Before any discussions on Sheikh Hasina, one must fathom the wellspring of her mission. It is the inheritance from her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who wanted to bring smiles (hashi phutabo) in the face of the ordinary folks of Bangladesh – a metaphor for the well rounded changes that would bring economic growth with equity along with social, cultural and emotional developments.
The inheritance motivated Sheikh Hasina to delve deep into the details of the challenges ordinary people face – a work of love too – much like the comment of Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow who emphasised "respect" and "concern" for people as the essence of a good society.
Any truncated discussion on the strategy and programmes of Sheikh Hasina would miss out the essence of her focus on poor people. Having made this disclaimer, I would briefly discuss the revolutionary changes like those of Prometheus to put an end to darkness with light for all its citizens, both factually and figuratively.
Sheikh Hasina assumed the office of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1996 with the power sector in dire straits, the country reeling under power outages and donors had decided not to fund any power generation project.
Undeterred by this embargo, the prime minister took the bold step to introduce the private sector which had no role till date. Independent Power Policy (IPP) was designed to attract private sector investment in power generation.
Based on this policy, Bangladesh was able to contract two land based private sector power plants with a total capacity of 810MW awarded to the US company AES whose tariffs were among the lowest in the world.
Alongside, three barge mounted plants were installed within nine months totaling a capacity of 310MW. Together, all these plants added close to 40% of additional power to the system, a much needed relief to the customers. To give a fillip to industries, the private sector was allowed to produce its own power (commonly known as standby/captive generators) and even sell to other industries.
The future goals of Bangladesh were set out by Sheikh Hasina in Vision 2020 which stipulated a package of reforms including electricity for all by 2020, a very ambitious target given the state of power sector in Bangladesh then.
Another momentous change reinforced these developments. Prime Minister Hasina broke the monopoly of the lone mobile telephone operator by awarding licences to three companies through competitive bidding. This had profound impacts on the overall developments of Bangladesh by leveraging the expansion of the electricity network.
After a lapse of seven years, Sheikh Hasina became prime minister for the second term in 2009. Much of the gains in the power sector had been stalled during the previous regimes and the country was back in severe power shortages, which was adversely affecting the economic growth of the country.
The election manifesto of the Awami League – A Charter for Change, which included digital Bangladesh – was a surprise for most, including those who have been following the power sector, given the bold expansion targets and investment that were set out in the document.
Interestingly, it was thought through and articulated by Sheikh Hasina while incarcerated during the military-backed caretaker government with sham accusations relating to the power sector which she had turned around.
I had the privilege to sit in the dock next to her in the courtroom as a co-accused and was amazed when she shared her thoughts with me about the future of the country, while I was then in much too disarray to focus on serious subjects!
On assuming office, Prime Minister Hasina set out a pathway for electrification by amending the existing systems to achieve ambitious goals. First among them was the enactment of emergency law for power and energy which, among others, enabled the government to move fast out of the stranglehold of the prevailing procurement system.
Secondly, a new mixes of fuel and private contracts were introduced. Liquid fuels, though expensive, were chosen as fuels for quickly installing power plants, both public and private.
The opportunity cost of not having power was estimated to be higher than using liquid fuels. Also, to provide power in the short run, contracts with the private sector were tailored for a shorter period than the IPPs.
Thirdly, the government quickly allocated funds to the public sector from its own resources. Fourthly, solar energy was given a big push by supporting the solar home system (SHS) to provide basic services in non-grid areas at that time. Lastly, institutional reforms were introduced to give greater autonomy by setting up companies in generation and distribution.
In the next phase, fuel mix was changed to incorporate base load plants in the system. The new choice of fuels was nuclear power and coal. The much awaited nuclear power project was revived at the site long abandoned for decades at Rooppur in Pabna district.
Prime Minister Hasina had started the leg work in her first term in the 1990s by working on the technical and legal framework for nuclear power in Bangladesh in consultation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is the global watchdog for such purposes.
The project of 2,400MW capacity of nuclear power with Russian financing and technical assistance was approved and construction began in 2017. Power is likely to start flowing next year, in 2023.
Bangladesh is among a handful of developing countries to have entered the nuclear power industry. This could not have been possible without the vision, personal drive and leadership of Prime Minister Hasina.
Since the greenhouse gas emission of Bangladesh is only 0.5 metric ton per capita per annum, compared to 10-20 metric tons in developed countries, coal was also chosen as a fuel for affordable power and base load plants.
Bangladesh, however, chose the latest ultra super critical technology to minimise emission at significant additional cost. About 10,000MW of coal-fired power projects both under public and private sectors have been contracted, and are under various stages of implementation. The Prime Minister struck a balance between our environmental commitments and development goals by cancelling 10 coal fired power plants which were under various stages of implementation.
Another special initiative taken by Prime Minister Hasina was to enhance regional cooperation in power. Her special interest and that of the Indian Prime Minister made it possible for power to flow from India to Bangladesh in 2013 marking South Asia's first ever high voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnection between two countries and a key step forward in regional power sharing and cooperation.
This was further strengthened when additional power flowed from Tippura to Cumilla in eastern Bangladesh. Now, on an average about 1,000MW power is being imported from India.
Another project under completion this year will bring power from Jharkhand, India to Bangladesh directly. Prime Minister Hasina is working to extend regional cooperation to include neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan.
Bangladesh emerged as a global leader in SHS providing essential energy services to around 5.5 million households. The generous help and support of the government to the Infrastructure Development Company (IDCOL) made it possible. This also leveraged access to digital initiatives promised by the prime minister in the election manifesto.
One exceptional focus of Prime Minister Hasina worth a special mention which has acquired attention now as the world tries to deal with energy scarcity. She has been emphasising since she took over in 2009 to conserve energy and be responsible in its use.
This behavioural change would not only save energy but also be good for the pocket. Western countries have started talking about benefits of such behavioural change – energy responsibility – which will impact not only demand for energy but other uses of natural resources so crucial for the sustainability of the world. To this end institutions like Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) and Bangladesh Energy and Power Research Council (BEPRC) have been set up.
The results of her mission were outstanding. Per capita GDP rose four times from just over $700 in 2009 to $2800 in 2022. Bangladesh graduated to low middle income countries in World Bank ranking criteria. This was made possible by increasing power generation capacity from 4,000MW+ to over 25,000MW (including captive generation) over the same period, a six fold increase.
Prime Minister Hasina never lost her focus on ordinary people. Enough funds were given to Bangladesh Rural Electricity Board (BREB) to accelerate the expansion of the distribution system to achieve her Vision 2020 goal of giving access to all. Compared to 45% people having access to in 2009, all of Bangladesh is lighted now.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has set out the future goals of Bangladesh: middle income country by 2030 and a developed country by 2041. Power sector is planned to generate and supply an estimated 30,000MW and 50,000MW on the two mileposts ensuring quality and reliability.
The current crisis in the energy sector is manifested in sky-rocketing prices and scramble for fuels by the developed world. It has been imposed upon us, beyond our control, by conflicts and geopolitics in far off lands. Although we are producing three times more power today than we did in 2009, we are still short. Together we have to face the challenges keeping in mind "energy responsibility", frugality and sacrifice which we all are proud of as a nation. This too shall pass.
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury is Adviser to Hon'ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for Energy, Power & Mineral Resources Affairs.