by Rahnuma Ahmed
In the end, treachery will betray even itself.
WHEN the prime minister, the finance minister, etc, not known for being democratically-oriented, feel obliged to respond publicly according to the terms and conditions set by the national oil-gas committee, it is clear that the tide is shifting.
It is clear that the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports has made a significant impact on public consciousness. That there is a growing national awareness of the issue of ownership of natural resources; of the terms on which production sharing contracts are signed with international oil companies; a growing suspicion that exporting extracted gas may not be the best way of solving the nation’s energy shortfall. More precisely, of the hollowness of the government’s reasoning as to why gas blocks need to be, must necessarily be, leased out to multinational companies. More broadly, of whether the nation’s ruling class, regardless of which political party is in power, does act in the interests of the nation, of its people.
It is clear from what top ruling party leaders are now obliged to say, to repeatedly say, we are patriotic, we are not treacherous, that they have been forced to cede ground.
It is clear that a moral battle has been won.
Two days after the deal was signed with energy giant ConocoPhillips on June 16 for deep sea exploration in the Bay of Bengal, prime minister Sheikh Hasina was forced to say, we are not doing anything which goes against the interests of the nation, against the interests of the people. She was echoing what her cabinet colleagues and energy officials had said earlier. The finance minister had affirmed at the signing ceremony, the government has protected the country’s interest. Petrobangla’s chairman Hossain Monsur too, had said, the production sharing contract contains nothing which goes against the national interest. Similar words had been mouthed by the prime minister’s energy adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury.
No one is a better patriot, no one is a better protector of the nation’s interests than me, said the prime minister (‘Who is a better patriot, asks PM’, bdnews24, June 18).
News reports indicate, she then went off into a rant. Where was the national oil-gas committee during the previous government when there was no development in the country? When there was no electricity production? When there was no gas exploration? When investors were kept waiting due to lack of gas and electricity?
Leaders and activists of the national committee were exactly where they are now. They had demanded then, as they demand now, that energy policies should benefit the people, not the multinational companies. That it is detrimental to the national interest.
But I wonder whether the prime minister remembers where she herself had been when there was ‘no development in the country, when there was no electricity production...’ etc, etc. When the people of Phulbari had risen up against Asia Energy’s proposed open-pit mine. When an elderly woman had said, ‘No, we do not want the coal mine. What will we eat?’ When a young man had asked, ‘Two coal mines have been built in neighbouring areas. What development has it brought, tell me?’ When paramilitary forces had opened fire on August 26, 2006. Three persons killed. Many more injured (‘You cannot eat coal.’ Resistance in Phulbari, New Age, August 19, 2008).
Sheikh Hasina, then leader of the opposition, had visited Phulbari. She had publicly pledged to resist any move to start open-pit mining in Phulbari, or at any other place in the country. She had lent support to the hartal called by the national committee on August 30, 2006; had publicly called upon the government led by Khaleda Zia, to stick to the agreement it had entered into with the people of Phulbari.
It is a pledge that has been betrayed since the government, by all indications, is moving ahead to implement an open-pit pilot project at Barapukuria, with top-ranking government leaders desperately trying to shore up support for open-pit mining. The very leaders who earlier opposed it, now insist, open-pit mining will yield higher economic benefits.
Is it a wonder then that the national committee accuses the government of betraying the people? Of betraying themselves? Their own words, their own actions? That it accuses them of treachery?
The chorus of voices to be seen and heard now had been noticeably absent when cables from US embassy Dhaka, WikiLeaked on December 24 night, revealed that US ambassador James Moriarty had met the prime minister’s energy adviser, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, had sought assurances that US-based ConocoPhillips (from among 7 bidders) be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal.
New Age had contacted foreign minister Dipu Moni, and the energy adviser Chowdhury. It had sought official responses on the disclosure. They had avoided questions; a day later, they stopped receiving calls. They did not respond to text messages either (WikiLeaks Bangladesh-1, New Age, December 27, 2010).
Till date, this government, which won a landslide victory in the December 2008 elections, has not responded to the WikiLeaks disclosure.
Instead, top-ranking government leaders keep mouthing words, no, the contracts are not against the national interest. We would never do such a thing, would we?
How can one tell if the contracts are not made publicly available? All contracts signed thus far for coal and natural gas, have been kept secret. They have not been placed before parliament—the people’s elected body—either. There has been no parliamentary discussion. To top it all, these contracts have been kept secret from the parliamentary standing committee on energy as well.
Is it not reasonable to want to read the contracts, especially in the light of WikiLeaks disclosure which served only to confirm, and very definitively so, what the national committee had suspected all along?
But instead, whenever specific criticisms of the terms of the contract are raised, for instance, that the leasing company has been awarded the right to sell off 80 per cent of the gas extracted, that they are likely to do so given our own experiences and that of other third world countries, that this will not solve the country’s energy crisis, or, that the multinationals will sell it to us at very high prices, that gas prices will double from earlier prices, $2.92, or Tk 210 for a million cubic foot to $5-6 or Tk 420, that this will push up the prices of daily necessities and services further (rice, lentils, etc, to transport), that we can see through the government’s excuses, that just because India and Myanmar are going ahead with exploration in their own offshore territory, does not mean that unless we sign over blocks to MNCs we will lose control of that which indisputably belongs to Bangladesh, that we should instead pursue a different path to development, by retaining control over our natural resources, by strengthening the nation’s exploration agencies, that we should stop moaning, ‘we have neither the money nor the technology’ that it is the political will that matters....
I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll stick to the issue of contract instead. All reasonable concerns raised are either dismissed by the Petrobangla chairman, by high officials at the energy ministry as being merely `speculative.’ Or, they are pooh-poohed by our garrulent finance minister, it is ‘utter nonsense’.
But I have noticed that some of these high officials slip up in their enthusiastic defence, this won’t-happen, no, that won’t-happen either, where does it say in the contract?
But exactly. Where is the contract? Why has the government not made any contract available publicly? Why are they secreted away? The only document that we, members of the public, have access to, is the production sharing contract (PSC model 2008), which Anu Muhammad, member secretary, national committee, is quick to point out, was designed during the caretaker government and was uploaded on the net to facilitate international bidding. Not to elicit comments or suggestions from members of the public.
Does secrecy over contracts not lend credence to BD Rahmatullah’s accusation that the power crisis has been manufactured, has been ‘artificially created’ to push through anti-people power projects like rental power plants? There is reason to take his word for it, he was former director-general of the Power Cell. ‘Our engineers’, he says, ‘are willing to sell their country just for a ticket abroad’ (Budhbar, August 18, 2010).
Did the Awami League sign a muchleka with foreign powers that if voted to power, our natural resources would be handed over?
As the issue of caretaker government rages between the two major political parties, which government will hold the next parliamentary elections, will it be the current one, or a caretaker government, as rumours fly around of the dice being stacked so that HM Ershad and his Jatiya Party, currently a member of the ruling alliance, can form the loyal opposition, as it increasingly seems that the war crimes trials are being drawn-out to help win another election, as Ershad gets acquitted in a money-laundering case filed over 15 years ago (as I write), suspicions keep deepening.
Suspicions which led the national committee to organise a siege of the energy ministry—dubbed Kashimbazar Kuthi—on June 14, to protest against the government’s decision to sign the deal with ConocoPhillips. Police action prevented the siege from taking place, protestors were clubbed, many were hurt and injured.
Our rulers have not learned any lessons from history. Despite Mir Jafar being one of the most despised and reviled names, despite his having been unable to ‘benefit’ in the narrow sense of the word from his act of treachery.
The demoted army chief of Nawab Sirajuddoula, the last independent nawab of Bengal, entered into a secret pact with the British, negotiated by William Watts, chief of the British factory at Kasimbazar. In exchange of promises of huge bribes and the nawabship of Bengal, Mir Jafar withheld his troops when Sirajuddoula fought with the British East India Company’s army on June 23, 1757. Despite being numerically superior, the nawab’s forces lost; forced to flee, Sirajuddoula was later caught and executed.
Later day historians agree that although the purported reason given for the Battle of Plassey was Sirajuddoula’s capture of Fort William in Kolkata, the company had actually decided that only a change of regime would help it advance its interests. That the East India Company’s geopolitical ambition and the larger dynamics of colonial conquest are essential to understanding the larger picture. For, the conquest of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa had led to further conquests. Of India. Of South Asia.
And what of geopolitical ambitions now? Critical commentators agree that the US-led ‘war on terror’ is actually a war for energy resources. That America’s foreign oil dependency is being militarised by the US government, that it has chosen to rely on military forces to protect access to foreign oil. And that, as other players (China, Russia) enter the stage, the US administration is also turning to seek other energy sources.
But to return to history, what happened to Mir Jafar? Installed as the nawab, he was a mere puppet figure. He was un-installed when he realised that British expectations were boundless, but was re-installed after Mir Qasim proved to be too strong-minded. Another quisling, Jagat Seth, hereditary banker to the Mughal emperor and the nawab of Bengal, reportedly went mad after Clive refused to give him 5 per cent of the loot promised.
To return to the present, close to Mir Jafar’s palace in Murshidabad, in ruins, stands a gate known as Nimak Haramer Deori (the traitor’s gate).