Load-shedding in Bangladesh: Are we living in 2022 or 1984?
We are now more than halfway into the month of October. In July, Nasrul Hamid, the state minister for power, energy and mineral resources, said that the then ongoing power cuts in the country would not last long. He wrote in his verified Facebook page: "Within the next few months, the second unit of Payra power plant and Rampal power plant will come into operation. Also, 1,600MW electricity will be imported from India's Adani power plant soon. All these will add more than 4,000MW electricity to the national grid."
In the same month, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the prime minister, assured people would get some relief from load-shedding from September onwards based on the same logic. At that time, this newspaper quoted experts who had questioned their claims. They asked what good adding more power generation capacity would do, when the resources needed to generate power were lacking – coal, for example. No one within the government batted an eyelash.
In August, State Minister Hamid again said, "The power situation will improve in the next month [September]." September came and went, but the load-shedding problem stayed. None of the three new power plants that were "slated" to "save us" from load-shedding started operations.
On October 7, the minister announced that load-shedding had decreased from before, but there was still a shortage of "approximately 700-800MW per day." According to data from the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh Ltd (PGCB), however, both his claims were inaccurate. On that very day (October 7), power outage was 964MW, or eight percent of total demand. And people have already suffered from more load-shedding in October than in the previous month.
All these remind me of a quote from George Orwell's prophetic novel 1984, "The Ministry of Plenty's forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as 62 million. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to 57 million, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, 62 million was no nearer the truth than 57 million, or than 145 million. Very likely no boots had been produced at all."
To Nasrul Hamid's credit, he did come out only three days later (October 10) and admit that load-shedding had gotten worse. "We hoped that from October there would be no load-shedding, but we failed as we couldn't find a solution to the gas shortage." (Remember how experts had warned that the supply of resources for energy generation was among the main problems?) Hamid further added, "I hope the situation will improve next month." He has now set a new deadline for when the load-shedding situation would improve, albeit less confidently than before.
But what about those who have been claiming for years that the Awami League government's energy policy over the last decade has been flawless? Weren't they the same ones who also categorically condemned anyone who identified any flaws in it – such as the folly of paying exorbitant amounts of capacity charges to the owners of idle power plants, all the while ignoring the need to modernise our power transmission infrastructure, and the government's refusal to explore domestic gas reserves, despite the fact that at least two studies conducted by foreign institutions (with superb track records) estimated the presence of a significant amount of gas reserves in Bangladesh?
Will they come forward and admit they were wrong? Or do we shove their past boastings down Orwell's "memory hole"?
For years now, one particular issue we've heard the ruling party loyalists boast about regularly is how the party had transformed the country from one that experienced hours of load-shedding before it came to power, to one where there is very little (or none). In March this year, the government organised a celebration boasting a hundred percent electrification of the country. Only a few months later, residents of Dhaka who participated in the celebration were shocked to discover frequent power cuts not only during the day, but also at night – outside of the load-shedding schedules announced.
Over the last decade, the government has spent thousands of crores of taka in the energy sector. The fact that we are now back to experiencing load-shedding like we did more than 10-12 years back is shocking. Whatever happened to those thousands of crores of taka? What did they achieve, aside from increasing our generation capacity, half of which we cannot utilise, and making a few (politically well-connected) people and companies who were handed favourable government contracts filthy rich? Did corruption eat away most of those thousands of crores of taka? If not, then why did the government need indemnity laws in the power sector over the years, and why was a recommendation recently brought to a parliamentary standing committee to indemnify officials of the state-run Petrobangla from legal proceedings?
Recently, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) disclosed that the government (in reality, the people) had been deprived of about Tk 4,697 crore for 19 counts of irregularities by Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corporation (Petrobangla) and Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation. The irregularities include spending beyond the rules to buy goods and services at high prices; flouting the instructions of the finance ministry and the National Board of Revenue (NBR); and disregarding the Gas Sales Rules of 2004 and 2014, the Bangladesh Gas Act, 2010, Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission, the Public Procurement Act, 2006, and the Public Procurement Rules, 2008.
The overall lack of transparency in our energy sector over the years – which really is a microcosm of the general tendency of this government – has cost the nation dearly. And the government is now trying to push the cost of its irregularities onto the people – which is another of its common tendencies. But the people must resist. It's time to investigate the government's past decisions, to really identify what went wrong and what the irregularities were. Otherwise, there will be no getting out of the crisis we are in; in fact, it might only get worse.
Eresh Omar Jamal is assistant editor at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is @EreshOmarJamal