ALL aspects of coal in Bangladesh are proving to be as dark as the coal. Debates about the contribution that coal can make in solving the ever-increasing power crisis, the role it can and should play in overall energy security of the country for the next several decades, the steps needed to finalise the proposed national coal policy, and the best mining method have been taking new turns at every phase during the last several years (DS, June 21, 2009).
Recent news about the government's initiatives to finalise the proposed coal policy and the mining method for Barapukuria and Phulbari coalfields sparked fresh debate as to the content and extent of the proposed national coal policy and the best mining method for the coalfields (DS, April 20).
As the power shortage reaches crisis proportions and hinders industrial production, many consider coal as a panacea, yet others argue that the decision about coal mining is being pushed by a vested interest group and will not solve the power crisis in a short run.
Speculations about the government's decision about coal policy and mining methods are rampant in the absence of a clear stand by the concerned authority in the government. On occasions, government spokespersons and ministers expressed their desire to carry out mining in Phulbari and Barapukuria using open-pit mining method.
An adviser, H.T. Imam, made remarks to the effect that those who opposed coal mining in the name of environment are anti-development and have a vested interest. Minister of Industries Dilip Barua also expressed a strong desire to mine coal from northern coal fields to generate electricity (Financial Express, May 22).
In addition to the government's advocacy for coal as a panacea for power crisis, there is a civil society advocacy group which openly supports open-pit mining in Phulbari and Barapukuria . Energy & Power magazine and online magazine Energy Bangla are among the groups that advocate in favour of Asia Energy Corporation's (now called GCM) proposal for open-pit mining in Phulbari.
This group does not see any need for a national coal policy and thinks that the Mine & Mineral Act of 1968 can be modified to include a section on coal mining (Energy Bangla, February 17, 2009). In fact, most high-profile Petrobangla officials in charge of making decision about the coal policy and coal mining option favour open pit coal mining in Phulbari and Barapukuria. They too do not see any need for a comprehensive national coal policy that was proposed by the Patwary Commission in 2007.
It should be mentioned here that the Patwary Commission's coal policy was created in an open and transparent manner, and representatives of various stakeholders, including environmental watchdog groups such as Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), were also consulted for inputs.
On assuming power, the current government organised a roundtable conference on June 15-18, 2009, which was attended by eight non-resident Bangladeshi (NRB) experts. Among others, Energy Advisor Dr. Tawfiq Elahi Chowdhury, State Ministers Mr. Shamsul Haque Tuku and Mr. Mustafizur Rahman, Energy Secretary Mr. Md. Mohsin, Petrobangla Chairman Dr. Hossian Monsur, and several MPs from northern districts attended the roundtable conference.
This writer was one of the participants at the government-sponsored roundtable conference to discuss the proposed coal policy and mining options. Although there was disagreement among the participating NRBs with regard to the content of the proposed coal policy and the mining methods, some recommendations were agreed upon by all participants at the end of the conference.
Following the roundtable, those recommendations were made public at a press conference at Jamuna Resort on June 18, 2009. It appeared during the roundtable that the government was open to objective recommendations made by the NRB group. Major recommendations on mining options and coal policy addressed the following topics:
Institutional and legal framework building.
Developing environmental acts, regulations, standards, and laws that will be necessary during all phases of coal mining;
-Energy security for the next 20 years.
-Establishing water quality and quantity baseline for both surface water and ground water in the mining region and holding the mining authority responsible for maintaining pre-mining water quality and quantity.
-Resettlement and rehabilitation issues.
-Environment, health and safety issues, keeping provision for general public and environmental watchdog groups to file law suits against non-compliance by mining companies and against lack of enforcement of environmental laws by the concerned authority.
-Not to favour any specific mining method, but to adopt a method that will be suitable for a specific coalfield in the context of geologic, hydro-geologic, environmental, and socio-economic conditions.
-Resource mobilisation and economic issues in the context of public private partnership (PPP).
The government representatives present at the roundtable conference made it very clear that they did not like the content of the Patwary Commission's coal policy, and that they favoured a substantially shorter document to replace the proposed coal policy. The Petrobangla officials prepared a shorter version of the coal policy, which was presented on behalf of Petrobangla at the roundtable conference.
Following the presentation, this writer made specific suggestions to improve the proposed coal policy. Many of the above recommendations were formulated in light of the presentations and suggestions made by this writer.
It has been almost a year since the roundtable conference was held; however, there has not been any indication that the concerned government authority has any desire to incorporate any of the recommendations made by the NRBs.
As per news published in Energy Bangla (May 26), the government has decided to adopt open-pit mining in Phulbari and Barapukuria. This raises a question as to how the proponents of AEC's proposal to mine coal in Phulbari using open-pit method received this exclusive news.
It is also worth noting that several high profile government representatives made a visit to Germany to see open-pit mining operation. As per the news, this trip was organised by the AEC, which raises question about the neutrality of the government in deciding the best mining method in Phulbari and Barapukiria.
In this context, it is imperative that the general public in Phulbari and Barapukuria demand transparency and accountability in decision-making on mining. The environmental watchdog groups need to demand implementation of the recommendations made by various stakeholders, including the NRB participants, at the roundtable conference.
Since all mineral resources belong to the people, they should be taken into confidence before the government adopts a mining method and coal policy that will have direct impacts on lives and livelihood of the people living in a coal zone. If not done properly, coal mining will not light up the country; instead, such action will engulf the country in yet another dark chapter and destroy the environment beyond the point of no return.
Md. Khalequzzaman, Ph.D., Lock Haven University, Lock Haven, PA, U.S.A.