Friday, September 11, 2009

Mineral Resources is the Blood Flown in Our Vein : Interview with Anu Mohammad

Exclusive interview By : Audity Falguni

Dhaka, 11 September,

After the stern clashes between police and the demonstrators of the `National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports (NCPOGMPP) ' on September 2nd, around 50 student and youth activists of different left leaning groups and others were injured. Police launched lethal attack on the protestors who were marching forward to surround (gherao) the Petro-Bangla office protesting the recent cabinet committee approval on 24th August to lease three offshore gas fields to foreign companies. The protestors negated the government decision to award Ireland-based company Tullow Bangladesh shallow water block SS-O8-05 and US oil company Conoco Philipps South Asia New Ventures Ltd deep sea blocks DS-08-10 and 11 in the Bay of Bengal. They also raised the demand for the cancellation of around 12 'Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs)' of the Bangladesh government with different International Oil Companies (IOCs) and other relevant claims. Anu Muhammad, Professor of the Economics Department of Jahangir Nagar University and Member Secretary of NCPOGMPP got intensely hurt during the demonstration and was admitted to hospital. Here the excerpts of a brief interview with him is highlighted bellow:

Question: You are the member secretary of NCPOGMPP right at this moment. So, would you please tell us the particular cause behind the recent most demonstration staged by you on 2nd September?

Anu Muhammad: Demarcation of sea territory is one of the most glaring crises of Bangladesh. We have near about one lakh sq km land boundaries with our neighboring states. In terms of sea boundaries, the amount is just eight times higher. And, those sea regions are extremely potential in terms of mineral and other aquatic resources. Unfortunately, there are records of usurpation of these sea boundaries by neighboring countries like India and Myanmar. There are three gas blocks in the Bay of Bengal namely block numbers 5, 10 & 11. Two PSCs were signed at first phase of 2008 during the Caretaker government regime. Under the auspices of these two PSCs, one Ireland based IOCs namely CONOCO-PHILLIPS and another U.S. based IOC named TALLOW were given lease for oil and gas exploration in the Bay of Bengal. When the caretaker government signed the agreement, we protested vehemently and the government could not implement it. This year the newly elected government has approved the PSCs. The cabinet committee of 'Economic Affairs' has okayed those on 24th August and so we called on for the demonstration on 2nd September. Meantime, our successive governments have signed 12 PSCs with different IOCs in recent years. These PSCs have conferred upon them ownership of around 80 percent of total gas explored and the rest 20 percent lies with our nationalized institutions like BAPEX and Petro-Bangla. These multi-national oil giants deal with or regulate our 12 major gas fields in the Sylhet region. If you look at the atlas of Bangladesh and dissect it into east and west, you would notice that most of the oil fields are located at the eastern side or particularly in Sylhet. Now, the multi-national oil giants earn around 3,000 crore taka from these 12 gas fields. If we could spend just one-tenth of this 3,000 crore take to reshape and strengthen our nationalized oil and gas exploration institutions like BAPEX or Petro-Bangla, we did not need to depend any longer on foreigner consultants and imported machineries! Just imagine that because of irresponsibility and malfunctioning by two multi-national oil & gas companies namely Occidental in Magurchara, Sylhet during 1997 and NAIKO in Tengratila, Sylhet during 2006...around 500 billion cubic feet gas were simply burnt out or wasted! Around 87.50 acres of land in Magurchara were damaged with 176.97 crore taka losses in total. NAIKO drilled in the gas wells earlier declared by Petro-Bangla as unworthy for exploration purpose and caused the disaster. We owe to these two oil giants around 20,000 crore taka. Recently James F Moriarty, the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, mentioned in a speech that U.S. oil giant company Chevron wants to develop Bangladesh through investing in oil and gas exploration, but the government can do nothing for certain quarters. Probably he mentioned us, the leftists! We say in return that honorable Ambassador, first pay us 20,000 crore taka compensation for the Magurchara and Tengratila blow-outs! This year the total budget allotted in the power and energy sector has been 4,400 crore taka. Compensation properly paid for the two blow-outs can fulfill our budget in energy sector for next five fiscal years.

Question: When the movement by NCPOGMPP first commenced and what are your major achievements since the formation of the committee?

Anu Muhammad: NCPOGMPP was established in 1998 and thus it has already completed 11 years' of its journey. I would mention our major achievements one by one. In 1998, when the Awami League (AL) government was in power, the government was initiating to sign and conclude two agreements with the IOCs . The first agreement related to leasing of the Chittagong port to a U.S. Company for 199 years. We then organized a long march from Dhaka to Chittagong port and it largely owes to our movement that government could not avoid to probe in details into the company and then some major loopholes came out. The so-called U.S. Company first told our government that they have the paid-up capital of some thousand crores of taka but later it was found that they have the paid-up capital of only one crore taka. Again, it was not even a U.S.A.-based company and it was actually based in Barbadose. What is most important that even if it was a U.S.A.-based company, no patriot should agree to leasing out of any of his country's sea port for 199 years! The then Sheikh Hasina government yielded to our movement and the lease agreement, which was on the verge of being finalized, got cancelled. Second, two IOCs...the U.K.-based oil & gas exploration company Shell and the U.S.-based company UNOCOL drafted the design of installation of pipe-line from one of our pertinent gas field Bibyana, Sylhet to Delhi and the designing and lay-out were disbursed on web-site. But, the government was yet to finalize the proposal for gas export. A section of 'hired' consultants, bureaucrats, businessmen, media, U.S. Embassy, Indian High Commission, World Bank and ADB began stipulating Bangladesh is "floating on gas" and it was "best time to export gas." And, if Bangladesh misses the chance, later she might not get handsome price in ever-changing international market. They, in addition, opined that Bangladesh can construct her basic infrastructure including necessary components like education or health sector with the money obtained from gas export. NCPOGMPP then had to wage war at two levels. First, we had to theoretically challenge this propaganda by making people aware about the exact situation of real gas reserve scenario of Bangladesh, dynamics of internal use and demand etc. The IOCs exaggerated that Bangladesh had 100 trillion cubic feet of gas while we had only 12-13 trillion cubic feet of gas reserve in last several years the amount has reduced to seven to eight trillion cubic feet of gas reserve for internal use. Also, domestic need for gas has been multiplied four or five times in recent years. So, gas export could really doom us! Today the facility of CNG transport could not be availed off if we agreed to export gas. We proved, in addition, with facts and figure that even if we could earn around 1,000 crore taka in total by exporting our gas, we had to buy equivalent amount of oil or petroleum from foreign countries to fill-up the gap. In that case, we had to spend around 15-20,000 crore taka per year. So, NCPOGMPP mobilized people for another long march towards Dhaka-Bibyana, Sylhet. Thus, AL government could not sign the agreements with Shell and UNOCOL. BNP succeeded the AL government in 2001 and they also began playing on the same tune reciting there is no worth of keeping gas under earth. What we should do is to export it and earn money. But, we were firm on our movement and people stood on behalf of us. So, BNP government also failed like its predecessor.

Question: NCPOGMPP has also waged a war on the issue of Fulbari coal mine. Would you elaborate on it?

Anu Muhammad: Sure, that is another landmark of success. The then BNP government came to an agreement with the Asia Energy (AE) company validating the open pit mining in around 135 sq km area of Fulbari, close to the Bara Pukuria coal plant of Dinajpur district. If this agreement was implemented, around 10,000 hectares land of the adjacent areas including Nawabganj, Birampur and Parbatipur Upazilla were to be damaged at initial stage. Near about 656.33 sq km area was to be directly damaged. Installation of the physical infra-structure of the proposed coal mine by AE was supposed to commit eviction, damage and destruction of approximately 10,000 human habitats, factories, schools, colleges, religious institutions, railways, highways, vegetation, water reservoirs like ponds, canals and rivers. AE itself revealed that if the agreement was to be implemented, Bangladesh government was supposed to get from AE around 45,000 crore taka in 30 years while they were supposed to obtain 1,50,000 crore taka from us in the same time-frame. Fulbari is a densely populated area with several Bengali and santal indigenous villages, their arable lands, trees and water reservoirs. If we go for counting the environmental damage in terms of eco-system and symbioses within nature, you cannot simply evaluate the extent of damage in money. So, on 26th August of 2006 the activists of NCPOGMPP and local people went to surround the AE office in Fulbari and police fired on unarmed people. Three were died, one became permanently disabled and around 300 people were injured. The government signed a three-point demand treaty with us in Parbatipur, Dinajpur on 30th August. The government, however, only implemented some portion of the treaty but our number one demand to evict AE from Fulbaria on an emergency is yet to be fulfilled.

Question: NCPOGMPP has called upon to surround the PM's office on 10th September? What would be your major agendas for this immediate programme?

Anu Muhammad: Our four most urgent demands are cancellation of the PSC model 2008 for the gas fields in the Bay of Bengal which leased out two gas blocks to two multi-national oil giants, cancellation of existing 12 PSCs and re-modeling of them with hundred percent ownership of our national institutions like BAPEX and Petro-Bangla over the explored gas, proper demarcation of sea boundaries and to evict Asia Energy (AE) from Fulbari, Dinajpur and cancel open-pit mining.

Question: Would you involve the major opposition BNP along with you? Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia has visited you in the hospital and mentioned she would be with this movement. So, what is your consideration now?

Anu Muhammad: No. The AL, BNP and the 'neutral' care-taker government manifested their willingness to export gas on a regular basis. In Latin American countries like Venezuela, Bolivia or Chilie the IOCs did not pay any profit to the respective governments on the pretext of failing to 'recover the production or exploration costs.' The IOCs have drilled for more than 20 years in Chilie and drilled a lot of their mineral resources but yet to pay any dividend saying that they could not yet recover their exploration costs. Thus the whole lot might turn into a deception for the poorer states. Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leaders are now fighting this issue. Amar desh er tel gas amar deher rakta! Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources of our country is the blood flown in our vein and we would simply die out if we cannot protect those.