Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mine Subsidence: Coal city planned to rehabilitate victims

Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, February 17, 2009

The government is considering establishment of a "coal city" near Barapukuria which would provide housing and occupation to people affected by the coalmine and become the centre focus for mining related higher studies.

The idea stemmed from the fact that the government in the past had ignored land and water related issues while approving the Barapukuria coalmine project. But such problems are affecting livelihoods of at least 15 villages around the mine. In future, the problem would deepen, as the mine would cause 4.2 square kilometres area to subside by two metres.

The government is thinking of ways to address such issues in consultation with the locals, who are affected the most by such development projects, says Dr Towfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the prime minister.

"Only through people's consultation can any project get peoples' cooperation," he said, adding, "Such projects should improve peoples' lives, not worsen it."

The size of such a city would not be big and the government would try to utilise Khas land in that area for this purpose. It would acquire agriculture land as little as possible, he said.

The prime minister is open to the idea, he added.

A special committee would be set up to spearhead the idea and the government would take up survey work and environmental studies, and study best examples of coal cities in other countries.

"Land and surface water are directly affected in case of both underground and open pit mining," Chowdhury noted. "It's immoral to keep people in the dark about such consequence. People have the first right to know if the project would affect their livelihood."

This city may have a mining university and school and home to new industries. The emphasis of this city would be ensuring the livelihood of the first generation settlers.

Chowdhury, Environment Minister Mustafizur Rahman Fizar and State Minister for Energy Shamsul Haq Tuku visited the Barapukuria mining area last month and held open meetings with the affected villagers.

Many houses developed cracks and some pieces of land have subsided by one metre, while the sub-soil water table has gone down beyond reach of normal tube-wells. During the meetings, the villagers were asked if they would like to voluntarily move to a safer place nearby.

It was decided with the villagers that a committee will be formed with two representatives from each village adjacent to the mine. The committee would talk rehabilitation and compensation issues.

"Some people in Barapukuria are living amid life risk. We are trying to find out what could be done to avert this situation. They may be temporarily rehabilitated to a safe area. We can offer them choices, but we would leave it up to the people themselves how they would like us to solve the problem," Chowdhury pointed out.

The idea of the city is also prompted by further mining prospects in the northern region. While controversies surrounding the Asia Energy coal pit mining proposal in Phulbari have stalled new decisions on tapping mines resources now, the country's ever increasing energy crisis would compel the government to take hard decisions.

Other than Asia Energy, the government has given Petrobangla a licence to explore Dighipara coal zone and the Hosaf group [which is responsible for corruption in the Barapukuria coalmine and power projects] to explore Khalashpir zone.

Meanwhile, the government has not yet reviewed the draft coal policy left by the caretaker government. Many people view the draft as an anti-investment document and the process of framing the draft policy is viewed as an excuse to delay development of the country's coal sector.

The country's lone coalmine in Barapukuria is presently producing 850,000 tonnes of coal, most of which is used for 250mw power generation at the mine site.

The country imports around three million tonnes low quality coal from India worth more than a thousand crore taka each year to cater the needs of brick kilns and various industries.