Friday, September 4, 2009

Police excesses betray govt’s intolerance to dissent

Editorial, NewAge, 4 September 2009

WHEN members of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, a citizens’ platform, brought out a procession on Wednesday in protest at the Awami League-led government’s decision to award three offshore blocks to international oil companies, they were only exercising their democratic right to register protest, which is enshrined in the constitution of the republic. Hence, the ensuing police excesses on the protesters, which resulted in grievous injuries to nearly 50 people, including the committee’s member secretary Anu Muhammad, amounted to impingement on the protesters’ constitutional rights. Crucially still, the police excesses tend to indicate what could very well be the inherent intolerance of the ruling quarters to dissenting views. The conscious sections of the citizenry have rightly condemned the police excesses, which were not only unacceptable but also incongruent with the Sheikh Hasina government’s promise for change.

The national committee, supported by most left-leaning political parties, staged a protest rally and brought out a procession towards the Petrobangla offices on Wednesday. Reportedly, about 1,000 protesters had gathered at Muktangan from where a procession was scheduled to march towards Petrobangla offices in Karwan Bazar and lay siege to it. The national committee, as it is often called, organised this particular event to protest against unjustifiably allowing foreign oil companies to export up to 80 per cent of the natural gas they find in the offshore blocks that have been recently awarded. This provision, according to reports, would be included in the new generic production sharing contract that is generally the primary tool of agreement between the oil companies and Petrobangla. Thus far the production sharing contracts prohibited gas exports through pipeline implying mandatory value addition, and thus potential foreign investment, employment generation and technology transfer. The contract also stipulated Bangladesh’s first right of refusal in case of gas sales.

But it appears from reports that despite a rising demand for natural gas in the local market the Bangladesh government decided not to buy gas from the foreign companies. This would evidently allow foreign companies to sell their product abroad to third parties for a higher price than that offered by Petrobangla. In doing so the government would also have to change the provisions prohibiting direct gas exports without value addition, and thereby absolving the foreign oil companies of their obligation to make substantial investment in production of liquefied or compressed natural gas. The current provisions, as the government has decided to amend, have all the advantages for the foreign companies but there are almost no discernible benefits to the country. Thus the reason for allowing gas exports, or Petrobangla’s refusal to purchase gas from the foreign companies, thus allowing them to export, must be questioned. That is what the national committee sought to do but ended up being severely beaten for having done so.

One of the many people who visited Anu Muhammad, admitted to a hospital with fractured legs, was Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and former prime minister. Her gesture and condemnation should be appreciated but with a pinch of salt because, like all previous governments, her government also sought to secure individual interests at the cost of the country’s natural resources. In fact, it was during the Khaleda Zia government that these new generation production sharing contracts were drawn up and it was also during her tenure that the law enforcers also swooped on the national committee for protesting against the proposed open-pit coalmine at Phulbari. One would expect that Khaleda’s newfound concern in this regard would go beyond political mileage-taking into actual commitment to the cause the national committee espouses.

However, it should not be left up to the opposition political parties alone to protest against and effectively resist such an anti-national move by the government. Patriotic individuals and social forces must also rally around the national committee and the cause it stands for.