Spry and soft-spoken, the 75-year-old Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury is Advisor for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He travelled to New Delhi to participate in Petrotech 2019. He also shared his experiences as a 26-year-old freedom-fighter for the liberation of Bangladesh while talking about his recently released autobiography Chariot of Life: Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jail at the Observer Research Foundation. Talking to SNI’s Deputy Editor Parul Chandra, Chowdhury said Bangladesh wants India to play a more active role in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. He also said Bangladesh is looking for India’s cooperation in order to import hydropower from Nepal and Bhutan. Excerpts…
How do you see the trajectory of India-Bangladesh relations with the Sheikh Hasina government coming to power for a third consecutive term in office?
Bilateral relations are very good and we hope to scale newer heights. Cooperation between the two countries is manifold. It’s in energy, electricity, road connectivity, trade, investment, culture. Essentially, bilateral ties have been developing and growing across an entire gamut of areas. For instance, in my own area of energy and power, cooperation has been growing. India and Bangladesh are tied together historically with links going back many centuries. So if we want to work together, we have so many ways of reaching out to each other. The Sheikh Hasina government has earlier worked with the Manmohan Singh government and now the Narendra Modi government have been very forthcoming in their plans. Whatever we ask for has been complied with. We also, in turn, extend whatever support we can to the development of the eastern Indian states. For the future, we hope that the electricity grid of the two countries will be connected and the gas grid too will be connected.
You’re a part of the Sheikh Hasina government that’s dealing with the Rohingya refugees issue. What are Dhaka’s expectations from New Delhi in this matter?
We are getting assistance from New Delhi. We’d like India to appreciate the fact that the Rohingya (sheltering in Bangladesh) need to return else there could be a security threat in that part of Bangladesh. We’re hoping that apart from providing humanitarian assistance, India will also play an active role to get the Rohingyas repatriated to their own country. Of course, it’s a humanitarian disaster too, a shame for the 21st century that such poor people are being thrown away from their home state on grounds that hark back to the Dark Ages. I’m sure the Indian government hopefully will come forward and play a more active role. But we seek India’s support in achieving a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis which means seeing them return to their own country.
What is the position as of now regarding gas and electricity grid connectivity?
The greater part of electricity grid connectivity has a firewall at present. They call it HDVC, i.e. a firewall between two grids. But in the Agartala (Tripura) part, we’re doing it without the firewall. I hope that one day we’ll remove the firewall so that we have synchronised grids between the two countries. We’ve just started importing petroleum products from the Numaligarh refinery in Assam. We’re also setting up an oil pipeline between Siliguri and Parbatipur. We hope it can be extended further to the west and south. The two countries are also working to find out ways to connect their gas grids. In fact, if the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline happens, we’d also like to be connected to it. In which case, the grid will be much wider.
How can the two countries work together to assist each other’s development?
We would like to contribute in whatever way we can to the development of the northeastern states of India, be it through trade and connectivity. The railway system in Bangladesh used to be called the Assam-Bengal railway with its headquarters in Chittagong. If we develop the Chittagong port further, we can carry goods from this port to Assam and other areas in northeast India. I think these were not choices available to us earlier but with excellent understanding and cooperation between the two governments, these are becoming real choices that we can make. We also hope that India will continue engagement with Bangladesh. We’d also like to see ourselves connected to Nepal and Bhutan to meet our energy needs. This will be hydropower. Not only will it be green power but it will also help stabilise our grid. We need to discuss this bilaterally with India as we’ll possibly need India’s consent as the grid line will pass through India. I’m hoping this will become a reality for Bangladesh — importing electricity from Nepal and Bhutan.
Environmentalists fear that the joint India-Bangladesh Maitree super thermal power project in Rampal in Bangladesh will imperil the Sundarbans located nearby ecologically. Your response to these claims?
The controversy has been put to rest. We’ve responded to all the objections that have been raised through scientific facts. And scientific data is unassailable. But the challenge remains — how do you translate scientific expectations into ground reality in the working of your power stations, in operating them to adhere to those standards. But the “academic challenges” have been more than answered.