Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Is Sylhet to get its very own Farakka?

Sylhet is a small district at the North Eastern tip of Bangladesh. It holds the bulk of the gas reserves of the country. It also has a large proportion of its people working abroad, sending Euro 300 million of remittances annually: vital to an import-dependent economy. Moreover, Sylhet has borne the brunt of a series of political bombings and killings over the last few years, even within the most sensitive of religious shrines. This is the one district that least needs a new controversy. But it seems it is going to get it.

The Dam
Recently, Bangladesh witnessed a series of rallies and a “Long March” against the imminent construction of a 1500MW dam at Tipaimukh, in Manipur state, one of the Seven Sisters of North-eastern India. It may not have made it on the radar screens. Still, environmental politics is rising up the agenda and will produce a major foreign policy headache later this decade.
The Seven Sister states have suffered from decades of insurgencies. A prime cause has been the neglect by the Centre in faraway Delhi. So the attraction of building a dam that generates electricity for these states seems politically irresistible. Dams and rivers, however, have complex implications for lower-riparian countries. The Tipaimukh dam will devastate two rivers, the Surma and Kushiyara in Sylhet. These feed the gigantic Meghna River downstream.

Alternative thinking for the North-East
Yet one has to ask why India, on the one hand, wishes to build a dam to generate electricity for the northeast, and at the same time send gas from the same region (Tripura) hundreds of miles to the West? Would it not be more cost- effective to utilise that gas for power generating plants to produce electricity? Could that electricity not be distributed to the energy-starved states lying between Bangladesh and China?
In other words, Tripura could set up gas power plants and send electricity to the nearby states of Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya via a transmission network.
Moreover, why not use some of Myanmar’s gas for the same objective, if there are insufficient gas reserves in Tripura?
India will have to decide on the priorities it sets between its state of West Bengal and those of the Northeast. Or should one assume Bangladesh is meant to be the fall guy?

The limits to Protest
The long march against the Tipaimukh Dam looks like being the opening salvo of a bitter feud over the next few years. Dams are controversial in Bangladesh, ever since the establishment of the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal in 1974. The first long march by revolutionary leader, Maulana Bashani, in the seventies, saw tens of thousands join together.
Today, there is a new dimension in play. Influential quarters in India and the West have been warning about the rise of Islamic movements in Bangladesh. Some counter that this phenomenon is exaggerated. Whatever the truth of the matter, they exist. Nothing would give them a more powerful shot in the arm than the unilateral decision by India to block the flow of water. A new Farakka, a new obstacle, a new cause. Bangladesh depends on agriculture, and therefore water. Is this not the perfect issue for any political force that depends on animosity to India?
In 2002, the small Left Wing parties organised a series of long marches throughout the country against the export of gas to India. They galvanised civil society into action. These two groups had no overt political power but the issue was so emotive that a government with a two-thirds majority in parliament told the donors and energy companies to back off. Its survival was in question.
This time there is a difference. The gas fields lie within the territory of Bangladesh. The dam will be built outside the borders and divert or block water before it enters Bangladesh. In other words, there is very little leverage. The power lies on the other side of the border. The protests may therefore not be effective.
Nevertheless, the issue will not go away and will act as a lightning rod for political posturing. Both India and Bangladesh need to work on improving relations. The benefits of a sound cooperative approach are plain to all and worth countless billions. The place to start is to have genuine dialogue, show sensitivity, to reveal plans, so as to remove suspicion. Both sides will need to use more imagination than they have shown so far if they want to come out of this unscathed.


Blogger Diganta said...

You do not understand the difference between Tipaimukh and Farakka. The former is a hydro-electricity and the later is a water-diversion project.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Diganta said...

"Would it not be more cost- effective to utilise that gas for power generating plants to produce electricity?" - Well, Tripura already has a Gas based power generation project with ONGC. It is the largest investment in the North-East amounting to Rs. 7000 crores.
The arguments other than ecological ones does not apply in this case, as the project will not 'take away' water.

5:43 pm  
Blogger Diganta said...


5:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last time I was in Sylhet (August 2007), I was very frustrated with accessibility to information.

Hence I created www.zindabazar.mobi, as an attempt to build a fun and easy to use platform where people can access information of organisations via mobile phones. The site also allows users to post things that they want to sell..

11:38 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home