After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, questions had risen concerning the logic behind NATO. Gripped by a political and economic crisis, Russia had been almost pitied by the West. The West could have helped to materialise the Russian people’s aspirations for a healthy economy and politics. But quite to the contrary, it increased Russia’s sense of insecurity by not only making way for the Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO, but also gave the same scope to three former Soviet states in the Baltic region. The West surely could conceive Russia’s apprehensions concerning Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United State and the European Union imposed stern economic sanctions on Russia and the effects of this are already becoming visible. Russia is one of the main suppliers of fuel oil and gas to the global market. The Russian pipeline supplying gas to Europe is still operative, but US has imposed sanctions of Russian oil and gas, leading to prices of these two commodities to spiral globally. Already the price of oil has crossed 100 dollars per barrel. And 47 per cent of European coal imports come from Russia. Russia supplies 15 per cent of the global market for coal. Therein lies Panchagarh’s problem concerning the war.
There was a time when Panchagarh was the most poverty-ridden region of the country. It was a struggle for the marginal farmer to even manage two square meals from an acre or two of land. Those farmers now own small tea gardens on their land. They have built houses of brick and mortar with the money they earn from the tea leaf sales. Many of them have bought motorbikes. Employment and earning opportunities for the labourers have increased. Many may claim credit for this success, but the fact is that this socioeconomic success and massive transformation has been possible due to the initiatives by the valiant freedom fighter Mosharraf Hossain.
It was Mosharraf Hossain who introduced the idea of small tea gardens in the country’s tea industry. Armed with his three decades of experience and observation of various countries around the world, he and his associates were certain that tea could be grown in Panchagarh. Under this leadership and with the investment of hundreds of enthusiastic tea planters together, the Tetulia Tea Company began in the year 2000 with the planting of seedlings in a nursery. Within four years, the Tetulia Tea Company started up its tea factory to produce tea from these leaves. There has been no looking back for Panchagarh since then. This initiative has now crossed the boundaries of Panchagarh to reach Thakurgaon district. In 2021, a total of 23 million kg (2 crore 30 lakh) of tea was produced from 22 factories in North Bengal. This has been a boost to government revenue as well as ensured self reliance in tea production.
It has been a traditional system to gather the tea leaves from the gardens and process these in the factories. The simple economics of this is: around 60 per cent of the price of one kg of tea or the auction price will go to the tea growing farmer, 20 per cent will be factory costs and the remaining 20 per cent will be gross profit. If the price of tea is Tk 200 a kg, then this system works smoothly. The problems arise if the prices drop, because the cost of processing the tea from the leaf does not lessen.
The price of tea has fallen for quite some time now. Average quality tea is being sold for Tk 150 to Tk 160 per kg. It requires 800 grams of coal as fuel to produce one kg of tea. After the onset of the war, the price of coal has more than doubled. Coal is now being sold at 350 dollars per tonne. So the coal used to produce one kg or tea, which would cost around Tk 9 of Tk 10, now has shot up to Tk 21. The price of tea hasn’t increased in the auction because gas is used in the Sylhet region at the rate of Tk 6 per kg. So the war is simply swallowing up the profits of the Panchagarh tea industry.
Chinese support would have been meaningful in the case of resolving the Rohingya problem. But we see no positive role in that area from our ‘tested friend’ China
The war being waged so far away will not just have an impact on Panchagarh, but will affect the entire country. Prices of essentials were shooting up anyway and the war has added fuel to the fire. The marginal people will flounder under the pressure of living expenses. There will be pressure of high fuel prices, pressure on transport, industrial production, and in all sectors. If the war is extended, this may have a negative impact on export trade too. Bangladesh, after all, does not manufacture war equipment.
On 3 March the UN General Assembly condemned the Russian invasion and passed a resolution with 141-5 votes, calling for immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Along with Bangladesh, 35 countries abstained from voting. There are differences of opinion over Bangladesh’s stand. Many feel Bangladesh has been correct in adopting this neutral stance. Then again, there is scope to consider how prudent it is in the long run for Bangladesh not to oppose the attack of a strong country on a weak neighbour.
The Chinese ambassador in Dhaka has termed Bangladesh’s stand on the Ukraine issue as justified. Like Bangladesh, China too abstained from voting on the issue in the UN General Assembly. I have not heard our ambassador in Beijing commenting on this. I feel the Chinese ambassador’s comment was unnecessary. Patronising comments from larger neighbours on our policy decisions are unwarranted. Chinese support would have been meaningful in the case of resolving the Rohingya problem. But we see no positive role in that area from our ‘tested friend’ China.
* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir