Industrialization dose not come without its costs. It can mean pollution. It can mean urban squalor. It can mean relocation of communities through the power of eminent domain. It can mean unsightly power plants and factories. And it also means getting gas and coal out from under the ground and using them, even selling them, instead of just sitting on them and doing nothing.
- Zafar Sobhan
Amidst the tragedy of the five killed and 300 injured in the BDR firing on protesters demonstrating against Asia Energy Corporation's open-pit coal-mining project at Phulbari on August 26, and the subsequent commotion that has seen Asia Energy staff houses and offices torched and looted in a frenzy of violence, it is important not to lose sight of one important truth:
Asia Energy is not responsible for the killings, and while the fury of the demonstrators is understandable, the killings should not be seen to somehow legitimize the demands of those who oppose the coal-mining project.
This needs to be said.
When those who are opposed to the Asia Energy project demand that in the wake of the killings that Asia Energy's contract be cancelled and the company be expelled from the country, it needs to be said.
When the company's offices and project materials are ransacked and those associated with the company (referred to by the rioters as the company's "collaborators") must fear for their lives, it needs to be said.
When the government announces that it has agreed to cancel its deal with Asia Energy and expel the company from Bangladesh in response to the agitation, it needs to be said.
In the aftermath of the shooting and the subsequent agitation, it certainly seems as though the government had little option but to accede to the demands of the local population of Phulbari, who overwhelmingly oppose the project. It is hard to see how Asia Energy can possibly continue to do business in Bangladesh after such a catastrophe.
But whether one thinks it is a good or bad thing that Asia Energy will almost certainly have to pack up and leave the country after having spent some $24 million, it should be acknowledged that this is happening in response to an incident for which the company is not to blame.
Now, I am not an expert on coal-mining, and I really don't have the authority to state whether the contact between Asia Energy and the government was fair or not, or whether open-pit mining if preferable to shaft mining, etc. but one thing is worth pointing out:
As a nation, we are going to have to come to terms with the idea of these kinds of massive industrial projects if we want Bangladesh to become a middle-income nation and full member (rather than the associate member we are today) of the modern global community.
Now, it could be that the specific details of the Asia Energy deal were suspect and exploitative, but I think that it is fair to say that the bulk of the objection to the project comes from people who would object to any coal-mining project of this kind and that no industrial project of this scale would meet with their approval.
There are concerns about the environmental impact There are concerns about the resettlement of the displaced. There are concerns about how the profits are to be split. And, of course, in Bangladesh, there are also concerns about the integrity of our own officials, and whether we can trust them to act in the national interest when negotiating on our behalf.
These are all legitimate concerns. But the question is: are these concerns that any company can address to the satisfaction of those opposed to massive industrial and infrastructure projects and inherently suspicious of big multi-national companies.
The sense I get is that most of the opposition to large-scale industrial and infrastructure projects is on ideological grounds.
This is a hard choice facing the country. But if we want to move forward, then it is a choice that we are going to have to make. Keeping the government and foreign investors honest and attempting to ensure that Bangladesh secures the best possible deal is fine, but opposing the entire process of industrial development due to opposition to trans-national capitalism is counter-productive, and this is where the country is right now.
Like I said, I don't know much about whether it was a good deal or not, but I do know the following:
I do know that the northern region of Bangladesh is chronically impoverished and under-developed and that a project of this scale would help transform the entire economy of the region.
I do know that Asia Energy's plans included the building of a $40 million coal shipment terminal in Khulna, the dredging and upgrading of Mongla port so that it could handle the annual export of eight million tons of coal, and the upgrading of the rail connection between the mine and the port that would transform the nation's western rail corridor.
Now, Asia Energy are not doing any of this because they are nice guys. They are doing it in their own interest because these developments will help facilitate the smooth distribution of coal that is necessary for them to earn a good return on their investment. This is capitalism. But the point is that these developments would have also been of immense benefit to the nation as a whole.
Bangladesh can either fund this kind of infrastructure development on our own (sure) or we can partner with big multi-national companies and have them foot the bill. The latter sounds like a pretty sensible approach to me.
As a nation, we need to overcome out innate distrust of this kind of industrial and infrastructure development if we are to ever get anywhere.
Look, it is easy to rile up locals who will bear the brunt of development. It is easy to find eighty-year old farmers who would rather die than leave their ancestral homes. It is even easier when the company behind the proposed project is that greatest of evils, a multi-national corporation, and fronted by people with white skin.
My concern is that we are creating a situation where no foreign direct investment is ever going to be possible in Bangladesh.
Well, perhaps not no foreign investment. But the events of the past few years show that it will always be a simple task to create opposition to foreign investment from certain parts of the world.
Essentially, the message we are sending to prospective foreign investors is that no white people or Indians need apply.
Of course, this leaves the door open for investment from China and the Middle East. Coincidence? Perhaps not. But it should be borne in mind that creating an environment that only tolerates foreign investment from these quarters will ultimately serve the interests of those in Bangladesh who are closely tied to these nations and not necessarily the interests of the Bangladeshi people.
As with the Tata deal, one senses that the real problem with the Asia Energy deal is not so much the specifics of the deal as it is the identity of the company behind it. As with the issue of exporting gas to India, it is abundantly clear that it is not the merits of any particular deal but the politics that will ultimately rule the day.
This kind of thinking is why Bangladesh remains stuck stubbornly in a vicious cycle of chronic under-development.
Now, some people don't mind this. They have a romantic vision of Bangladesh as a rural paradise of contented farmers plowing their fields and potters and weavers tenderly fashioning their handicrafts by the light of a hurricane lamp, and view the entire concept of industrial development as some kind of neo-colonialist imposition.
But these are yesterday's men and women, pining after a rural idyll that never was and that cannot be in today's world. Bangladesh cannot return to the days of a subsistence agricultural economy and hope to survive in the modern world. It is industrialize and modernize or forever remain second-class citizens of the world
In any event, most Bangladeshis want development. If farming was such a great way of life, we wouldn't have had tens of millions who have abandoned the land to try their luck in Dhaka and other urban centers over the years. Most people understand that the old way of life is dying and want the opportunities that come along with modernization.
Industrialization does not come without its costs. It can mean pollution. It can mean urban squalor. It can mean relocation of communities through the power of eminent domain. It can mean unsightly power plants and factories. And it also means getting gas and coal out from under the ground and using them, even selling them, instead of just sitting on them and doing nothing. Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.