The Phulbari Movement-Resisting Neo-liberalism in Bangladesh
It was a leisurely Friday morning in Dhaka. At about 11.30 a.m., 40 odd people had gathered in front of National Press Club, Dhaka. It was raining heavily but they defied the rain and all of them stood holding hands for about half an hour. They were each holding a placard which raised the demands for ‘Reparation money’ for climate change and its adverse effects on developing countries. The conveyances of almost all the standing participants were paid for. The posters had already been put up across the city by the paid volunteers. Leaflets were published and some of them were distributing it during the human chain. Representatives of some local NGOs spoke on behalf of the human chain. They said that they demanded for non-interference of ADB, IMF and WB in the planning process of Bangladesh and also demanded for reparation from the Developed countries. A way of protest-the first to be considered in this article
While these participants were speaking against the monetary agencies, in about 300 miles away in Phulbari, more than 2000 people had gathered to protest against the proposed open-pit coal mines. People had come from miles away, most of them on bus while many of them had walked many miles to be a part of this protest. The military had already reached to take ‘control’ the situation and the ‘revolutionary mob’. Many knew that they might end up getting beaten up but this neither was able to stop them from shouting slogans nor able to shake their determination. The second to be considered.
These two events can be called somewhat similar to each other considering both of them are ways of protesting but also are marked by some fundamental differences. The first was a group who had taken some time out of their ‘busy city life’ and had come and joined the human chain. Many had come because it was paid for and they had nothing better to do on a Friday morning, while a few others had come to keep their friendly commitments. Many did not know the issue that they were standing for was and the others that knew had mostly participated to have a contented feeling that they had done something worthy out of Holiday. The next day they buy all the newspapers and the first thing they do is to look for pictures of the program. As soon as they find the picture their faces light up and thus he/she takes the scissors out and cut the picture to keep it in his/her album and show it to people. The NGO representatives show it to their funders (of course to get more funds for their projects) and the individuals to their guests to show off that they are socially motivated. But, the second group had come out of their homes because they had no option but to fight. Their survival is at stake and they have realized that the government is not theirs’ but is for the rich and the wealthy. Most of them perhaps will not be in their homes to read the newspapers. (Most of them will land either land up in jail or in hospitals)
I have been part of innumerable human chains, (as I am involved in the NGO sector) on issues that have either no impact or very less impact on the lives of the common man. The human chains I have attended have either demanded for more aid from the Developed countries or are against interference in the planning process of the country. (This of course shows the dual stance taken by them as the former shall definitely lead to the latter).
Human chain is soon turning out to be the most common and the most obvious medium of protest in Bangladesh. Every meeting I had attended, which sought to ‘fight and demand’ for a few things has ended with the decision of holding a few human chains. It is also infact the safest way of protest without being at the receiving end of the fascist government’s grunt. They infact receive police help. Media persons are invited (most of them again paid so that the news is covered). Because of this reason, many do not believe is this mode of protest, while it is the darling of the NGO persons. At least it helps them believe that they made a noise, however soft it might be.
While, the other radical protests are severely repressed, bullets are shot, tear gases showered on the protesters. The Phulbari movement has today become a synonym for popular resistance against neo-liberalism in Bangladesh. Phulbari is a very densely populated area and has recently emerged as the bread basket for Bangladesh. Agriculture is the major source of livelihood in the area with about three crops cultivated in the highly fertile area. The area is also inhabitated by various indigenous groups like Santhals, Oraons, Mundas, Rajbonshis besides the Bengalis who run their small businesses there. An open pit Mining project is supposed to be set up in Phulbari by a company called Asia Energy under the aegis of the Bangladeshi government. But the local people have time and again collectively gathered and fought against the imperialist designs of the company and the Govt. In doing so, the Phulbari movement has been able to re-define the way in which protest is carried out in Bangladesh.
The National Committee has been responsible for spearheading the entire Phulbari movement. The National Committee was formed in 1998 when a group of leftists and other like minded individuals got together with an intention of fighting the imperialist designs of development carried on by the Bangladeshi government (With the aid of IFIs and MNCs). As a part of its protest, the National Committee had called for a Gherao program on August 26, 2006. Thousands had flocked the streets of Phulbari to let the government know their feelings and agitation. The gherao program was only supposed to be a symbolic one with no violence, but the government had different intentions. They had already formed a cordon before the Asia Energy office and hit the completely disciplined crowd with tear gas shells. People dispersed only to re-gather again. The crowd stopped at a point where the National Committee secretary read out the Memorandum which called for the scrapping of the project with immediate effect as it was only an instrument to transfer resources from Bangladesh to other countries. Many so called caretakers of the people and politicians not only refrained from joining the August 26 program but also urged the people not to join the program. They told people that the program might witness violence and refrained from taking any responsibility of the people, if any untoward incident happened in the gherao program. But thousands gathered and completed the program in complete discipline. It was only then, when they were returning from the program that they heard gunshots from Bangladesh Rifles. Three people were killed and about 200 injured in the firing. I was also told that one of the killed was a kid had nothing to do with the protest, as he had just come to see the program. The firing was not digested easily by the people of Phulbari. The people rose in anger and completely block the roads of Phulbari from the outer world. No government trucks and vehicles were allowed to pass through on the Phulbari roads and the people took over the reins of the administration. It lasted for continous four days and the government had to finally give in on 30th August, 2006 by the signing of the Phulbari agreement which stated that no open pit mining would be done in Bangladesh and Asia energy would quit the lands of Bangladesh.
The Phulbari Movement has not only been able to raise a debate on the development process but has also been able to lead the movement for democracy in Bangladesh which seeks to redefine the economistic discourse on Development. It takes up Political programs like rallies, blockades, strikes, long marches to share the information. They deconstruct the development documents and provide alternative models of development and engage in discussions with the government. Various organisations, sangathans, activists and people of Phulbari have together played different roles in the Phulbari movement which have sought to increase democratization of the development process in Bangladesh. The Phulbari movement also was directed towards the government of Bangladesh making it a tough terrain for NGOs to involve actively in the movement. After the 2006 incident, the Phulbari movement received wide coverage and Bangladesh did receive a lot of international attention and funders came forward to assist the movement. But the cadres of the movement had consistently denied any financial assistance, keeping the popular character of the movement intact.
But above all, it has been an out and out people’s movement and has witnessed the largest popular support in Bangladesh. Women and children came out to the streets. Many lost their lives, but they still continue to fight. Also, the women who play the role of the vigilant watchers; they report any entry of Non-local resident to their area to the leaders of the movement. And they still continue to fight……
A local cadre of the movement, in response to my question on how they plan to take the movement ahead while there is fear to loss of lives and ultimate repression by the state sums up by saying, ““We were already dead in Aug 26, 2006 during the Kansat incident; Now, if we live we only live to protect Phulbari from Asia Energy…………………..!!!”
(This is a concise version of the article with the same name which was written by me as a part of my study on Phulbari movement. The Paper was presented in Dhaka and in a public Symposium organized in Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok)