Sunday, November 18, 2007

Right to info a must before any int'l deal: Says roundtable on energy security

Staff Correspondent, The Daily Star, November 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The government should ensure the people's right to information before signing any international deal or formulating any policy, especially for energy or coal, speakers told a roundtable in Dhaka yesterday.

The roundtable on 'Energy Security and Right to Information' was organised by weekly magazine Shaptahik 2000, and moderated by its Acting Editor Golam Mortoza.

The speakers also pointed out that the caretaker government has no legitimate right to approve energy or coal policy, or sign any international agreement for the sector, as it is not an elected government.

They said the deals made by previous governments with a few multinational companies including Kafco and Lafarge, leaving the people of the country in the dark, are ultimately taking their toll on the common people.

The proposed right to information act should be enacted immediately so that no information can be concealed and the people can access any information to make their observation, they observed.

Attempts are being made to keep international deals out of the purview of the proposed right to information act with the excuse that people's access to information on such deals would affect foreign direct investment in the country, they said adding that right to access any information has to be ensured disregarding the prospect of foreign investments.

Prof Anu Mohammad of Jahangirnagar University said the state is failing to perform its duty in making all information public. On the contrary, it is even trying to hide information.

"If the people had known about the deal between the government and Kafco, it wouldn't be possible to close the deal," he said.

He questioned how Asia Energy could run advertisements in different newspapers claiming to be approved by the government for implementing the Phulbari Coal Mine Project when there has been an agreement barring Asia Energy from continuing with the project.

Prof Anu also urged the caretaker government to launch anti-corruption drives against international deals signed by previous governments.

Former state minister for power Maj Gen (retd) Anwarul Kabir Talukder said all kinds of information will have to be shared with the people.

Productivity has to be increased in every sector, more employment opportunity has to be created and dependency on import has to be reduced gradually, Talukder said adding, "All these things are related to energy, and therefore, we also have to ensure our energy security."

GM Kader, former lawmaker of Jatiya Party, said lack of transparency creates the opportunity of corruption and free flow of information can bring in transparency.

Former Awami League lawmaker Col (retd) Faruk Khan said a world energy congress was held last week in Rome where representatives from 112 countries except Bangladesh participated. The goal of the energy conference was to monitor the status of energy sector and find solutions that could promote economic development in any country, he added.Col (retd) Faruk said since the caretaker government is not an elected government, it has no right to formulate any energy or coal policy. "It can make a draft policy on energy or coal and make it public for people's observation. And the next elected government should approve it."He also stressed the need for improving the government's negotiation skills while discussing with prospective investors.Writer-columnist Syed Abul Maksud said it is necessary to be ensured that the adopted policies are not against the interest of the people. "Any policy should be taken on the basis of national consensus," he said.Prof M Shamsul Alam of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology presented a keynote paper on 'Energy Security and Right to Information' at the roundtable.Prof Hossain Mansur of Dhaka University, Prof Golam Rahman of Dhaka University, politician Haider Akber Khan Rono, former Rural Electrification Board chairman Maj Gen (retd) Golam Mawla, Barrister Tanjb-Ul Alam, Shahidur Rahman of Action Aid Bangladesh, and Radio Today Executive Director Shakil Manjur also spoke at the discussion.

Govt's prime role recommended in coal mining

NewAge, November 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

A reviewed coal policy provisionally prescribes government’s investment in the country’s upcoming sector as it states that private local or foreign firms engaged in mining have to go for partnering with the government.

The coal policy review committee Saturday adopted a proposal to this effect. Sidelining apex trade-body FBCCI proposal for encouraging private sector’s prime role in coal-sector development, the committee viewed that the government always has to be the lead agency and get the highest priority in this regard.

The committee, however, said for the sake of ensuring energy security, local private companies or foreign government or private companies could be invited through international bidding to invest and develop the coal sector.

‘But, in that case, the local private or foreign companies have to be a partner of the government agency and their share have to be offloaded through stock market for public participation,’ says the committee recommendation.

Former vice-chancellor of BUET Professor Abdul Matin Patwari presided over the committee meeting at Petrobangla office.

Professor Nurul Islam of the engineering university said, ‘Private sector, in no way, should be the leading agency in coal-development scheme.’

CPD executive director Professor Mustafizur, however, said the private sector should be given a significant role to play in the coal sector’s development as the government ‘has not got enough funds to invest’.

He also advocated for not imposing any bar on merger or acquisition of any company by another company as such practice is prevalent worldwide.

The committee suggested strengthening the existing mineral Bureau of Mineral Development as licensing authority so that it could efficiently deal with foreign and local companies in leasing out coal mines.

After a thorough reappraisal of the policy—against the backdrop of persisting outcry over coal-mining deals and methodologies—the committee also suggested canceling the existing provision about issuing licence to any individual. ‘The license should be issued to a company rather than a person,’ says the expert panel in its suggestion.

They also suggested adopting a provision for leasing out coal fields through competitive bidding process and selecting the bidder who will give the highest and best proposal in terms of royalty and technicality.

In the existing rule there is a provision for fixing 5-6 per cent royalty for government while the last draft coal policy cited about 16-17 per cent royalty.

The committee emphasised setting up of coal-based power plants in the rural areas for the development of rural economy and poverty alleviation, now substantial reserves of the mineral resource have been found in the country’s northern districts.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Coal policy draft includes provision to return land to affected people

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, November 10, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee on the finalisation of the coal policy draft on Friday decided to include a provision that affected inhabitants of any coal field would get back their land after the completion of mining when the lessee would restore the land condition as it was before mining.

The committee, headed by former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari, has also decided that the holder of the mining licence will rehabilitate the whole mining area and the land would be handed over to the owners.

Before mining, the people of the area will need to be resettled in a way so that their living condition improves, the committee has decided. The lessee will bear the cost of resettlement before and after mining. The committee has decided that the lessee will rehabilitate the entire mining area with dirt filling and by flattening out the mounds after mining.

Miners usually leave a lake or pond in the last phase of open-pit mining and a lake or pond develops because of land subsidence during the open-pit mining. The committee has decided that the lessee, if required, will arrange dirt by dredging nearby rivers to fill up the canal-like area at the mine.

The government will make necessary laws for the resettlement and land rehabilitation and compensation for the affected, it has decided.

The lessee will submit an environment management programme before the start of mining and will bear related cost.

The committee has also reviewed the clauses including mine water management, research relating to environmental impact and land use.

Others on the committee — University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, BUET professor Nurul Islam, journalist Ataus Samad, Dhaka University professors Badrul Imam and Mustafizur Rahman, Bangladesh army chief engineer Major General Ismail Faruque Chowdhury and Petrobangla director Maqbul-E-Elahi — attended the meeting.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Open-pit mining option should be explored in context

NewAge, November 9, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee formed to prepare the draft coal policy, as reported in New Age on Thursday, has included the provision for allowing one open-pit mining operation as a test case to judge the viability of open-pit mining in our country. Before going into the details of open-pit mining, we want to state that we are pleased that the much-talked-about draft coal policy appears to be in its final stages of completion. We have repeated on several occasions in the past that a proper coal policy, prepared by relevant experts in consultation with the different stakeholders, is necessary for us to be able to best serve our national interests regarding energy. Especially at a time such as now, characterised as it is by the shortage of supply and the high price of energy, we eagerly await the adoption of a well-thought-out policy that would ensure that our national and energy interests are protected while allowing us to reap maximum economic and social benefits out of however much coal reserves our country has.

As we have suggested before, however, any definitive policy decision on open-pit coal mining necessitates the undertaking of an extensive cost-benefit analysis that takes into account every aspect of and every consequence of such a venture. While we are aware that open-pit mining has been done successfully in other countries, we have to point out that the phenomenally high population density of ours and the huge dependence on agriculture for income and livelihoods sets us apart from those countries. So, instead of basing decisions on how well this method of extraction may have worked out in other countries, we have to be satisfied that it is the right method of extraction for our context and our unique characteristics. It is extremely unfortunate, in our view, that those who support open-pit mining as well as those who reject it outright do so without any real empirical basis on which to take such fundamental positions.

Therefore, we strongly urge the authorities in our country to commission an independent study, preferably much before open-pit mining is done even as a test case, that would not only compare the financial benefits of extracting coal from open-pit mining with the costs associated with such a project, but take into account all economic, social and environmental costs of open-pit mining. These would include, for example, the costs of relocating and rehabilitating large populations, the loss of agricultural output for many years from large areas of fertile land, proper compensation for the loss of the livelihoods of those dependent on agriculture on those lands, the increased health risks as a result of any damage that may be done to the environment, compensation for the loss of heritage of the indigenous communities of those regions, etc. If the results of such a study makes a strong enough case for open-pit mining, or even if it makes the idea of a pilot project to further examine the effects of this method an attractive proposition, we will, of course, support the implementation of the provision in the draft coal policy for an open-pit mine as a test case. However, we reiterate once again that before we take a certain position on the matter, and more importantly before our government takes policy decisions on methods of coal extraction, it is extremely important that an extensive study is completed which serves as the basis for such decisions.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Draft Coal Policy to allow one open-pit mine as test case

NewAge, November 8, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee, formed to finalise the draft coal policy, on Wednesday included in the draft a provision for developing one open-pit mine in the country as a test case.

‘No one in the country has any real experience in open-pit mining. So at first one mine should be developed by using the open-pit system to gather hands-on experience, and to assess the effect on the environment,’ said the provision included in the clause on Mining Method in the draft.

The first open-pit mining project will be experimental, and Bangladesh will gather data on the impact of water extraction on the environment, the impact on the underground through simulation, protection of the environment, resettlement of the evicted people and the socio-economic impact, and assess the success of re-injection of water into the underground and land reclamation and fertility.

‘If the result of the open-pit mining method is satisfactory, the method can be used in other coal-fields for commercial extraction of the coal,’ said the provision.

The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power in the last two days demanded that the coal policy should not include any provision for open-pit mining, not even an experimental one.

The advisory committee, headed by former vice-chancellor of BUET Abdul Matin Patwari, felt that it would not be appropriate to exclude open-pit mining because of the looming energy crisis.

The committee decided not to recommend the coal-field which will be developed by using the open-pit method as it should be decided after conducting a feasibility study.

After a heated debate on who will develop the mine by using the open-pit method, the committee decided that either the proposed state-owned Coal Bangla or a public-private joint venture under the management of the government would develop the coal-field.

The partner of the joint venture will be selected through competitive bidding, the committee decided.

Regarding underground mining, the policy said that necessary measures would have to be based on the experience of underground mining (in Barapukuria).

If any company wants to develop a coal-field, it has to carry out socio-economic and technical feasibility studies and submit reports on both open-pit and underground mining, and a government committee will choose the mining method, said the policy.

The committee also decided to fix a security deposit for environmental damages, which will be 2 per cent of the estimated project cost. The deposit will be in addition to the existing deposit of 3 per cent of the project’s cost as stated in the mining rules.

The draft policy said that a representative group, comprising elected local representatives and local civil society members, would be formed, which would be involved with a coal project for observing environmental and social impacts and hear the complaints of local people.

The committee’s convener, Professor Patwari, told reporters that they were trying hard to finalise the policy by December.

‘The committee is holding meetings every week, with each meeting lasting about five hours. We cannot finalise the policy in a hurry nor can we afford to make any delay. We are trying our best to finalise the draft as soon as possible,’ he said.

Other committee members — University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, BUET’s Professor Nurul Islam, senior journalist Ataus Samad, Dhaka University Professors Badrul Imam and Mustafizur Rahman, chief engineer of the Bangladesh Army major General Ismail Faruque Chowdhury, Petrobangla director Maqbul-E-Elahi and chief executive officer of IIFC Nazrul Islam — were present at the meeting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ban on open-pit coal mining demanded

NewAge, November 6, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Conservationists repeated their call for a complete ban on open-pit coal mining to protect the country’s geophysical structures. They also demanded that the coal policy must not provide for open-pit mining even as a pilot scheme.

‘If anyone wants to know what devastation an open pit mining can bring, he or she can visit such coalmines in other countries,’ said professor Anu Mohammad, member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port on Monday.

An advisory committee formed by the government with former BUET vice chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari as its head decided in principle to recommend in the draft policy for a pilot project on open pit mining covering eight square kilometres area at Barapukuria coal field.

But economist Anu Mohammad at a discussion meeting on ‘coal resources and national interest’ felt that such a pilot project was not necessary.

National Committee convenor SM Shahidullah said that the pilot project would be wastage of money as the open-pit mining would not be successful in the country considering the geological condition of Bangladesh.

Dhaka University geology professor Hossain Monsur, who is a former Petrobangla chairman, said India operates open pit mines that have a maximum depth of 180 metres, whereas Bangladesh’s coal seams are at the depth of 300 metres.

‘It is not a good idea to venture on a pilot open-pit mine project covering eight square kilometres area. It would bring an environmental disaster,’ he warned.

The National Committee leaders demanded immediate expulsion of the Asia Energy from Bangladesh.

Professor Shamsul Alam of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology presented the keynote paper at the discussion.