In pictures: India coal fires

Underground fires have been burning in the small dusty coal town of Jharia in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand for more than 80 years now. All efforts to put out the fires have been in vain. Photos: ©Arindam Mukherjee: BBC

Jharia coal fires
In places like Laltenganj, the fires are now burning overground. Continue reading “In pictures: India coal fires”

Phulbari: Santa visits GCM Resources, but investors are left wanting

By , City Diary Editor Telegraph

Environmental activist Ashley Feils was evicted from the GCM Resources AGM after presenting chairman Gerard Holden with a stocking full of coal

Continue reading “Phulbari: Santa visits GCM Resources, but investors are left wanting”

WIKILEAKS BANGLADESH – I

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People’s Resistance to Global Capital and Government Collaboration is Vindicated

Rahnuma Ahmed

In reality, WikiLeaks leak of diplomatic cables from US Embassy, Dhaka reveal nothing new, they only serve to confirm what many of us across the world knew.
But before writing about open-pit coal mining and Asia Energy’s US$1.4 billion Phulbari project, I’d like to remind readers that in `Is there more to WikiLeaks than meets the eye?’ I agreed with skeptics who thought Julian Assange, director of WikiLeaks, had been “compromised.” That the “selective” nature of the data suggests WikiLeaks has possibly been “manipulated” by interested parties (New Age, Monday Dec 6, 2010). Since then, stronger reasons have emerged.
WikiLeaks’ enlistment of the “very architects of media disinformation”?The New York Times, the Guardian, der Spiegel?to “fight media disinformation” is suspect, writes professor Michel Chossudovsky (Dec 13, 2010). While Julie Levesque raises crucial questions about how the whistleblowing site and Assange “demand transparency” from governments and corporations around the world, but fail to provide basic information about their own organisation (Dec 20, 2010).
However, notwithstanding this, given that the documents’ authenticity are not denied by the White House, it is essential that we scrutinise them closely and “expose” the systems and structures of power (Andrew Gavin Marshall). That we expose US diplomacy as a cover for furthering imperial interests, that we expose national leaders as collaborators in this project. Further, that we vindicate those who have insisted that national development is often a cover for subjugating the nation’s and peoples’ interest. A mask which hides personal greed, and party ambitions.
The list of those exposed is long: US ambassador James F Moriarty; American and British-owned companies (Asia Energy/Global Coal Management); prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s energy advisor; members of parliament. But the cast of characters is much larger, they include ministers, bureaucrats, Petrobangla, BAPEX (Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration & Production Company), PDB (Power Development Board), major political parties, experts, intellectuals, law-enforcing agencies, doctors and significant sections of the media.
A WikiLeaked cable from US embassy, Dhaka shows that Moriarty urged Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy advisor, to authorise coal mining in Phulbari, saying that “open-pit mining seemed the best way forward” (Guardian, 21 Dec 2010). But for whom? He privately noted that “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.” According to the cables, Chowdhury admitted to Moriarty that the coal mine was “politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land” but agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process.
This leak confirms the insistence of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, that efforts to extract Bangladesh’s natural resources are commandeered by global capital to benefit multinational and transnational companies (MNC/TNCs), and their national accomplices. It confirms that long histories of impoverishment and oppression of local communities are not only to be ignored, policies leading to their extinction are to be approved by the government. That resistance, both nationwide and local, is to be circumvented through processes initiated by the nationally-elected parliament.
The proposed Phulbari Coal Project, through creating one of the biggest open-pit coalmines in the world would destroy 10,000 hectares including productive farmland in an area that serves as an “agricultural breadbasket” for Bangladesh. According to the 2008 Expert Committee Report commissioned by the Bangladesh government, nearly 130,000 people would be forcibly evicted from their homes and lands. Members of the National Committee say, numbers evicted are likely to be ten times more, environmental consequences promise to be disastrous. A dramatic increase in coal-based energy production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and greatly aggravate the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Interestingly, Sheikh Hasina urged donors?US, European Union, World Bank, Asian Development Bank?to increase the pledged climate fund in February, but spoke only of building cyclone shelters.
Asia Energy, before metamorphosing into GCM, was forced to shut down its operations after paramilitary forces opened fire on peaceful protests of thousands gathered in Phulbari, killing Salekin, Tariqul and 14 year old Ameen, injuring hundreds, on 26 August 2006.

The rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur culminating the Long March organised by the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports,?October 24-30, 2010. ?Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Moriarty pushes for re-opening the Phulbari project in July last year, the energy advisor agrees. Let’s look back and see what happened. On September 2, the National Committee calls for a siege of Petrobangla, “a den of MNCs.” Police suddenly launch an attack on the peaceful procession. Baton charge, kicks, punches. Very brutal. Anu is targeted in particular, blows aimed at his head are foiled by brave young activists. Members of the public are outraged, both government and opposition leaders, including Khaleda Zia, rush to the hospital.

Anu is admitted to Square hospital, incidentally, owned by the Square Group, whose managing director Tapan Chowdhury, was power and energy adviser to the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008). No broken bones, but heavily swollen feet from police kicks. Doctors advise plaster casts for a month. The Health minister Dr Ruhul Haque visits Anu on the 5th day, his casts are suddenly removed, he’s issued a discharge certificate for having “improved satisfactorily” though he couldn’t stand up. Needless to say, healing was very painful and prolonged (Doctoral Complicity, New Age, Nov 9, 2009).
The agriculture minister Motia Chowdhury, prime minister’s advisor H T Imam visit Anu in hospital. Sheikh Hasina returns from China on September 6, discussions will be held with the National Committee. The government will not violate the national interest. Reassuring words, but the Committee learns on 9 September that immediately after her return Hasina approved the file for signing the contract. Khaleda Zia had extended her moral support to the Committee but after receiving a visit from the US ambassador falls silent.
The so-called `battling begums’ (The Economist), and their followers, unitedly fall in line with the US Ambassador’s suggestions.
The acute shortage of electricity is a “manufactured” crisis, insists B D Rahmatullah, former director general of the Power Cell (ministry of power, energy and mineral resources). Derated power plants need to be rated, the PDB chairman knows this very well. But repairing and maintaining government power plants, setting up new ones, doesn’t produce perks, you don’t get to own a house abroad. Niko and Chevron’s agents have penetrated the Ministry, they want to extract the most in the shortest possible time. The IPP (Independent Power Producers) policy was prepared after a tour to Washington financed by the World Bank. There’s corruption in Malaysia and India too, but our engineers are willing to sell their country just for a ticket abroad, they don’t stand up to the Indians like they do in Nepal, Malaysia and Bhutan. The cross-border electricity initiative between India and Bangladesh will cost 1,200 crore takas, it’ll provide 500 megawatts, whereas a similar power plant could’ve been built here for only 600 crore takas. It demonstrates the government’s subservient attitude towards the Indian government (Budhbar, Aug 18, 2010).
None of the higher-ups in the energy ministry have rebutted what Rahmatullah said. Nor has the energy advisor sued Nurul Kabir for libel. A TV anchor had gently warned him recently, to which Kabir had replied, he would welcome it, it would provide him with the opportunity of pleading his case before the court.
Governments change but power structures and vested interests don’t, say Anu and Rahmatullah. I agree. The AL government awarded Asia Energy its licence in 1998. Khaleda Zia’s regime cracked down on Phulbari’s protestors in 2006. Her energy adviser, Mahmudur Rahman (currently imprisoned) blamed “a small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever” for orchestrating the deaths and injury. Sentiments echoed by Asia Energy’s CEO, “the fault [lies entirely with] the organisers” (`You cannot eat coal.’ New Age, Aug 19, 2008).
The energy advisor’s promise of building support for open-pit mining materialises further.

Finance minister AMA Muhith in his 2010 budget speech stresses the need for creating a favourable public opinion toward open pit-mining. Petrobangla chairman demands at least two open-pit coal mines be started. The land ministry has begun land acquisition at Barapukuria to open its coal deposit; it is offering locals high compensation.
The parliamentary sub-committee on energy and power visits open-pit coal mine in Germany in late October. Headed by Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, it includes the chief whip, 4 MPs, the energy and mineral resources secretary. They are “highly impressed.” The sub-committee recommends open-pit coal mining on Nov 29.
Anu, you must name names, I insist, they must be exposed. In his characteristically diffident manner Anu describes, it’s a long-drawn concerted campaign, a thick web, many people, diverse forums, same message; it’s in the interests of national development. Whether it’s Hossain Monsur, Petrobangla chairman on TV, or Nuh-ul-Alam Lenin, an ex-CPB member, now publicity secretary of AL, blaming a handful of people `absolutely devoid of common sense.’ Or secretaries, joint secretaries providing training to government officers at the PATC. Then there’s a fortnightly magazine called Energy and Power, its editor is Molla Amjad, with 2-page spreads advertising Asia Energy. Chevron, too. Power is not a commodity that consumers buy, why the need to advertise? Businessmen too, but not all, he adds. Some are opposed to handing over control to foreign companies.
Newer leaks (24 December night) reveal that Moriarty met Chowdhury, sought assurances that US-based Conoco Phillips (from among 7 bidders) be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal, that Chevron be permitted to improve the flow in Bangladesh’s main gas pipeline. The Bangladesh government “complied,” Conoco got the contract 3 months later, in October 2009 (Business Standard/India).
New Age contacts foreign minister Dipu Moni, prime minister’s energy adviser Chowdhury seeking their comments on the Wikileaks disclosure. They avoid questions. On Thursday and Friday, they stop receiving calls. Nor do they respond to text messages (Dec 25, 2010).
Where could one find a richer cast of characters falling over their feet to be handmaidens of global capital, working hard against the interests of the nation and its people, including the so-called `battling begums’?
Salam, people of Phulbari, for you are our true leaders.
Published in New Age, Monday December 27, 2010
Related links:
Wikileaks cables: Bangladesh Gas
More?Long March Images
Long March
You cannot eat coal: Resistance in Phulbari
A beginner’s guide to democracy
Bangladesh Now
Profits versus the poor

WikiLeaks cables: Bangladesh Gas

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US nudged Bangladesh to allocate gas blocks

BS Reporter / New Delhi December 25, 2010, 0:15 IST

Every time India would ask Bangladesh for rights to explore gas, Dhaka would say the country had to first find if there was gas available at offshore locations. For the last one year, the issue hasn?t even been mentioned in discussions with Bangladesh, top petroleum ministry officials said. But India?s loss has been the US gain and it managed to walk away with the prize.
WikiLeaks tapes released late last night revealed how US-based ConocoPhillips was selected from a field of seven bidders and awarded two offshore blocks for exploring gas in 2009. The company was awarded a production sharing contract, with a provision to export the gas in the form of liquefied natural gas in the untapped areas of the Bay of Bengal. The bidders had agreed to stay away from disputed waters in the Bay of Bengal, something US Ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty mentioned in his cables sent in July 2009. Conoco got the contract in October 2009.
Moriarty met Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajed?s energy adviser, Tawfiq Elahi Chowdhury, and got him to assure that ConocoPhillips would be awarded two of the uncontested blocks and Chevron given permission to go ahead with the first of the three compressors necessary to improve flow in Bangladesh?s main gas pipeline. Within three months, the Bangladesh government complied.
Defending themselves against the charge that they had allowed the US to have an advantage by not being proactive themselves, Indian Petroleum Ministry officials said Indian finds of gas had reduced the pressure to secure gas from Bangladesh.
WikiLeaks tapes also revealed that Moriarty urged Chowdhury to approve plans by British company Global Coal Management (GCM) to begin open-cast coal mining in the country?s Phulbari area. In the cable, Moriarty quoted Chowdhury saying the coal mine was ?politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land?.
The energy advisor, however, agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process, Moriarty said in the cable.
In a cable posted by WikiLeaks that was sent in July last year, Moriarty said he had urged Chowdhury to authorise coal mining, adding ?open-pit mining seemed the best way forward?. Later on in the cable, Moriarty said, ?Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has 60 per cent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.?
The ?Phulbari killings? as they are known took the lives of three boys in 2006 when police fired at a demonstration near the mine site. Asia Energy?s shares had crashed in the international market as a result and the company had to undergo a brand change, including a name changing.
In the WikiLeaks cables, Moriarty?s conversations with Indian ambassador Pinaki Ranjan Chakravatry, by contrast, revealed no discussions of a commercial nature, only a general approval by India of the change in government in Bangladesh and US endorsement of a joint South Asian task force on counterterrorism.
India?s high commissioner in Dhaka obligingly told the US ambassador that while India would ?prefer a primarily bilateral engagement?, Bangladesh might want a regional force for political reasons ? allegations that she was too close to India.
Chakravarty spoke of Bangladesh?s keenness to ?invest heavily in Bangladesh?s moribund railway system? including reconnecting the Bangladeshi railroad system to Agartala in Tripura. He said Indian companies would be interested in setting up power plants in Bangladesh, though the price of electricity ?is still under negotiation?. The US takeaway from the conversation is that regional counter-terrorism cooperation would help US assets enormously. Much of the rest is yet to become a reality

Long March

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Day One

Dhaka to Gazipur

Bangladeshi citizens began a long march from Dhaka to Dinajpur to protect the country’s natural resources. The march began at Muktangon in Dhaka with a rally and the first day ended in Gazipur with a cultural programme. People joined along the way. The march will end with a rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur on the 30th October 2010

Latest update from Taslima Akhtar: 9:43 am. 25th Oct 2010: Rally now headed for Tangail District. Via Konabari and Chondra.
Update from Taslima Akhtar: 12:01 pm 26th October 2010: Rally left Sirajgonj, heading to Bogram via Hotikimrun and Gurkha Point. Stopping soon for lunch.
Long March leaving Sherpur for Bogra Shodor. Source Taslima Akhter 16:35 pm. 26th Oct 2010
Arrived at Bogra. Public Meetings. Overnight in Bogra: Source Taslima Akhter 19:48 pm. 26th Oct 2010
Heading 2 Mahasthangar, St. rally n Mokomtola upazila. lunch @ Gobindogonj then 2ward Gaibandha: Source Taslima Akhter 11:58 am 27/10/2010
Arrived in Gaibandha. Source Taslima Akhter 14:35 pm 29/10/2010
Left Gaibandha for Rangpur at 10:00 am. Will be passing through Sadallahpur and Madargonj upozilas before stopping at Peergonj where we will have lunch at noon: Taslima Akhter 11:42 am 28/10.2010
Left Rangpur. Expect to arrive in Sayedpur around noon via Paglapeer and Taragonj. Numbers steadily growing as more people join the procession: Taslima Akhter 10:49 29th October 2010

Concert along the way. Long March. Photo: Taslima Akhter

More recent photos by Taslima Akhter of Long March

]
- The Long March of the National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas and Power-Port. reached Bogra on Tuesday. The committee started their Long March to Phulbari Coal Mine in Dinajpur from Dhaka on October 24 to press home its 7-point demand. The demands include expulsion of Asia Energy from Bangladesh and cancel its deal with the government on Phulbari coal mine. The March reached Dinajpur on October 30. Bogra, Bangladesh. October 27, 2010 ? Mahabub Alam Khan/DrikNews

Garment worker leader Moshrefa Mishu amongst many other leaders who attended the rally. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Towards the beginning of the march as it goes past the secretariat. Paltan. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The March as it goes through Shantinagar in Dhaka. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Long March makes its way through Dhaka city. At Moghbazaar before turning toward Rampura. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Others join the group as it goes through Tejgaon. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Construction workers looking on. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Part of the march was by bus, with rooftops used as there were too many people. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Vegetable Khichuri for lunch. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Many others join in Gazipur where an evening cultural programme is also held, before more speeches. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Onlookers trying to get a peek at the stage. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


?You cannot eat coal?: Resistance in Phulbari

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

?
?Only when the last tree has withered, and the last fish caught, and the last river been poisoned, will we realise we cannot eat money.’
Cree proverb
?[the] uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the break-down of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.’
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1975

?You cannot eat coal’

?No, we do not want the coalmine. What will we eat?’ said an elderly woman. I was watching raw, uncut video footage from Phulbari, shot by media activists Zaeed Aziz and Farzana Boby, a couple of days after the killings occurred on August 26, 2006.
Another woman steps into the frame. She vents bitterly, we work daily for our subsistence, we eat from what we earn. That is all we have. If this land is turned into a coalmine, those who eat in exchange of daily wages, where will they go? Where will we live? How will we survive?
Zaeed and Farzana’s film, ?The Blood-Soaked Banner of Phulbari‘, was released soon after the killings in 2006. I watch the beginning sequence. A crowd of men stand at the long-distance bus stand in Phulbari town, they talk to each other and to the film crew. ?We are poor people,’ says a man, probably in his late-thirties. ?If I lose my home, how will I earn a living? What use will be the coalmine?’ Who will it benefit?
I return to clips from their uncut footage. A younger woman is sitting in her courtyard, ?No, I don’t have a husband, I live with my mother, I work with her. In the same place. If the coalmine comes, we, that is, us mothers-and-daughters, where will we go? We will be scattered from our relatives, we will lose our ties.’


The August 2006 protests in Phulbari ? Andrew Biraj/Drik/Majority World
?Where will we go?’ This question is repeatedly raised by villagers, by both men and women, old and young, by farmers, day-labourers, petty businessmen, schoolchildren, college-going youths, both Bengalis and adivasis, who belong to Santal, Oraon, Pahan, Mahali and Munda communities. By Hindus and Muslims.
?Two coalmines have been built in neighbouring areas,’ one of the men standing at the bus-stand in the Blood-Soaked Banner documentary had said. ?What development has it brought, tell me?’
I turn to Ronald Halder and Philip Gain’s film, ?Phulbari’, an activist film released by SEHD earlier this year. Abdul Jalil of village Chouhati turns his face away in pent-up anger when asked how he has benefited from the coalmine in Barapukuria. ?Benefit? How have I benefited? It has crippled me. I cannot describe the damage it has done. Those who have benefited from it have. We have been devastated.’
Azizunessa of the same village does not mince her words. She too has suffered from the Barapukuria coalmine. ?We are poor people, we raise a cow, a goat or two. But the security guards, they do not let us enter, they do not allow us to cut even a blade of grass. So how does the coalmine that they have built, help us? How do I get my bowl of rice? They do not give me work in the coalmines. My sons have no food. How will they live? Only Allah knows what our situation is like. How our days pass. Or don’t. I did agricultural work, I winnowed paddy, I worked, I ate, I brought in one and a half seers of rice from the house I worked in, I fed the children. Work is not something that appears out of nowhere, that daughters-in-law can bring, that poor people can give each other. Why is it that the coalmine has stopped me from working, from feeding myself? The coalmine is protected by barbed wire fences, it is surrounded by high walls. Why?’ Who benefits from the coalmine?
The Phulbari coal project plans to extract coal using open-pit mining method in seven unions and one municipality in four upazilas of Phulbari, Birampur, Nawabganj and Parbatipur in Dinajpur district. The company behind the $1.4-billion project is Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British-registered Global Coal Management Resources Pls. According to Asia Energy, 40,000 people would be involuntarily resettled, 10,000 hectares, primarily of fertile agricultural land, would be required for mine and associated infrastructure. Activists say the number of people evicted is likely to be ten times more. The proposed coal project would divert a river, suck an aquifer dry for thirty years, the life span of the project. Dynamite explosion, environmentalists say, would cause noise and dust pollution, this would be increased by the trucks and trains that will haul away the coal to the port in Sundarban. To prevent flooding, huge pumps will pump out 800 million litres of water daily, from the mine. This will lower the groundwater in an area covering 500 square kilometres. Air and water pollution is likely to spread to surrounding water bodies. Asia Energy plans to create a huge lake after the project is over, but activists predict that the water is likely to be toxic.
GCM has a sustainable development manager who guides their approach. But the global record of mining operations rejects the sustainable development myth. Roger Moody, international researcher and campaigner against exploitation caused by multinational mining, writes in ?Rocks and Hard Places: The Globalization of Mining’, lesser-developed countries, those with a high degree of dependence on mining, show slower rates of economic growth than their peers. Some countries, he writes, have been worse off. Potosi, a region that has been mined for silver for five centuries, is one of the poorest in Bolivia. Closer home is Orissa, Bihar and Jharkand which provide most of India’s minerals. Bihar has been for many years India’s ?least developed’ state, while Orissa, in 2005, was ranked as the ?poorest’ in the country. Mined regions even in advanced and middle-income countries have been the last to share in aggregated wealth. In 1870, Cornwall had 2,000 tin and copper mines. When the last pit was closed in 1998, Cornwall had the highest proportion of low-paid workers. Mineral-dependent economies, largely in Africa, are more likely to experience zero or even negative growth, since labour and capital move away from sustainable sectors to the extractive sector, and domestic products lose their competitive edge on international markets.
And of course, ?understanding’ risks, albeit from a safe distance, is not the same as being willing to undergo it oneself. Recently, activists from the Alberta Environmental Network showed up at the Oil and Gas Investment Symposium in Calgary, Canada, held by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The event brought together 85 companies and 375 investors from Canada, the US, and around the world. Those present at the meeting were offered drinking water that Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation peoples claim is toxic. They experience high rates of rare cancers and auto-immune diseases, which they believe are linked to the development of the tar sands.
None of the producers/owners, investors, CEOs drank the water.

26th August 2006

On August 26, 2006, more than 50,000 people took part in protests against the proposed mine, in Phulbari town. People from adjoining towns and villages poured in. The Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, opened fire on the protesters. Three young men, Tariqul, son of the municipal commissioner and panel chairman, Ameen, a young carpenter, and Salehin of the adjoining upazila Nawabganj died instantly. One to two hundred people are reported to have been injured in the violence unleashed by the BDR and police.
I turn to Zaeed and Boby’s uncut video footage. A woman describes angrily, ?It was around maghreb, just before the call for prayers, the photographers had left, TV reporters too, that’s when they attacked us.’ To leave no photographic evidence? Another woman butts in, ?We had chased out the police, I was so furious, I have never had the courage before, since that day I have learnt how to fight. Now, I have limitless courage. I am not afraid to die.’ The woman speaking earlier returns to her story, ?The military [read BDR] began beating up people, they entered into our homes, they tore down the tin roofs.’ She is indignant, ?These are people who are meant to protect us, they are law-enforcers.’ Another woman speaks up, ?Did any of them die? They never do. Did any of them suffer any injuries?’
A woman who was badly beaten says, ?The BDR entered our villages, they went from house to house. How dare they enter our villages? So we chased them out. But then they regrouped, they came after us. I couldn’t escape, they caught me and beat me very badly.’ The shot shows other women in the courtyard, nodding their heads as they listen.
Off-screen I hear a female voice, ?Can the government ever defeat the janata?’ A woman wearing a printed sari on-screen says, ?It is the government which breeds terrorists, they tear down the shops of poor people, they snatch away cigarettes and other items, they break these little cigarette stalls that are run by young boys for a living.’ Another off-screen voice, also a woman’s, speaks up, ?Ordinary people are never terrorists.’
Most of the women, in no uncertain words, condemned Khaleda Zia, the then prime minister, for having sold out the interests of the country. What kind of a woman is she? Sending soldiers after us, dragging our husbands out of our homes. Does she want to make us widows? Their language was laced with four-letter words, often directed at her, at times at the then energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, sometimes at the whole cabinet. I brought up the issue with Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper. He said with a wry smile, ?I am most respectful of subaltern languages, but wouldn’t it offend bhodrolok sensibilities?’ We laugh and talk about the gentrification of language, a class-ed mechanism of ruling. Who was it who had said there can be feelings without language, but no language without feelings? Was it not the historian Collingwood? I muse over issues of language, of home and belonging as I search the web and read through newspaper reports of the 26th, and after. I come across news reports stating the energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, blamed a ?small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever’ for orchestrating the deaths and injury to people at Phulbari. Asia Energy Bangladesh’s CEO Gary Lye’s words mirror Mahmudur Rahman’s, ?It’s up to the government, but it would appear to us that the unforgivable events and the needless loss of life and suffering that took place in Phulbari are entirely the fault of the organisers.’
Those who campaign against the ruthless exploitative practices of trans-national mining companies say, increased investment results in human rights abuses, especially against rural communities which the companies want to dislocate and uproot. They also say that the role of the state in extractive sector governance and citizens’ protection diminishes, while its role in protecting and promoting the interests of trans-national corporations increases. One sees that happening in Phulbari, over Asia Energy’s proposed Phulbari coal project.
Mozammel member, a pourasabha member, says in defence of the project, ?If the government wishes it, how can we prevent it from happening?’ People around him ask, ?But why do you want the coalmine? Can you not see that it is not in the interests of the people?’ His answer is cruel and simple, ?We are not for the people. We are for the government.’

The compensation story

In the Blood-Soaked Banner, a man who describes himself as a petty businessman says, ?Yes, the coal project will bring benefits to some, to those who have built three-storey buildings in the town, those who have made plans of where to relocate, where to build new homes, the businesses that they will start, even, what kind of houses they will build for themselves.’ It will benefit those already-privileged, those who are townspeople. But not those who live off the land, those who make a living from agriculture, from day-labour, and the innumerable number of ways through which poor people make a living. In other words, the majority.
Abdul Jalil of Chouhati, Barapukuria was asked about the compensation that he had received from the government. ?They gave it in little, little instalments, it took ages, the money dried up as I walked back and forth to collect it.’ Compensation is also tied up with land deeds and titles, a method of possession and ownership that is antagonistic to the adivasi tradition, and their claims to ancestral land. That is probably why Lawrence Tudu of Buski, Birampur says, ?We will not leave this village, we will not leave our homestead, we will not leave the soil, if necessary, my remains will get buried under this soil.’
Poor people’s claims to compensation are entangled in bureaucracy, and in corporate controlled channels of profiteering. Corporations themselves evade responsibility and accountability as one sees in Magurcchara and Tengratila, where international oil companies have shown great reluctance to pay compensation for the miserable accidents that have occurred.
And compensation for killings? Ameen’s mother when asked said yes, I have received two lakh taka from the government, as compensation. And another twenty thousand from Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, the then opposition party (interestingly enough, it was the Awami League government that awarded the licensing agreement to Asia Energy, in 1998). But, she says, I hurt, I grieve for my son. I raised him, does compensation lessen my loss? Will money ever call out ?ma’, or ?baba’?

Democracy, a world of power

Democracy, writes historian and subaltern theorist Partha Chatterjee in his recent work, ?The Politics of the Governed’, is no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Twentieth-century techniques of governing population groups, widespread acceptance of the idea of popular sovereignty, the creation of governmental bodies that administer populations but do not provide its citizens with arenas of democratic deliberation, these conditions, says Chatterjee, give rise to democracy becoming a world of power. A world which has startling dimensions, and unwritten rules of engagement.
I see the people of Phulbari voice a collective identity, framed, at first, within the politics of electoral democracy. We have brought this government to power. How can they not do what we want? It is my vote that decides who will be the member of parliament. I elect the chairman. He must work for me, in my interests. A woman adds, what kind of a government is it that pushes us into waging movements? That destroys our peaceful lives, that takes away our sons? We want to return to our normal lives. Increasingly, people’s voices become more assertive. If the government does not value us, we will not value them either. If the government will not provide for us, we do not need this government. We do not need any government.
Amidst the strident assertiveness, a peasant’s words ring out clearly, ?I am a khetmojur, I till the land. It is the crops I grow that feed the leaders. Am I more valuable, or they?’
Whether elected or un-elected, all governments, both leaders and state functionaries, need to be fed. They would be well-advised to listen to the voices of those who produce. After all, one cannot eat coal. Or money, either.
First published in New Age on 19th August 2008?
Other articles that refer to Phulbari:
Profits versus the Poor
A Beginner’s Guide to Democracy
Bangladesh Now