Sunday, January 25, 2009

Phulbari elections result is the writing on the wall

Editorial, NewAge , January 25, 2009

The message that people of Phulbari have delivered through the ballots at the upazila elections is loud and clear. They have voted overwhelming in favour of Saiful Islam Bablu running for chairman of the sub-district at the local government elections of January 22. Bablu’s political identity is largely defined by his membership of the citizens’ platform National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral, Power and Ports and it is significant that he was instrumental in organising the popular movement against an open-pit coal mine in the area proposed by Asia Energy, a subsidiary of the UK-based Global Coal Management.

The previous elected government of the BNP-led alliance was forced to back out of the area and enter into an agreement with ‘the people of Phulbari’, which stipulated among others that open-pit mining in the area would be suspended and Asia Energy would be sent packing. At the local government elections, the people of Phulbari have once again said no to open-pit coal mining. They have also said no to the secrecy that successive governments have maintained regarding their deals with international mining companies especially concerning extraction of fossil fuels: a facet of energy deals that the Committee has consistently criticised.

This upazila election result at Phulbari also carries a message for the prime minister who has recently appointed Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, a former secretary for power and energy, as a government adviser who will oversee the sector. In doing so, the prime minister has indicated that she is content with the services that Tawfiq provided during his tenure as a secretary to the government for energy. This appointment also indicates that the prime minister has chosen to ignore several allegations against the former bureaucrat especially regarding the instrumental role he had played to have one gas-field declared ‘abandoned’ and thereafter handed over to little-known Canadian mining company, Niko Resources. His role regarding the Magurchhara gas-field blowout, which was being operated by the oil company Occidental in 1996 has also been controversial and cited as one of the reasons that Bangladesh failed to secure proper compensations for environmental damages and burnt gas.

Governments of poor countries, as is often the case, enter into secret deals with mining companies and grant them rights to extraction, largely ignoring the interests of the people they govern. In Bangladesh the history of oil and gas exploration shows no exception to this experience.

However, the citizens’ platform has shown through its relentless campaign through the last decade that it can raise the awareness of the people and mobilise them in thousands demanding that their rights and welfare not be ignored. Power and energy remains one of the prime concerns for the current government and it will have to perform well in this sector which has been ignored for too long. The government, as well as the prime minister herself, would do well to heed the message the people of Phulbari have delivered.