sri Lanka are planning to quit coal within next one decade or two, Bangladesh is planning to add about 19,000 MW new capacity of coal fired power station by 2041. Apparently, sensible world sees the end of coal driven policy because of its disastrous impact on health, economy and environment. But Bangladesh is going to become a dumping ground of obsolete technology and many countries such as India, Australia and Indonesia are seeking a new coal market in Bangladesh taking the advantage of its poor governance, rampant corruption, and weak environmental regulation.    

Every new coal power plant is coming with plenty of business opportunities. Land acquisition, raw material supply, dredging, road or railway construction, supply of machineries and fuel, all together are several billion dollars of trade promise and corporations become so desperate that they even kill people whom they think as potential dissenting voice to their business interest. That is precisely why last year when thousands of people were protesting against 1,320 MW capacity of coal fired power plant at Banshkhali in Chittagong, Bangladesh, police and hired thugs of S Alam Group attacked and shot four people to death, leaving more than hundred people injured. Few weeks later, I visited Banshkhali, talked to people, tried to figure out why they were protesting against coal fired plant and what is it that led them to go for civil disobedience.      

People of Gondamara in Banshkhali are mostly farmer. They cultivate rice and salt. When the S Alam Group started to buy land there, they tried to convince people with misinformation. Local people from the company and Bashkhali land office cheated public by showing the land as a barren one in the document and claiming that only 150 household live in the entire area. Apart from purchasing about 655 acres of privately owned land for the coal plant, the group has demarcated several hundred acres of khas (government) land in Gondamara. And, it is not uncommon in rural Bangladesh for landless people to take shelter in khas land. However, during my visit, I couldn’t find anyone that agreed with the claim. I found Gondamara as a vibrant rural area where farmers are busy in their field, school going children are returning to their home in groups and women are doing their household chores. Fear of losing livelihood and shelter on khas land turned hundreds of landless families in coastal Gondamara of Banshkhali against the proposed coal-fired power plant of the S Alam Group.

Since 2015, they are protesting when they first came to know about this project. They kept organising against the proposed power plant project. On April 4, 2016, they had a planned protest meeting at Hajipara School field. Upon arriving at the school premise, they found ruling party cadres are already there to prevent them from holding the meeting. Police imposed section 144 to foil their protest. The villagers defied section 144 and began demonstration to protect their land and livelihood from corporate land grabbing. Police shot fire and killed Anwarul Islam, 44, and his elder brother Mortuza Ali, 50, Zaker Ahmed, 50, and Md Zaker, 50, from Gondamara. Local people believe that it was not only police but also the company paid goons in police dress attacked their house, charged sound grenade, tortured women and children and shot their cattle.

I asked one woman who was present at the rally and was beaten mercilessly by the goons, ‘what was it that moved you so much that you didn’t even care for your life?’ She asked me in return, ‘what life without your land to live is and food to eat?’ ‘We are living here for generations,’ she emphasised. ‘Here lies our root. How could they even think of evicting us from our land!’ she replied. I found her so determined in her belief and I think such belief will not fade with any forced imposition of imposed dream of ‘government’s development.’ Farmers showed me their field, fishermen showed their catches and everyone believes that coal pollution is going to ruin these all. I was surprised and thought how they know these every detail impact of coal! It was mind-boggling to find that the local youngsters and teenagers browse through different Facebook groups, environmental site and youtube channel. They shared the information with the elders, showed videos on coal pollution and even organised several projector shows of the documentary based on coal pollution and its impact. I wanted to know about the online sites they visited and videos they used to watch. They brought out their mobile phone with tremendous interest and some started to play already downloaded video and some tried to load the site and was struggling with their slow internet connection. 

‘But don’t you want electricity?’ I asked one elderly person there. ‘If you don’t allow them to build coal plant then how would you get electricity?’ I added. He promptly said, ‘there are many ways to generate electricity. If government wants to do us favour, then they can provide us with solar panel.’ I asked again, whether they believe that the proposed plant is going to bring any benefit or not. ‘What benefit you are talking about?’ He asked me in reply. ‘Company people told us about new jobs. But what type of job they are going to offer us? Are we engineers? Are we educated enough? At best they could offer us the post of sweeper or security guards and we don’t want that,’ he said.  

I met salt farmers who earn about Tk 1 lakh per season. Abdul Malek prepared more than 20 tons of salt that year but all melted. Due to police blockade, all of the exit routes were closed and farmers like Abdul Malek could not take their salt to the market. ‘If government wants to do good for us, then how could they do such a thing?’ Abdul Malek exclaimed. 

It was a month after the police blockade when I visited Banshkhali. I saw a makeshift police camp of over one thousand policemen there. We were under continuous state surveillance as we were interviewing people in the Shilkuptime market of Gondamara. ‘Now we can’t move freely. Every time, they check and interrogate where we go and for what,’ Akhter Hossain said. ‘Few days ago, they stopped a van with a pregnant woman at the check post and prevented it to take her to the hospital.  It is sheer injustice. Company has infiltrated their people among us. Now they are informers and decide what we can do and what not, they try to decide who we can contact and who we shouldn’t,’ Akhter complained.

In late last year joint armed force took over the charge of these check posts and they are still there to ensure continuity of the coal project. I wonder how the government can put all of its force to ensure corporate interest sacrificing people’s cause! As I write this piece, I wonder, are the people of Banshkhali feeling left alone as no one is talking on their behalf? Is it possible to feel free being guarded by armed forces? I wonder, if people choose to defy any decision that denies their rights and disposes them of their land, then how can it be unlawful! And, even if it is so, then let it be. Because, what’s legal isn’t necessarily to be always just.   

The Banshkhali coal plant project is a joint venture between Bangladesh’s S Alam Group, China’s SEPCO-3 Electric Power Constitution Corporation and the HTG Group. Starting from media to local administration, this joint venture has everything on their side. To control the media, the S Alam group has already bought a TV station and bagged a license for another one (bdnews24, Nov 24, 2017). Therefore, it is not a surprise that paid news and TV reporting is in favour of this corporate giant. That is precisely why in last one and half years, we didn’t see any follow up reporting or investigative journalism on the killing of ordinary men in Banshkhali and coal plant protest. However, during this time, smear campaign goes rampant to foil the spirit of the protester and Bangladesh’s one of the wealthiest conglomerate is investing crores of money for manufacturing local consent in favour of the coal based power plant.         

There is no doubt that we need to increase our electricity generation by manifold in future. With the advancement of technology the options are many. For renewable energy development, initial investment is not an issue anymore. The downward spiral trend of it’s per unit cost made the payback period shorter than any other means of power generation. Even our neighbouring country India has revisited its policy and planned to install 160,000 MW solar and wind power plant by 2022. Sri Lanka has a target to go for 100 per cent renewable by 2035. Sadly, in Bangladesh, this target is only 3 per cent to achieve by 2041 (PSMP 2016). So, it is proven that when other countries are embracing the innovation and bringing true energy democracy to the people, Bangladesh government is supporting the corporatisation of the power sector and facilitating to create a whole new ground for embezzlement. Recently leaked Paradise Papers of offshore investment have revealed some Bangladeshis name; it is not surprising that most of them are involved in energy business (Prothom Alo, November 19, 2017).

When the government serves corporate interest and deceives people civil disobedience becomes a must. Banshkhali protest is an example of how desperate people can be against corporate slavery. Coal based projects are popping up across the country and it becomes a new exploiting ground of the state business evil nexus. So government should revisit its coal driven policy immediately. Phulbari, Banshkhali are the proof that people of Bangladesh will surely not tolerate such country wide aggression on its land, air and water much longer. The audacity of people of Banshkhali against the state and corporations is the true spirit of our liberation war.

 

Mowdud Raman is an energy researcher and recent graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India. He is also an editorial board member of Sarbojonkotha.