SOVEREIGNTY is not only a matter to celebrate but also a condition that gives power to the government to determine the fate of each and every entity within its sovereign territory. And here lies the risk of governments becoming abusive, giving someone preference over another which may not be illegal, as governments can always write and rewrite the law, but is highly unethical. In such cases the affected person, community or entity can seek justice to the judiciary, but what if the judiciary had already been systematically crippled? This is not a local, but a global phenomenon and an authoritarian system follows more or less the same trajectory. It leaves its footprint everywhere and the energy sector is not an exception. In this essay, I will try not to put any judgement on government activities. Instead, I would like to highlight few facts and figures and leave the judgement to the readers for them to decide whether Bangladesh have energy sovereignty or not.
TILL recent decades, subsoil-based natural resources particularly petroleum, natural gas and coal have been considered the primary energy resources. However, with the development of technology, it is now possible to harness solar, wind and geothermal energy as well. Therefore, depending upon the geographical location and proper control on technology, a country can now be considered as resource rich, even if it does not have plenty of subsoil minerals and petroleum. So what is more important is to have proper hands on the technology to extract and transform these resources into power and to have established institutions and universities to further the development of technology and technique to bring more efficiency in the sector. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the lifting cost was just over $2 to extract a barrel of oil which was valued at about $90 in the global market in 2011 (Naazneen Barma et al, 2012). Therefore, dependency on foreign companies for indigenous resource extraction and usage mostly translates into maximum profit that is siphoned off the country depriving the people living within the sovereign territory.
Debunking the myth
THE popular notion that it is essential to have abundant energy resources in a sovereign territory to ensure its development is a myth unless that development is referred to the prosperity of selected groups, industrialists or corporations. An example of such development is Nigeria. It is the eleventh largest oil producing nation in the world, yet 40 per cent of its total population lives below the country’s poverty line (World Bank, 2019). There are other countries in the list, eg Zambia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Venezuela, which are resource-rich countries with relatively poor rates of economic growth. In contrast, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore are resource poor countries, but living conditions are better there. Therefore, we should not let rent-seeking policymakers paint a false picture of resource scarcity, a common tendency observed in Bangladesh, to propagate their flawed energy policies. Having a vast sea area with potential reserves of oil and gas, more than 10 trillion cubic feet of already proven gas reserve, more than two billion tons of coal and an advantageous geographical location to get enough solar irradiance and wind speed to produce solar and wind energy, Bangladesh cannot be considered as a resource-poor country; rather the absence of a pro-people state policy is the cause of all the chaos and corruption in the country’s energy sector.
Our resource, their asset
IT SHOULD be the government’s responsibility to safeguard and ensure the effective use of national resources; but in Bangladesh, it seems that the government is leasing this duty to foreign companies such as Russian corporation Gazprom for mineral resource exploration and extraction, ROSATOM to build nuclear power plants, Japanese agency JICA to set the national master plan for the power sector, Indian corporation NTPC to build coal-fired power plants and numerous others Chinese and Indian investors and companies who are working either to set the policy direction or to do the construction work for Bangladesh. It is important to note that roughly Tk 50,000 crore ($6 billion) is siphoned off annually and more than Tk 40.5 lakh crore ($56 billion) has been illicitly sent to various foreign accounts over a period of ten years since 2004 (The Daily Star, December 17, 2015). Therefore, that the government does not have enough fund to invest is not an acceptable justification for the ever-increasing foreign dependency in the energy sector. It is a sheer betrayal of the policymakers, of the oath they took to protect public interest. Foreign companies are taking the full advantage of such an undemocratic rule and making their own fortune. Not having adequate expertise also cannot be a ground to bring in foreign expertise and downplay the role of national experts. The government has not shown any interest to develop the national expertise. It appears that they chose to maintain a low-level local skill and expertise so they could continue to use ‘lack of local expertise’ to justify their actions in the energy sector. There are examples, such as when the government unhesitatingly turned down the BAPEX’s proposal to drill gas fields but offered those fields to Russian Gazprom which cost the government double the price of drilling that was originally quoted by BAPEX (Bangla Tribune, November 10, 2018).
People’s struggle, government’s silence
PEOPLE have been protesting against the government’s anti-people energy plans and projects; they are in movement to safeguard their land, livelihood and nature. They raised their voice against the government plan that supports corporate aggression in our land. When the whole system was designed to piggyback on the idea of aggression and greed, people had no choice but to resist. Nationally and internationally, they mobilised against the open pit coal mining at Phulbari, coal-fired power plant at Rampal, nuclear power plant at Rooppur. Researchers are presenting their analyses to show the probable disastrous impact of coal and nuclear plants on people and nature. Expert communities are coming up with cost-effective and environment-friendly alternatives to natural gas and renewable-based energy mix, but the government turns a deaf ear. Instead of engaging with the people’s proposal, successive governments are patronising violence. In 2006, the law enforcement agencies opened fire at protesting youth in Phulbari leaving three dead and many more injured. In 2016, at least four persons were killed and 30 others injured in a clash between law enforcers and locals over the installation of a coal-based power plant in Banshkhali. For over a decade, the Save Sundarbans movement led by National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports has been organising countrywide protest rallies, street art and performances urging the government to cancel its plan to build a coal-fired power plant near the Sundarbans. The government remained unmoved, meanwhile the organisers met police brutality.
People’s right, state’s policy
PEOPLE have every right to know every single detail of every project as long as our interest is at stake and the state’s exchequer money is involved. Policymakers, however, have no regard for public accountability; they are rather busy in making indemnity laws to shield themselves from any accidental loss or financial implications. The Nuclear Power Plant Act 2015 is just an example of this. The government is not concerned about people’s economic hardship as they arbitrarily increase the price. Last year, the government increased the gas price at the consumer level by more than 20 per cent just to compensate for the ever-increasing cost of liquefied natural gas (Dhaka Tribune, June 30, 2019). In last the six years, the government paid more than Tk 60,000 crore ($7.5 billion) mostly to rental and quick rental power companies which remained idle for more than 70 per cent of the time (Prothom Alo, June 26, 2020). Research shows that more than 50 per cent of the installed capacity will be redundant in Bangladesh by 2030, yet the government has a plan to set up more than 77,000MW capacity of power plants by 2041 and they will be mostly dependent on exported fuel (IEEFA Report, May 2020, Revisiting PSMP 2016). Such plans — I, rather, say injustice — have become a blessing for the few at the cost of many. Meanwhile, one of Bangladesh’s conglomerates in the energy sector has already made its place as the 34th richest in a list in Singapore (The Daily Star, August 16, 2018).
It is clear that a few companies have made good fortunes in building power plants which are now idle and have already become an economic burden for Bangladesh. The collective wealth is being channelled to a few pockets in the name of development in the energy sector. Profit-driven state policy is driving the whole sector into an export-dependent system when it should have adopted a research-oriented model which would focus on designing an environment-friendly, cost-effective and local resource-dependent system. When profit-seeking puppeteers and experts with ill motives are showing us the production capacity, GDP figures and electrification rates, let us ask them about the loss of livelihoods, cost of environment, diminishing purchasing capacity and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Let us hold policymakers accountable for their actions. Let us bring the spirit of collectivity into the community struggle to win the fight against the oppressors to save land, livelihood and nature at the local and global level.
Kaniz Fatema is an energy researcher and policy analyst.
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