Tanim Ahmed, NewAge, August 26, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh
UK-based Asia Energy has been behind the organised campaign of a group of civil society fronts in favour of swift coal extraction in northern Bangladesh, reveals a New Age investigation. These fronts, platforms and associations, were initiated and supported by the subsidiary of Global Coal Management Resources to demonstrate public support for its proposal for an open pit coal mine stretching 65 square kilometres at Phulbari of Dinajpur, countering strong national and local opposition.
Two years ago on August 26, several thousand people took to the streets protesting against the proposed open pit mining, which was feared to displace over one lakh people and affect the life and livelihood of another two lakh people. Three people were killed and dozens others injured as law enforcers opened fire on the protesters on the day in 2006.
According to Asia Energy, Phulbari coal mine would produce some 520 million tonnes of coal over 35 years and displace 50,000 people. The associations or platforms, particularly active in the northern districts in advocating swift coal extraction include the Greater Rangpur-Dinajpur Business Development Forum, comprising different business bodies and businessmen, the Greater Dinajpur District NGO Alliance for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, evidently an association of 30 local non-governmental organisations and North Bengal Mineral Resources Reporters’ Forum, an association of journalists.
Office bearers of these forums deny their links with Asia Energy and claim to be promoting mineral extraction for the benefit of the northern region that has remained neglected for long, and reduction of disparity compared to the rest of the country.
The business development forum was founded by Nazrul Islam, a former executive chairman of Bangladesh’s Board of Investment, and a retired additional secretary of the government. Nazrul continues to serve as the forum’s chairman. But he is also the executive director for Asia Energy Bangladesh.
Nazrul insisted that there was no conflict of interest in the two offices he holds. ‘I have been involved in such forums and associations for a long time,’ he said mentioning a number of high offices he held in the past on district committees in northern Bangladesh.
Rafiqul Islam, president of Dinajpur Chamber of Commerce, also a member of the business development forum said it was entirely driven by Nazrul, who previously served Asia Energy in the capacity of a consultant.
Rafiqul had refused to read out a pre-drafted speech handed to him at a public meeting of the forum on May 2 this year in Dinajpur. ‘I found it was contrary to our national interests.’ He told the meeting that an open pit coal mine was not acceptable considering the situation of Bangladesh. ‘We must not compromise fertile, arable land for coal extraction.’
The alliance of non-governmental organisations apparently comprising of 36 organisations, maintains a Dhaka office with the same address as that of Asia Energy.
The web pages—www.gddna.com and http://www.rangpur-dinajpur-forum.com—have identical IP addresses and other web hosting details, suggesting that the two are run and operated from a single source.
Hamidul Haque, chairman of the alliance, also chief executive of the Palli Gano Sanghati Parishad, said the association’s contact person in Dhaka is one Ahsan Habib, who happens to be Asia Energy’s manager for equipment, mobilisation and support. Hamid said Ahsan provided the alliance with all the necessary support for maintaining and uploading their NGO alliance website.
He said the platform, similar to the other platforms, was not in any way suggesting that Asia Energy be given the contract for Phulbari. ‘If they do get involved however, we will become involved in handling the environmental projects to mitigate the adverse impacts on environment and agriculture.’ But he denied that the association had any links with Asia Energy.
Hamid claimed the association ‘intends to accelerate the utilisation of natural resources including minerals as available in the Dinajpur region for the holistic and sustainable development involving the community’.
But an email sent by alliance to the Asian Development Bank gives a proof of its bias towards Asia Energy. It requested the lending agency to ‘reconsider its decision regarding financing the Phulbari Coal Project’ after it was reported in the media that the lending agency’s private sector division had decided to pull out of the project, thus withdrawing a $100 million political risk guarantee.
The email, dated April 10 this year, to relevant high officials of the lending agency including the ADB president and the country head, reads, ‘We are very much disappointed with this news. To us, this decision will not help the people of the country rather lead the energy security of the country in a vulnerable position. Because Phulbari Coal Project would be a major development [work] in the north-west Bangladesh.’
Denying all allegations of driving the platforms, Nazrul said, ‘Asia Energy is absolutely transparent. We have no involvement with these groups.’ Regarding an Asia Energy staff providing technical support, he said, ‘I am not aware of such a thing. I do not think it is indeed the case.’