At a time when Bangladesh is seeing an economic boom with a growth rate of over 7 per cent, Bir Bikram Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, adviser (minister) to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for power, energy and mineral resources affairs speaks to Shine Jacob about the country's energy future. He opens up about the status of investments by Indian energy majors like NTPC and ONGC Videsh in Bangladesh. Edited excerpts:
Right now there are a lot of talks about the rise of LNG sector in Bangladesh. Can you throw some light on the nation's energy sector plans on its backdrop?
Having an LNG mix in the energy basket is a strategy of all countries now. You need to diversify both by time and source. At some point of time you are forced to look at it as energy demand in our country is rising. Bangladesh has been growing at over 7 per cent per annum almost for a decade and hence there is a huge demand for electricity and now we have to look for other choices like nuclear, LNG and also renewable sources. Now, we are setting up a nuclear power plant and India is involved in its technical side. For LNG, we are setting up two floating terminals. While one is already supplying gas to the system, the other one will be operational in a couple of days time. We are also planning a land-based terminal. We have to keep our supply slightly ahead of our demand. But we cannot afford the market price of LNG for our customers and industry. So, we will have to start pooling it with domestic gas. Hopefully, with our per capita income rising, we will be able to afford more LNG into the system in future.
Petronet LNG had recently expressed its interest to set up an LNG terminal in your country through a bilateral deal. Are you open to the idea?
Petronet was looking at an LNG terminal at Maheshkhali and have done some feasibility study also. But it turned out that we cannot have so many land-based terminals. Firstly, I don't have the appetite for this in the short run because all these coal-based power plants are coming. Secondly, I cannot afford it also. We made it clear to your minister (Dharmendra Pradhan). We have requested the participation of Petronet in the tender floated for a land-based LNG terminal at Matarbari in Cox Bazar district. Given that they have done some homework earlier, they should be able to give the best offer. If it is a choice between equals, we will be looking at Petronet's offer. Hence, we can say that Maheshkhali project is moved to Matarbari, where there is an open competition.
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ONGC Videsh is currently working on exploration sector in your country. Do you have any plans to give them more blocks?
ONGC Videsh has been given few blocks. Unfortunately, they are not been able to start drilling now. They are late by three years, so we have given them an extension. There are phases of exploration. In the first phase, if you cannot do your work, you are shown the gate. However, we have not done that and have given an extension of another two years. They have been slow and have to speed up. Your minister (Pradhan) also said that. There was an understanding between us at the ministerial level that the drilling would start about two years back. They are getting ready and we have been assured that the first well will be spun by the end of this month.
There is a demand from Indian side to have a free trade agreement with Bangladesh. What is your take on that?
I generally feel that there is lot to be done on both sides. As far as Bangladesh business people are concerned, they complain that there are a lot of non-tariff barriers from Indian side. Non-tariff barriers are as good or bad as tariff barriers. Our relationship with India should be mutually beneficial. We could be a market and in the same way India should be our market too.
We are in talks with Indian government for special economic zones. We are sure that they will also be part of it. Japanese and Chinese have already selected their locations. We don't want India to be left behind. Other than Hiranandani, we are also trying to do the same at government level for other two SEZs.
What is the status of the 1320 mega watt Rampal power plant that you are setting up with NTPC. Is it because of its proximity to Sunderbans that the project is getting delayed?
It is on slow track but I wouldn't put the blame on environmental issues. Some projects move faster, others don't. The Para project is next to Rampal. It started a year later and first phase is set to be commissioned this year. So it is ahead of Rampal by about three years. I think the management has not been up to the mark. I am hoping that the first phase may be commissioned by 2020-21 as it is set to see over $2 billion of investment.
In last few years Bangladesh has taken rapid strides in electrification of households and green energy. How do you see this development?
Our Prime Minister is focused on individual development of people. Our governance starts from individuals and hence we had to provide electricity for all. There was no choice on that. Hence, I would like to put it this way that our GDP growth is participatory, rather than inclusive. In many areas like per capita income, infant mortality, education, girl's education etc, we are way ahead of our peers. In this participatory growth, we have 5 million households lit by independent solar home systems. In remote areas where they have no access tothee grid, these solar systems are becoming the major energy source.