Nafis H

With the climate crisis looming large on the horizon, Bangladesh must confront imperialist powers, old and new, to ensure its survival.

The fire burned for years; the smoke billowed out in clouds. Nearby arable land and forest mimicked a wasteland, one where dreams of prosperity turned to ash. The ten thousand people who had to flee had nothing to return to – their homes razed to the ground. These scenes may sound like the beginning of a dystopian novel, but instead portray the tragic reality of residents of Tengratila, Sunamganj district in Bangladesh. Two consecutive blowouts in the Chhatak-2 gas field in 2005, due to negligent operations by the Canadian oil and gas company Niko, resulted in this disaster, which cost the Bangladesh government more than a billion dollars. After fifteen years of navigating the complexities of international courts, the Bangladesh government was finally able to get a ruling by the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) that directed Niko to provide compensation for the damages they caused.

Such pyrrhic victories are rare. The destruction wrought upon the Global South by the Global North, whether corporations and/or governments, more often goes unpunished. Following the wave of decolonization movements in the Third World during the Cold War Era, a new imperialist world order has emerged, perpetuating what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” throughout the Global South. The securitization of the climate crisis in the West has spurred a race towards energy independence under the guise of green capitalism. The turn to renewable energy, without reducing fossil fuel dependence, is meant to uphold climate commitments by name only. These chauvinist economic policies in the Global North will result in the further exploitation of the Global South for critical minerals and cheap labour, which in turn would become “green sacrifice zones.”

Countries like Bangladesh, which are already experiencing the crisis, are compelled to perpetuate the vicious cycle of developmentalism. To survive in the warming world, they must adapt, but to do so they need to extract more natural resources which further fuels the crisis. This cycle is exacerbated by new imperial powers contending with old ones for economic hegemony, a real-life manifestation of lifeboat ethics. And in these proxy wars over resources, Bangladesh, given its geopolitical position, risks becoming collateral damage, just as it did during its bloody birth in 1971.

“The myth of the basket case facilitated the beginnings of accumulation by dispossession.”

Bangladesh is commonly stereotyped as an “international basket case”, referring to its endless need for foreign aid following its independence. But this invocation usually leaves out how Western donor countries exercise influence through aid. The trope doesn’t speak about debt servicing, or how conditions attached to aid programs completely reshape the lives of millions of people in recipient countries. To give but one example, the death of 1.5 millions in the 1974 famine in Bangladesh is directly attributable to the withholding of aid by the international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and others.

The myth of the basket case facilitated the beginnings of accumulation by dispossession. Harvey describes four major ways in which this takes place: financialization, privatization, management and manipulation of crises, and state redistribution. The role of IFIs in financializing and privatizing Global South economies has been extensively detailed – in the case of Bangladesh, the major players included the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the IMF, and the World Bank.

Between 1973-2016, the ADB invested around 18 billion dollars, with 94% of it in the form of loans, mostly in the energy and power sectors. Exploiting the blanket immunity granted to them, the ADB promoted foreign entry into Bangladesh’s economy that resulted in wide-ranging social and environmental degradation, including pollution, the forced dependence on sterile seeds for agriculture, and the destruction of coastal livelihoods by ingress of saline water into freshwater as part of shrimp farming.

The ADB’s conservation projects, such as the Sundarban Biodiversity Conservation Project (1989-99), disregarded the livelihoods of workers in the mills it sought to close down – a recapitulation of Western colonial environmentalism that pits labour against climate. The dismantling of regulations on foreign power companies entering the market at the behest of ADB has facilitated the massive corruption networks involving public and private actors, consequences of which are manifest in the Tengratila tragedy described above. Unsurprisingly, the power sector currently serves to benefit foreign investors, while squeezing the consumers of Bangladesh – as electricity prices go up, foreign energy companies can siphon off profits from Bangladesh to maintain their operations in their home countries. In a rare display of impunity, the Indian company Adani Power has snared the Bangladesh government into paying $141.1 million, without even providing a single kilowatt/hour of power.

The rhetoric applied to such plundering, of course, is one of development. The story goes like this: market reforms, such as privatization, will increase GDP and lead to the country’s economic growth. But, as Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in a review of different countries put under such reforms, “a country that sells off its natural resources, privatizes its oil company, and borrows against future revenues, may experience a consumption binge that raises GDP, but the accounting framework should show that the country has actually become poorer.” This is colloquially known as the “resource curse”, where a country is unable to benefit from its wealth of natural resources. A cursory look at the modern history of Latin America, Africa and Asia shows that the privatization of natural resources is often forced through the barrel of a gun – a sinister collaboration where the state apparatus conspires with foreign companies to forcefully dispossess its own citizens.

Bangladesh’s resource curse began with the World Bank’s 1982 report, which recommended that the country seek foreign collaboration to extract its natural gas for internal use and export; in the 1990s, the recommendation limited itself to just exporting the gas to India. Consequently, foreign-direct investment in the power sector rose sharply as the government handed out contracts for exploration and extractions to foreign companies, while postponing public sector power projects. The predictably tragic irony of this privatization bonanza was that these FDIs didn’t result in an increase in foreign exchange reserves. In fact, the opposite occurred. The dire imbalance between FDI inflow and outflow compelled the World Bank to admit that Bangladesh was incurring debt because of the FDIs. Of course, the ADB and the World Bank, recognizing this as an opportunity to capitalize on, prescribed that the country raise gas and electricity prices and export more gas. In 2002, facing public scrutiny, the government hastily put together committees to investigate the situation, which concluded that “involving the multinational oil companies in the country’s domestic gas market has drawn only negatives.”

Despite such clear negative outcomes, the developmentalist trap weaved by the IFIs, facilitated by the nexus of corruption within the Bangladesh government, perpetuates the resource curse. A 2014 WikiLeaks expose revealed the extent of US lobbying in Bangladesh for US corporate interests. After this lobbying, the Bangladesh government handed contracts to American oil and gas company ConocoPhillips, giving them 80% of export opportunity while agreeing to shoulder the costs. Even as coal production in the US and UK were being phased out after campaigns by environmental groups, coal exploration and mining became the new energy frontier in Bangladesh in the late 2000s, at the behest of transnational companies and US and UK consulates in Bangladesh.

Imperialism, Old & New

Bangladesh, a country born within the creche of the Cold War, also attests to the collateral damage of imperialist rivalries. The country’s alliance with India and the USSR cost the newly independent state direly in terms of foreign aid from the West, affecting millions. In the following decades, as allegiances shifted, the USSR crumbled and the US positioned itself as the prime imperialist state in the world, Bangladesh’s economic terrain was governed by the IFIs, a brief glimpse of which is provided above. The rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRICS) as a bloc with increased trade and economic cooperation has created a new era of inter-imperialist rivalries, with a renewed stoking of Cold War tensions but with more contenders. Bangladesh currently finds itself navigating this complex chessboard, with the significant disadvantage of being surrounded geographically by one of these powers, India.

India’s leverage over Bangladesh, based on its geopolitical position and interconnected history, has translated into a fraught relationship between the two nations: increased policing of the Indian border by its Border Security Force that shoots on sight with impunity, bilateral trade agreements on unequal grounds, reduced cost of use of Bangladesh’s port by Indian authorities, and increased customs taxes on Bangladesh’s exports to India. But most importantly, the control that India has exerted over shared water resources has hurt the Bangladeshis in their basic livelihoods. Because of flooding, drought, and the loss of arable land, peasants have been dispossessed and driven to wage labour.

The Farakka barrage, constructed between 1962 to 1970, aimed to divert water from the Ganges to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river channel to keep the Calcutta port operational. Post-independence, Sheikh Mujib’s government was able to agree to an equitable sharing of the Ganges water in the lean seasons. However, with the regime change in 1975, when the pro-US, anti-India Ziaur Rahman military government came to power, India hardened its stance and started withdrawing water unilaterally. After the Maoist peasant leader Maulana Bhashani launched a Long March in 1976 to protest India’s water withdrawal practices, the two governments pursued negotiations to settle the matter, including at the United Nations General Assembly. In the 80s, a series of negotiations resulted in stop-gap measures, but ultimately India resumed unilateral water withdrawal in 1998-91 to save the Calcutta port.

Considering that one-third of the total area of Bangladesh is economically dependent on the Ganges basin, it’s not surprising that comparative analyses pre- and post-Farakka barrage show its stark effects on the people and environment. The reduction in dry-season flow aggravated the intensity and number of monsoon floods in the south-western region. In Patuakhali, a southern district, a number of industries closed down due to increased salinity of river water, which also damaged the mangrove trees responsible for desalination. In Barguna district, approximately 50% of farmers became landless due to river bank erosion. Because of the Farakka barrage, Bangladesh reportedly lost nearly $3 billion USD between 1976-1993. And this is only one of the 54 river systems that India and Bangladesh share. A similar series of protracted negotiations are ongoing over the Teesta river, which is critical for the lives of thousands in West Bengal, Sikkim and Bangladesh. Interestingly, India’s intransigence stems from concerns about global warming – as the temperatures have climbed, the glaciers from which Teesta originates have shrunk, thus affecting all lives downstream.

Bangladesh is increasingly recognizing China as a competing imperialist power against India, as evidenced by its recent overtures to China to resolve the Teesta water sharing issue. But this wasn’t the first time that Bangladesh tried to leverage its relationship with China as a challenge to the West and its allies. Following the World Bank’s withdrawal from the Padma bridge project on allegations of corruption, Bangladesh leaned into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2016, signing up for a number of projects that would bring in a total of $40 billion FDI and $20 billion in loans from China. While China had displaced India as Bangladesh’s biggest importing partner as early as 2010, in 2018, it took the place of its largest trading partner with almost $20 billion worth of trade between the two countries. The leaps in bilateral trade is closely matched by a frenzy of FDI in infrastructure projects: between 2009-2019, China invested almost $10 million in Bangladesh’s transport sector; per the 2016 deal, China will finance eight infrastructure projects costing more than $10 billion.

None of these deals however come without their catches. In return for investment, Bangladesh will incur massive amounts of debt, along with giving major shares of special economic zones to Chinese companies, public or private. The BRI, though promising to usher in a new era of prosperity for all those involved, also brings negative environmental externalities. Beijing’s improvement in air quality has come at the cost of Bangladesh taking the lead in air pollution across the globe – China exports its emissions by building coal power plants in Bangladesh. Around 38% of BRI’s construction contracts in the energy sector are centered on coal, while 56% of China’s total investment in Bangladesh is in coal power plants, often built in fragile ecosystems given their proximity to maritime ports. The Banshkhali power plant, located on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, began its construction in 2016 as a joint venture between Bangladeshi and Chinese companies, but immediately faced protests from local villagers who relied on the environment for their subsistence. The promised jobs in the plant never materialized, and when the local residents marched on the construction site to oppose it, ruling party cadre and local police officers opened fire, killing four. While the Bangladesh Supreme Court later ordered the Bangladeshi firm involved to pay 5 lakh Taka to each family of the men killed, the Chinese investors were not held culpable and the other residents didn’t receive any compensation for lost lands and livelihoods.  

Not to be outdone, India has also pressured Bangladesh into building a coal power plant in Rampal, a region in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a delicate ecosystem and one of the major lines of defense against rising water levels in the Bay of Bengal. The Rampal power plant, highly contested by environmentalists, local residents and even Bangladeshi governmental agencies, remains on deadline to be built so India can export its coal to be burned there. What an irony it is then that the Modi government, who pushed this project, then gets accolades from the international community for asking for climate reparations from the US.

A New Frontier

The 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence last year was heralded with the proclamation that the country was moving from the “international basket case” to a model case study of the benefits of neoliberalization. In its ascendancy as Asia’s “rising star” and with a higher GDP growth rate than India, Bangladesh has begun to flex its own agency within the ever-shifting terrain of global geopolitics, especially as it navigates relationships with India, China and the West.

Hidden in the shadows of palace intrigue and ever shifting alliances is the understanding across the ruling class that any costs will ultimately be borne by the working class. One can easily find the increasing inequality between the elites and the masses in the country behind the rosy tales of development and GDP growth. While Bangladesh has been praised over sending financial aid to Sri Lanka in its time of crisis, concerns have been raised about Bangladesh itself spiraling towards such a state with the devaluation of its currency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the poverty rate went up to 29.5%, and the once-burgeoning middle class shrank to join the levels of the poor, followed by a migration from the urban centers to the already poor rural areas. The current inflation and price hikes for subsistence items have resulted in massive food insecurity in the country, further exacerbating the misery of the masses.

Most importantly, Bangladesh should recognize its perils as a frontline climate community. The past few weeks have seen record flooding in the Sunamganj district of Sylhet division, affecting up to 4 million people and adding to the growing burden of internally displaced climate refugees. The very material existence of Bangladesh is at stake with continuing land erosion, ongoing droughts, hotter summers, increased water salinity, and vector-borne epidemics. In 2019, 4.1 million people were internally displaced in Bangladesh due to the climate crisis; by 2050, the country is expected to have 19.9 million internal climate refugees. For a country whose land is increasingly vanishing due to erosion, these dispossessed populations will have nowhere to go except to already crowded urban areas or outwards into the world where border restrictions are tightening up.

Perhaps signaling the arrival of a dystopian world, the US has already labeled Bangladesh a new frontier. A 2019 analysis from the US Army War College warns that the US military is ill-prepared for a world roiled by the climate crisis, especially in dealing with future sites of conflict. The report highlights Bangladesh as a worst-case scenario where the climate crisis will trigger political tensions and result in mass migration, and proposes that the US Army provide military training to Bangladesh to deal with the displaced population. With the climate crisis increasingly viewed as a national security threat, some European countries have already activated stricter border controls for non-white migrants, with a bit of help from their nurtured neo-fascist movements. Thus, boatloads of black and brown migrants are capsized in the sea, or arrested and put in detention and then processed for indentured labour. Within Bangladesh, we are already seeing this: internally displaced climate refugees are now funneled to Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in the country, a neo-colonial instrument for indentured labour.

Where then should one look for hope and solidarity, in the coming days of the death march of the empire? The Bengal region has a long history of anti-imperialist movements – from Surya Sen and Pritilata Waddedar challenging the British, to the tea workers with their Mullukey Cholo andolan and Bhashani’s Long March against the Farakka barrage.  More recently, we have seen mass protests in Phulbari against an open pit coal mining project by a UK-based company and the global protests against Rampal power plant. While some have been more successful than others, these movements teach us that only through struggle from below can we confront the power of capitalism in its highest form.

Nafis H (@cannafis_) is a Bangladeshi writer and organizer based in Philadelphia. He also sits on Jamhoor’s editorial committee.
Top - Home