Where has all the coal gone?

Badrul Imam | Update:

.The people of Bangladesh have grown used to corruption in its various forms. Just in the energy sector alone, there is pilferage of gas, oil and electricity. And now there are allegations of a great coal robbery. This is the talk of the town.

The government has declared its ‘zero tolerance’ about this theft and the search for the missing coal is on. Several inquiry committees are probing into the matter. The people are totally perplexed as to how this massive robbery took place. The media is delving into the mystery, all sorts of information is surfacing and being discussed.

It is not an easy task to determine how this scam took place. However, an analysis of the facts that have been gathered so far can give some sort of idea as to what occurred. It is hoped that the inquiry committees can correctly come to a conclusion as to how this happened and who are behind it. So what actually happened?

According to the Barapukuria mine authorities, since the mine’s inauguration in 2005 till date, around 10.17 million tonnes of coal was extracted from the mine. Of this, around 6.69 million tonnes was supplied to the power plant, 3.32 million tonnes to various industries and 12,000 tonnes was for the project’s own use. That adds up to around 10.02 million tonnes. So, around 148,000 tonnes of coal should be left. But there is only a paltry 4000 tonnes lying in the yard. Where has the remaining 144,000 tonnes of coal gone?

First, let us look into what the Barapukuria coal company has to say to evade the blame of his coal disappearance. They say that this is not robbery, just a matter of technical loss. That means the coal was lying out in the open in the stock yard and was depleted for various natural reasons like simple combustion, being washed away in the rain, blown away by the wind, etc. Experts say amount the depletion of coal in the open depends on many factors. There are rules to measure the technical loss of coal at specific intervals.

When asked whether the technical loss was measured at specific intervals since production began in 2005, the authorities had no such records. So for the past 13 years, no one even thought about technical loss and there are no records in this regard. It may seem that such technical loss is massive, but it is not possible for a layperson to calculate this. According to the mine authorities, the amount of coal that has disappeared equals 1.44 per cent of the total production. They claim there are records of 3 to 4 per cent technical loss of coal stocked in the open, according to information on the internet on an international level. But this is hardly acceptable as the authorities have no records of their own technical loss. The concerned inquiry committee should take assistance from a technical team to determine the approximate technical loss of this coal over a period of 13 years. This will take the investigation significantly ahead.

Say that the coal was stolen from the trucks while being transported. That would mean it would require 4,800 large trucks (with 30-tonne capacity each) to remove the missing 144,000 tonnes of coal. If this pilferage was to be carried out in three months, that means, every day 53 trucks would have to be used for the purpose. It would be impossible not to attract attention with this huge number of trucks removing the coal. So if this method was to be used, it would have to be done over an extended period of time. If it was to be done over the span of a year, that means 13 trucks a day. Of it could be one truck a day for 13 years. So it is obvious that if the coal has been stolen, it was done over a considerable time period.

The Barapukuria authorities say that under the present method of coal supply, every truck is checked at the gate during entry and exit with digital equipment, papers are checked at various points and special software is used to keep records. This makes pilferage impossible. However, a television channel has shown that there is a gate at the back of the coal mine area and local people have seen trucks leaving from there. This is in contradiction to the claims of the authorities. The inquiry committee must assess both claims.

However the coal may have been removed, the coal stocks of various business persons in Barapukuria is proof that that coal has been unlawfully transported to various places. The rules are that the mine authorities will first provide the power plant with coal and keep coal reserves of 15 to 20 days ready. Only after that can they supply coal to those with their own industries. It is not as if, say, a cinema hall owner or other such businessman can buy the coal, stock it and sell it at high prices to local industries. That is prohibited. But this illegal work is being done with legal papers.

Those with political and financial clout are using their influence to hand over coal procurement papers to those who do not even own any industry. So when they take the coal out, they have all the legitimate documents, though it is absolutely unlawful.

Such illegitimate activities have been continuing for long. Persons outside of the mine as well as mine authority officials are involved in this process, it has been alleged. A lucrative commission is paid for such underhand work. A strong syndicate oversees the whole process.

At present the mine authorities get around Tk 11,000 per tonne of coal sold to the power plant. And they get Tk 17,000 per tonne when sold to outside industries. The more the profit can be shown from sales, the more convenient it is for the mine authorities. They get a bigger personal bonus from bigger profits. That is why it is said, the authorities are more interested in selling the coal to outside industries. As the records remain unclear, questions arise as to the actual state at the coal mine transactions.

The Barapukuria scam has hit the local coal development sector hard. If it is stuck up in the quagmire of corruption, the entire country’s coal development plans will be impacted. It is a matter of hope that the prime minister has ordered that the matter be investigated and the guilty persons duly punished. It is hoped that a neutral inquiry committee of technically sound persons investigate the matter thoroughly and get to the truth of the matter.

* Dr Badrul Imam is a professor and energy expert. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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