The recent initiative by the government for a new airport in Arial Beel, and the subsequent decision to move it across the Padma Bridge due to a tenacious citizens’ uprising and lasting impact on the government’s decision have been food for thought for all concerned citizens.
The recent spate of events had pushed the government anew into realising that regional and national stakeholder acceptance is an imperative before trying to bully the common citizens into resigning to the fates of the high and mighty, while forgetting that the government comes to power on the wings of citizens’ votes. Therefore, this constituency of power base must not be ruffled with if sense continues to prevail by the political leadership. Aptly, sense and sensibility rushed in at the cost of lives, economic dislocation and amongst a flurry of violent street protests.
This article addresses the public policy issue of constructing a new airport, the logic behind changing decisions, and the impacts of mega projects.
A new airport in Arial Beel was planned to be constructed through acquiring 25,000 acres of land. However, amidst heavy resistance, death and injury, the government switched the location to the other side of the Padma river. Bangladesh is a signatory to many international conventions safeguarding wetlands and ecological enclaves. However, the decision to completely overrule our global commitments would have been irresponsible behaviour. Indeed, the belated but judicious decision to change the site is welcome.
The government has to undertake comprehensive stakeholder dialogues and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) to measure the impact of setting up the airport in the new location. Adequate steps must be taken through ensuring that no popular outbursts occur.
To brand itself as a progressive democracy with vibrant economic climate for investment and employment, all projects and policies by our government must pass through cost-benefit tests ascertaining the impact on its citizens and connected stakeholders. Without such analysis, Bangladesh will experience volatile political climate that vested quarters may exploit to unsettle the government, hurting the country economically and politically.
The vital institution of democracy sits atop the principle that major policy decisions are taken through dialogue, and they should be framed to uplift the general well being. People do not want to live amidst fear, repression or uncertainty. If there is frequent public outcry, the confidence of the people will continue to fade.
The government came to power with an overwhelming majority by offering to give shape to the dream of “Golden Bangladesh.” Therefore, the political government’s moral responsibility is to set and implement policy decisions following democratic norms.
Arial Beel is abode to a rich cluster of plants and trees, fish, animals and birds, insects and many other living organisms, all contributing to balancing the ecology of Bangladesh and acting as a reservoir by channeling water during rainy seasons. It also holds the excess water of the rainy season and ensures that the flood water does not inundate parts of Dhaka, Munshiganj and other areas.
Without weighing the colossal loss of the total ecology through conducting EIA, the GOB wanted to setup an international airport in that very enclave. The Ministry of Environment had also not been properly consulted, questioning the transparency in process.
Agricultural land is shrinking at an alarming rate, and top soil fertility is falling drastically. Arial Beel has been a bastion of agricultural production and a haven for sweet-water fish reproduction. By 2025, the population of Bangladesh may cross the 20 crore mark. Without securing food supply, the constant threat of food security cannot bode well and may contribute to social disharmony and anarchy.
From a practical consideration, efficiency and optimum use of current airports may also be properly calculated. Before the GOB considers such a colossal project costing in excess of Tk.50,000 crores, it ought to do a full blown study of the current capacity, usage and efficiency of all the international airports in Bangladesh.
Permanent dislocation is painful and emotionally trying. Dislocation related psychological disorientations are seldom quantified; therefore, the national fraying of psychological mind frame needs to be factored in while calculating the associated emotional costs for any large projects.
A mega project requires large foreign currency commitments, thus putting stress on our foreign currency reserve. Bangladesh is heavily dependent on imports; therefore, every time the taka devalues, it becomes more expensive to buy essentials like rice, oil, sugar, etc.
The global price hike introduces food and energy security risks. Bangladesh must build its own food reservoir and energy infrastructure to counter international supply shocks. Amidst these risks, Bangladesh also needs to manage its foreign currency. Thus, large projects like an airport will use up much needed foreign currency and ration project loans from the banking sector to other projects (due to crowding out effect) of national importance. So, the cost benefit of mega projects needs to be reviewed according to direct and indirect impacts.
Given the recent debacle in the capital market, financially affecting 3.3 million plus direct investors and also concurrent volatility in foreign exchange market, after it had faced a crunch in the money (call money rate rose as high as 190%) market in December 2010 and January 2011, the government must be vigilant in ensuring that no further ebbing of investor confidence results.
Let better assessment and sensibilities prevail; let political considerations and support for vested quarters not be the driving force in the government’s agenda. Lastly, strong debates before actually constructing a new airport must be initiated.
The writer is CEO, IITM. Email: email@example.com