Police murders during a recent strike at a new Bangladeshi power plant and its context within shifting global energy policies.
16th April 2021, Banshkhali, Chittagong region, Bay of Bengal, southern Bangladesh:
Last Friday several hundred workers laid down their tools and gathered at the construction site of the Banshkhali power plant. They demanded from plant management a two hour reduction in the working day for the religious holiday of Ramadan to allow breaks for prayers, for wages arrears to be paid in time for the holiday and for a pay rise. Workers normally work a twelve hour day including four hours compulsory overtime. Workers stated that when the demands were put to management they were met with insults and orders to keep working.
Saturday 17th April
On Saturday morning the workers gathered again, joined by some locals with their own resentments against the plant management (see below): the police tried to persuade them to return to work with the promise that management had agreed to their demands. The workers demanded that management should speak to the workers outside the plant to confirm this acceptance. How the situation then developed is hotly disputed with police claiming the workers attacked them and company property while workers allege that police attacked them with batons. Workers responded with bricks and the police then began shooting indiscriminately. This appeared to be verified by several workers who said they were not part of the demonstration but were observing from a distance: yet they too were shot.
Clashes continued through the day: sixteen company vehicles were set on fire while bricks were thrown at police and other small fires were set. Five workers were killed with seventeen others injured. Three police were also injured.
Two official enquiries are underway into the shooting. But, even before they conclude, some compensation has been paid to the families of the dead and injured – which hardly suggests innocence on the part of the cops but does suggest such costs are factored in as the price of labour discipline.
After the shootings hundreds of workers were seen leaving the plant with luggage – whether walking off the job permanently or just for the holiday remains to be seen.
Another April – 2016
The coal-fired power plant presently under construction at Banshkhali has a controversial history. In 2013 the Alam Group, a Bangladeshi business conglomerate, allied with Chinese investors SEPCOIII Electric Power and HTG to build the plant. After government approval for the project in 2016 they began buying up thousands of acres of land. This was in reality a land grab enforced by company thugs and state terror: the locals, mainly poor fishermen and small subsistence farmers, were subjected to brutality and harassment by local cops and company goons and either evicted or forced to sell land cheaply to the company.
In March and April 2016 thousands of locals and supporters held demonstrations against the development and their forced relocation: this culminated in attacks by local police, hired thugs and members of the ruling Awami League party. In April, after several demonstrators were shot and killed, many protesters and organisers went into hiding to avoid police raids and imprisonment that turned the area into a military occupation. Police checkpoints were set up around the area;
“No one is paying heed to our problems. What is going on in the union [parish]? They [police] have turned the whole union into a jail. Now, no one can go outside the union,” claimed Abu Ahmed, a close aide of Liakat Ali, convener of the Committee to Protect Habitations and Graveyards (Daily Star, 19 May 2016).
The project went ahead and now employs over 3,000 workers who are overseen by a Chinese management team. The plant was supposed to be finished in 2019 but remains way behind schedule with construction still only 70% completed.
High water everywhere
Aside from the obvious social and ecological destruction caused by the construction of the plant Banshkhali’s remote coastal location is vulnerable in other ways. The area is prone to cyclones – a major one in 1991 killed 100,000. The plant will be coal-powered, so adding to the global warming that accelerates the rising sea levels threatening low-lying Bangladesh more than most countries – and none more so than in
coastal areas like Banshkhali.
Bangladesh is vulnerable on several fronts: extreme weather conditions will increase as a by-product of global warming with cyclones and tornadoes becoming more frequent. (Last year Cyclone Amphan hit the Bay of Bengal and forced the new Payra power plant to suspend power generation for several days.)
Higher temperatures and increased flooding will reduce crop yields and flood prone areas are expected to increase from 25% to 40% of the landmass. Rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal delta will increase human displacement in flooded regions and drastically reduce fishing yields, leading to greater poverty and hunger. These changes will likely affect over 30 million of the poorest inhabitants of Bangladesh, around one fifth of the population.
The Bangladeshi government rushed through approval for the Banshkhali power plant project, not bothering even with the usual formalities of an environmental impact assessment. The local ruling class beneficiaries can expect to have a bird’s eye view from higher ground as the flooding swallows up ever more of the land providing subsistence for the poor. But they may find themselves living on ever-smaller islands…
“According to Oxford University climatologist Professor Mark New, over the past 30 years, snow cover and ice cover may have been reduced by 30 percent in the eastern Himalayas. There is now a real risk that these glaciers might disappear altogether in the coming decades. If this happens, Bangladesh’s mighty rivers originating in the eastern parts of the Himalayas would be severely affected. The availability of fresh water would decline, and drought, as well as diminished water sources for irrigation, would become new permanent features for an ecosystem once abundant with freshwater. The Copenhagen Summit (COP15) held in 2009 has found Bangladesh as one of the most vulnerable countries (MVCs) on earth with respect to climate change.” (Climatic Hazards and the Bay of Bengal Delta – Moazzem Hossain) 
The energy vampires
The Banshkhali plant is only one of a number of energy projects funded by foreign governments. Russia is building a nuclear plant at Roppur in the centre of Bangladesh. There too environmental and safety concerns have been expressed by critics: the site was chosen 60 years ago but construction was repeatedly delayed for political and economic reasons until Russian investment of over $11 billion allowed production to start in 2017. Since the site was originally allocated extreme weather conditions and flooding have increased massively in the region. The Russian state company Rosatom overseeing the project has a poor record in earlier plant builds in India.
Competition for investment and influence in Bangladesh between its two big brother powers China and India continues – with both investing billions in the country. The attraction is both military and commercial: with a growing, largely young, population of 160 million and a thriving global garment industry Bangladesh is an increasingly important regional importer and exporter. It also occupies a strategically important military position: sharing a long border with India and situated on the Bay of Bengal, a vital trade route for Asian exports where Chinese, Indian, Japanese and US navies compete for military dominance. The latter three are all concerned to try to limit China’s increasing military presence in the area.
While India has a long history of interference in Bangladeshi politics (breeding much popular resentment) China’s recent presence has been politically more hands-off, preferring to establish its influence economically – China has far outstripped India’s recent investments with around $40 billion spent largely on energy and transport infrastructure. Bangladesh is also China’s second largest market for arms sales. The coal-fired power plant presently under construction at Banshkhali is just one of these Chinese strategic investments.
China’s ‘Belt & Roads Initiative’ has been described as a 21st century Silk Road, a web of maritme and land routes seeking to establish a network of transport infrastructure through Asia, Africa and beyond to facilitate its economic expansion and military presence. The US and other rivals are seeking to counter this imperialist push but the Chinese state has a head start. China has made infrastructure loans to poorer countries which have often saddled them with unmanageable debt. Whether this is deliberate policy by China or simple financial incompetence by inexperienced debtor countries is a matter of dispute: but China has gained major concessions such as tax-exempt Special Economic Zones, military bases and cheap leases on port facilities and other infrastructure. Kenya and Sri Lanka have both recently lost control of ports in this way and other debt-laden countries in the Asia Pacific region and in Africa may follow.
Old King Coal
At present energy demand in Bangladesh far outruns capacity: only about 50% of households have electricity and industries complain of power cuts. But there is a push for Bangladesh to attain the status of a ‘middle income nation’ in this decade (although this could only be achieved by the vast majority of workers remaining poor, albeit with technological development, probable labour reforms and some increased spending power to expand internal consumer markets). This is driving the rapid expansion of energy capacity. Banshkhali is only one of a series of plants planned in recent years: the entire coastal zone – one of the most flood prone regions in the world and most vulnerable to rising sea levels – was selected for coal-powered projects financed by companies from India, China and Japan allied with local investors. The US is also a major player and dominates the gas sector. At present renewables only account for 1.3% of electricity production.
But this whole coal-based strategy is now looking less likely. In February the government announced it was scrapping nine planned coal-powered plants. This was influenced by several factors: international investors and development loan banks, concerned about reputational damage and changing energy policies, are less inclined to be associated with coal and its carbon emissions.
The rise in coal prices is also a factor: Bangladesh imports most of its coal from Indonesia and recent price rises mean that it cannot compete with China in bidding for Indonesian supplies. So China’s own greed for its internal coal consumption undermines the economic viability of the Banshkhali plant it is financing in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh will want to avoid reproducing the problems its Payra coal-powered plant now finds itself in. Another China-Bangladesh joint venture, it opened last year and has signed a ten year supply deal with an Indonesian company for coal supplies, leaving it at the mercy of price fluctuations.
Bangladesh is also chair of the Climate Vulnerability Forum, “a coalition of 48 developing countries on the frontlines of climate change”, which is officially committed to promoting renewable energy – hardly compatible with a race for coal power. President Biden has just announced (April 2021) the US will triple funding to help vulnerable nations combat climate change and Bangladesh will want to be seen to abide by the conditions necessary to qualify for this aid.
The construction of the Banshkhali plant, already over-time and over-budget, its foundations built on the blood of peasants and workers, will presumably continue. But by the time it is finished it may already be a lame duck, made obsolete by changes in energy policy and investment strategies.
In February 2021 a Himalayan glacier at Uttarakhand in northern India broke away and caused a devastating flood: a massive wall of water crashed through the mountains, destroying villages and two hydro-electric power projects with 72 lives lost. Warnings by scientists that effects of climate change made the region unsuitable for hydro-power projects had been ignored by the Indian government.
As extreme weather increases and the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt this will create both flash floods and drought. The Banshkhali plant may one day simply be consumed by the weather conditions its carbon emissions will help create. Economic growth is also an acceleration of the ecological contradictions of capitalism.
1] South Asia Journal – https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/143860469.pdf
3] There are several videos on Youtube showing the incredible destructive power of the flood, for example; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyiVnVXHgjE