More clashes in Bangladesh - the issue of energy

Textile workers in Narsingdi, central Bangladesh, yesterday fought police in protests against irregular power supply to their factory workplaces.

Submitted by Red Marriott on September 20, 2006

They are not paid for time lost to interruptions. Over 1,000 fought with officers as they laid seige to the electicity company offices, setting fire to company vehicles, 2 transformers and a circuit breaker. 50 workers were hurt as cops baton charged, fired rubber bullets and tear gas. 10 cops were also injured by thrown missiles.

Energy is an important political issue in Bangladesh - there have been regular countrywide protests and riots this year over intermittent supplies, as well as the recent insurrection against the proposed Phulbari opencast mine project (previous coverage 1 2). Alongside the inconvenience of cuts in domestic supplies, cuts in power to workplaces mean cuts in wages.

Due to maintenance problems/equipment failure the national supply is only functioning at little more than half its capacity at present. Interruptions occur several times daily and some areas only receive a supply for 6 hours per day. Several foreign investment projects have failed due to government corruption, bureaucracy and state reluctance to sanction often unpopular energy projects. In a country where arable land is limited, open pit coal projects - and other forms of energy development - are not environmentally friendly, eat up scarce land resources and destroy thousands of homes.

The deals agreed with foreign energy investors mean the majority of energy generated is for export, and the behaviour of foreign capital has also encouraged a general cynicism towards them. The American company, Occidental, had a major pipeline explosion in 1997 and issues of compensation for environmental damage have still not been fully resolved; Occidental pulled out of Bangladesh several years ago, leaving the wrangling over compensation to be dealt with by Unocal, which took over their interests. There were also two incidents last year at facilities run by the Canadian company, Niko Resources. Here too there is confusion over what is happening about related compensation claims.

In the south west, jute mill workers at Khulna ended a 2 week strike ( coverage 1 2); they have received owed back wages and the employers have agreed to consider other demands such as "regularisation of their jobs, allocation of sufficient funds for jute purchase, smooth supply of power and opening of the laid off mills".