The 1st November Bangladesh Blackout

This is a straight cut and paste from The Weekly Holiday periodical from Dhaka published on Friday 7th November 2014, which has no indexing facility. It is an important, though hardly technical, analysis of a significant power outage in Bangladesh one week ago. Power outages are fairly common place in Bangladesh, but this one highlighed the strategic vulnerability regarding interconnectivity with India.

It also spoke symbolically about the actuality of Bangladesh's independence today and every day since it was acheived with the resources and initiative of the Indian Armed Forces nearly 43 years ago. It is Bangladesh's unfortunate national riddle, The Liberation Mortgage, and it is hard to speak openly and publically investigate dues to its powerful Liararchical Structure.

For the record, pro Shahbag folks on social media are at pains to push the Bhramara station failure account given by an alleged engineer. This reminds me of how the nephew of Sheikh Hasina, Radwan Mujib Siddiq deployed 'expert journalistic opinion' to deny that any massacre had taken place in Dhaka on 6th May 2013.

The politics of the blackout unfold in Bangladesh amongst the current regime's beneficiaries and victims, but more interesting would be India's working goals given their dubious higlighting of JMB and the pace of execution verdicts delivered last week.

If the action actually was purposeful and from India, it would constitute and act of war.

Structural damages to bleed the nation for generations

M. Shahidul Islam

Not all damages are repairable. A slew of structural damages are set to bleed the nation of Bangladesh for generations. Precedents have been anchored that elections can be arbitrary, non-inclusive and devoid of voters' participation while democracy can be defined as the will of the mighty.

In economics, best interest of the nation can be sacrificed to satisfy the hunger of a regional hegemon while the rule of law can mean one thing for the ruling coterie and quite another for the rest.

Worst still, the definition of power politics has undergone a tectonic shift; the mainstay of domestic power now hinging on the inconsiderate backing of an external hegemon that applies one set of rule within (democracy) and quite a different set to its weaker neighbours.

Sovereignty at stake
Bangladesh's sovereignty is now at stake. In economic diplomacy, sovereignty is circumvented in the realm of a perception that must be prophesized only, not upheld. Starved of the input to produce electricity, our powerful neighbour can get the input (gas) from Bangladesh, produce electricity and sell it back to Bangladesh. Bangladesh, on the other hand, must not use its input to produce electricity and sell it to India, if requested.

But follies and selling off has a price tag that comes to hound time and again. That is what had happened lately. Burnt by the lesson of a 12-hour long power shut down across the country last Saturday, Bangladeshis now mull helplessly why and how this could happen.

Reliable reports claim a failure in India caused the disruption which affected all the existing grids and transmissions in  Bangladesh. If true, this also denotes that the entire electricity transmission system of Bangladesh has been linked with India without someone knowing much about it, or keeping mum for mysterious reasons.

Source of power
The source of the failure was across the border in India, according to a BBC report that had quoted an Indian official. This begs another question: how this dependency on Indian electricity matured so much in the first place.

According to available literature, it followed from an inconsiderate deal struck in January 2010 during PM Sheikh Hasina's visit to India, resulting in the setting of 130 km power transmission that had connected Behrampur of India with Bheramara in Bangladesh. Under the deal, India agreed to supply 250 MW of power to Bangladesh with the provision of another 200 MW to be supplied on Bangladesh's special need.
The deal also encompassed a joint venture scheme between India's state-owned National Thermal Power Cooperation and Bangladesh Power Development Board to set up a coal-fired power plant in Khulna to produce1320 MW of power that can be transferred back to India through a transmission link to be set up by Power Grid Corporation of India Limited.

The sordid lessons of last Saturday notwithstanding, the dependency on India is increasing further as Dhaka strives to get another100 MW electricity from the ONGC-run 726.6 MW Palatana gas-run power plant set up lately in Tripura for which equipments were transported through Bangladesh (without paying tax) and the gas too will flow from Bangladesh. A new transmission line is being installed that will run for 12 miles within Bangladesh to connect with the 22 miles-long Indian transmission line to bring electricity to greater Comilla region. Simply put: Bangladesh is looped, scooped and spooked from all directions.

In these three projects, environment-spoiler coal-generated power plant is set to be based in Khulna while less harmful gas-generated plant went to Tripura. That's not all: sources of power remain in India near the Bheramara transmission link as well as near the Agartala border. It's our gas that will produce electricity for us in the foreign soil. What a pity! Is that how we have learnt to define national interest?

The nation is immersed in a cloak and dagger theatric and the Bheramara shut down seems like a testing-testing gaming to see how effective the dependency on India is. Pending to an investigation reportedly being conducted by the very people in charge of putting the deal and its execution in motion, nothing much is known as of now. Yet, the fact that all the existing power grids and transmission linkages within Bangladesh collapsed in what seemed like a cascading effect is very worrying. Is our entire electricity transmission system integrated with the Indian system? We wonder.

While the possibility of that being the case is very strong, an answer is not expected to be forthcoming from a regime that sees no harm to the country's national security due to such unexpected disruption coming from a neighbor which is touted as a 'trusted friend.'

But trust without verification can lead to dreadful spectacles. Already perennial power failure is bleeding the economy to the tune of $1 billion a year, reducing the GDP growth by about half a percentage point, according to studies. If major disruption of similar nature can be affected frequently from outside the border, one must be convinced that our national security will have been punctured irreparably through irrecoverable economic damages.

And, this will occur at a time when the total transmission and distribution losses amount to one-third of the total generation; the value of which is over US $247 million per year, according to a World Bank study.
As well, why should Bangladesh depend on India for electricity when India remains gas-starved and over 80 natural gas wells in Bangladesh produce over 2000 m cubic feet of gas per day (MMCFD) to help produce over three-quarters of the nation's commercial energy; besides catering for around 40% of the power plant feedstock, 17% of industries, 15% of captive power, 11% of domestic and household usage, 11% of fertilizer production, and, 5% of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) output.

Bangladesh's commercial energy consumption being mostly natural-gas -depended (around 80%) -- followed by oil, hydropower and coal,  ­how does gas-drenched India fits into this equation is a conundrum that must be answered soon.

We feel the nation has 'ascended the back of a rowdy camel,' to paraphrase poet laureate Shamsur Rehman, and, the policies of the AL-led regime have made the nation, its economy, national security and the sovereignty vulnerable to external manipulations.

Despite per capita energy consumption in Bangladesh being as yet one of the lowest (321 kWH) in the world­ fire wood fuel, animal waste and crop residues accounting for over half of the country's energy consumption ­remains the major source of power for most of the economic activities. The vulnerability to economic independence and national security hence looms large if this vital sector is tied with India from all directions.

Before the situation gets worse, it will be wise to rethink the options available for energy security and ward off all the perceivable and real vulnerabilities stemming from across the border. This is more important because, although installed electric generation capacity has reportedly reached 10,289 MW in January 2014, only three-fourth of that is available for consumption and only about 62% of the population has access to electricity, as of now.

National security
This is a serious national security matter too. From Delhi's perspective, energy connectivity with Bangladesh is laced with national security considerations which Bangladesh seems not to recognize. Delhi thinks, Bangladesh dominates the lines of communication with the north-eastern states of India and interconnecting the national grids in India with those in Bangladesh can enable transfer of economically viable power to various energy starved parts of Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and other north-eastern Indian states.

Added to Delhi's desire to use Bangladesh as a corridor to ferry goods and military hard wares to insurgency-infested seven north eastern states, the power connectivity scheme has become something indispensible to Delhi. This reality, however, got overshadowed when Bangladesh's present government was made to believe that, since it brings electricity to the western part of the country from the east, it should bring from across the border in India.

Our national interest guides us to opposite direction: an integrated energy scheme with India is not an answer to Bangladesh's energy afflictions. Rather, a viable energy policy for Bangladesh will be not to bank too much on connectivity with India alone.

Policy alternative
Instead, sucking in bulk foreign investment in the energy sector to help the economy sustain and grow further shall be the focus. As well, the economy must be integrated fully with the full potential of the power sector. To do that, the rate of investment must be increased to 34-35 percent of the GDP from the existing 28 percent to ensure persistent 7 percent annual growths.

Quite the opposite is happening now. Instead of seeking ways and means to attract more FDI in the sector, obsessive cronyism has choked off domestic investment too; taka 25,000 crores already having washed away from the four state owned banks to loyalist defaulters while FDI in the most lucrative power sector still hovering below $1 billion due to reckless hobnobbing with a neighbor which is considered a competitor by most of the desirous Western energy companies.

The energy policies sunk into further chaos due to taka 32,000 crores subsidy being doled out annually to the quick rental power plants set up under partisan patronization of the power that be. The sector is infested with cronyism, corruption and heinous conspiracy to wipe out anyone critical of the scheme, like the murder of journalist couple Shagor-Runi.

All these realities are parts of an overall structural damage of the nation and its fabrics which succeeding regimes might find impossible to mend. It's also alarming to know that India had proposed to set up another 1,000 MW liquefied natural gas terminal in Bangladesh to open up Bangladesh's gas market to Indian private sector while increased demand on gas is likely to drench Bangladesh of this veritable resource within a decade or so, unless new fields are discovered and explored using foreign experts.

Lest we forget, it is on such considerations that the previous BNP regime said no in 2003 to Indian request for gas import from Bangladesh. Many still wonder whether that decision has had anything to do with the BNP's lingering and painful plight toward oblivion.

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