Thursday, May 21, 2009

Major decisions on coal likely within this year: Govt working on approval of coal policy, open-pit mining at Barapukuria, resettlement of affected peo

Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, May 21, 2009

Within this year, the government will take several major and thorny decisions on developing the coal sector, including approval of the coal policy, an open-pit mine in Barapukuria, resettlement of people affected by the existing mine and development of a mine city.

The government is already working on the mine city in Barapukuria by identifying areas to be acquired. This mine city will initially aim at providing livelihood and living facilities to 10,000 families and ultimately give room to one lakh families, says Towfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, adviser to the prime minister on energy.

Towfiq-e-Elahi pointed out that the government has signed a draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) with villagers who are affected by land subsidence around the Barapukuria coalmine area. "Their resettlement will be implemented in phases," he noted.

"Our bigger concern is to ensure these affected people their livelihood. We aim at giving jobs to the second generation of these affected people," he added.

A government committee has already recommended quick framing of a human resettlement action plan for the villagers affected by the Barapukuria coalmine in line with the one for the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge project. Such a plan should be chalked out within a few months.

Till this plan of "international standard" is approved for action, the people should be immediately given a standard compensation package and alternative shelter, said a source quoting the committee's report submitted to the energy ministry late last month.

Deep grievances are brewing among several villages around the mine for the last two years. The mining project was implemented without recognising that the mine would cause land subsidence leading to loss of agricultural land, water supply and cause environmental damage.

For now, the government is addressing the water issue in the area by installing 600 deep tube wells (Tara Tubewells). The subsoil water level in around 15 villages in Barapukuria rapidly dropped as the mine is pumping out huge quantity of water for coal production. Towfiq said the work order for these pumps would be issued this month.

Identifying coal as one of the vital natural resources that needs to be developed for future energy security of the country, Towfiq said in the past the government had undertaken mining project without informing the people its consequences on the environment and agricultural land. The government had not even kept any allocation to address the environmental issues.

"But in future all such projects should be done in a transparent manner by informing and involving the people," he said.

The draft coal policy that the government did not approve in the last four years will soon see the light of day. "We are working on it. We hope to approve it within a few months. The main focus would be to ensure the best usage of coal," Towfiq said.

He noted the future of power would be dependent on coal as well as nuclear technology. "Seventy-five percent of power in France comes from nuclear power stations and one third of power in the USA also comes from nuclear power stations," he quipped.

Meanwhile, the eight-member committee headed by a joint secretary of the energy ministry recommended that a mining city be developed as per the Resettlement Action Plan. This city would provide amenities, shelter and livelihood as an alternative to the affected people.

As part of this action plan, the government should appoint a third party organisation--possibly a non-government organisation--to conduct a baseline survey in the affected area to assess the size of the population, their assets, cropland and livestock, schools and other educational institutions etc. If there is a slum in the area, it should also be assessed.

Till the plan is implemented, the villagers living in vulnerable structures should be relocated to the East Camp of the Barapukuria mine. The East Camp is a structure built during the project construction period, said the committee that was formed in January to look into the land subsidence of Barapukuria.

All future mine projects should be implemented after conducting a feasibility study, undertaking a resettlement plan and by acquiring the land necessary for the projects, it said.

The committee pointed out that land outside the mine area, which has subsided and will subside in future, should be acquired by paying premium to the owners. The base line survey should identify the lands that could be acquired by paying the premium.

It recommended jobs for the locals as per their merit in the Barapukuria coalmine. A social awareness committee should be formed with these people to disseminate information about the long-term impact of the mine.

The 2,500-acre underground mine area includes 650 acres of agricultural land on the surface. The mine is directly affecting the lives of about 2,500 people in seven to eight villages. "Rehabilitation of these people should not be very costly for the government," said a source.

Other members of the committee include director general of the Hydrocarbon Cell of the ministry, Dhaka University geology department Professor Badrul Imam, chiefs of the Bureau of Mineral Development, Barapukuria Coal Mine Company, Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company and Geological Survey of Bangladesh.