Gandamara: a tale of poverty, politics and thuggery
Story and photos by Morshed Ali Khan
In the agricultural expanse of the Gandamara union of Banshkhali, by the Bay of Bengal, men and women intently looked on as I walked on the muddy earthen road leading to the embankment, located a few kilometers away. The gazes from the anxious onlookers clearly indicated that my presence was evidently treated with suspicion.
“Where do you come from and why are you here?” several young men enquired aggressively along the road. As I ignored and focused my lens on two school-going girls in black veils, about 100 meters away, another group of men waylaid me. “Why are you taking pictures of women?” asked one.
The hostile manner in which the villagers treated me was something new to me in Bangladesh, where I have treaded extensively as a journalist for over 25 years.
Gandamara, 46 kilometers south of Chittagong, and connected to the outer world with two dilapidated bridges, is a stronghold of BNP and Jamaat, and the notorious ‘Jamaat-Shibir men’.
The entire region has a history of deadly Islamist violence. With 100 madrasas dotting Banshkhali Upazila and a literacy rate of 22 percent (rest of the country has an average of 35 percent) the area has become a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism.
In the latest spate of violence, on April 4th, several hundred demonstrators gathered at a school playground to protest a government plan to set up a 1,320 megawatt coal based power plant there. The ruling party of Awami League, which is a supporter of the project, also called for a celebratory rally at the same spot, at the same time. The clashes that ensued left four people dead and twenty, including ten policemen, injured.
Three cases were filed with Banshkhali police station following the incident, in which the police named fifty seven (57) people, and implicated a staggering 3,000 unknown individuals, taking a license to hound almost anyone.
On the embankment of Gandamara, several young men sat under a shed. Between the Bay and the embankment, a vast watery area is used for shrimp cultivation during rainy season, and for salt production during winter.
“What do you want here?” asked a tough looking young man. “Are you a journalist?”
When I nodded he looked at his friends. “I work for SATV, but now I am on a leave for three months, my name is Bappa Raj,” he said.
“You see, none from Gandamara can travel to the upazila town because the police and the ruling party men immediately arrest and implicate us in the cases filed after the April 4 clashes,” he added.
The group of young men suddenly became agitated as I pulled out a bottle of water from my bag and drank some from it. The heat was intense in the salty air, almost unbearable at times.
“Why are you drinking in front of us? Don’t you know it is Ramadan?” he challenged me.
“I am not fasting,” I replied. “But if you cannot go to upazila town how do you get your daily commodities?” I asked, trying to change the topic.
One of his friends heard what I had just said. “Traders from the town bring us all we need,” the young man replied, pointing his finger at a group of hawkers nearby.
As the sun was about to set, the surroundings seemed to be diminishing in safety with the waning light.
Gandamara villagers hardly talked about the effects of cyclone Roanu that had struck this coastal village on May 21st, this year, breaching the embankment at several points. Farmers said salinity had significantly destroyed the fertility of the land.
But the one topic they were eager to delve into, was the proposed coal based power plant.
The proposals origin is deeply intertwined with the lawless history of the area. According to official sources in Banshkhali, it all started with the arrival of shrimp cultivation.
Five years ago, a gang of local goons burnt down the natural mangrove forest on the beach over an area of more than 1,800 acres of state-owned land, and started shrimp cultivation and salt production.
“The place is so isolated that there is no authority or law enforcement, and the entire trade that generates crores and crores of taka from the khas land, continues till today,” said a businessman in Banshkhali, requesting anonymity. “But only a select number of people in Chittagong and Banshkhali are reaping the benefits in silence,” he added.
Other sources said a former chairman and BNP leader of the area, Liakat Ali, a charismatic character who still enjoys immense popularity, had been the mastermind behind the April 4th protests, which was said to be a “citizens’ right” exercised by the opposition party. They assembled under a newly chosen banner called the “Coal-Fired Power Project Resistance Committee”.
The government’s unwritten policy of zero tolerance of any opposition, under any banner, was brutally enforced. Clashes erupted where ruling party men were seen shooting at the protesters.
Following the clashes, rickshaw-pullers, day laborers and the simplest of hard working people were taken into custody. After all, the police had a blank cheque for rounding up 3,000 unnamed people.
About two years ago, into the frame came the S Alam Group of Industries, a pro-ruling party top industrialist group of the country. They first stated that they would build garment factories and create job opportunities in the area. But soon after, they put up a tiny two by two signboard near one of the broken bridges, announcing the “Gandamara Coal Fire Power Project Road”.
“This was a good enough excuse for the opposition to spring into action,” said our anonymous source, adding, “Soon the people were alerted of the horrific effects of coal-based power plants on the environment, coupled with graphic details available on the internet.”
By then, S Alam Group had already bought 800 acres of land for the coveted project.
S Alam Group’s Chinese partners, SEPCOIII Electric, and HTG Financing, however leaked to the media that they had agreed to pay US $1.75 billion of the total 2.4 billion for the project, for which they would require 200 acres of land.
Now the individuals who were enjoying 1,800 acres of the khas land, in their business of shrimp and salt, felt threatened and the clash of interest occurred at the cost of four lives including two brothers on April 4th, 2016.
“It is a fight for land and money,” the official source stated with conviction.
On the embankment, several people asked me if there would be an election in Gandamara. I had no reply.
Later, I learned that the government had sent in 70 truck-loads of troops to capture Liakat Ali from the village recently. But they only managed to arrest his elderly father, while Liakat remains under the protection of the villagers, elusive to law enforcers.
Meanwhile, S Alam Group continues with their PR efforts in the area. Last week the company distributed, to every household, iftar and Eid gifts, in an effort to buy their hearts and minds.
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