Thousands of people, young and old, women and men, are now preparing for more than 400 km 5 days long march from Dhaka, the capital city, to Digraj a place in Rampal, the extended Sundarbans area, in South west Bangladesh begins from 24 September 2013. Organised by the ‘National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power’, the main demand for this long march is to cancel ‘Rampal coal fired power plant’ and stop all activities that would destroy the Sundarban. Why people around the country have become so sensitive, and why they are coming forward to resist this?
How the Sundarbans is vital for our existence?
The name Sundarbans সুন্দরবন is a combination of two Bangla words, Sundar and Bans. Sundar means beautiful and Bans means forests. So, in English, Sundarbans means the beautiful forests. Yes, it is. Not only beautiful in all senses, it is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, single largest mangrove forest in the world. UNESCO declared it as world heritage site. This has also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclone, storm and other natural disasters in the country. Sidr, Aila, Mohasen were recent ones. Our living memory shows that in every natural disaster, the nSundarban saves lives of hundreds of thousands human beings, their properties, and other non-human lives.
About 200 years ago, the Sundarban was much larger; it was then measured and found to be about 16,700 km². The present Sundarban is one third of that. The total land area today is 4,143 km² and the water area of 1,874 km² consisted of rivers, small streams and canals. ‘Rivers in the Sundarban are meeting places of saltwater and freshwater. Thus, it is a region of transition between the freshwater of the rivers originating from the Ganges and the saline water of the Bay of Bengal.’ The Sundarban is spread into two countries, Bangladesh and India, but ‘…. freshwater reaching the mangroves has been considerably reduced since the 1970s due to diversion of freshwater in the upstream area by India through the use of the Farakka Barrage bordering Rajshahi, Bangladesh’. (Wahid, S.M., Alam, M.J. and Rahman, A. “Mathematical river modelling to support ecological monitoring of the largest mangrove forest of the world – the Sundarbans”, 2002).
Despite many activities of grabbing, looting and forest unfriendly activities, about 60 per cent of the bans is still surviving in Bangladesh.
This mangrove forest is unique because of its history, size, productivity and significance in balancing the local ecosystem. ‘It is the largest mangrove patch in the world; the second largest is only one-tenth of its size in Malaysia. The Sundarbans is unprecedented in biological diversity and wildlife resources too. The renowned Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris) is synonymous with the Sundarbans which is the largest remaining natural habitat of the man-eating wild cat. Despite official land reclamation programmes and continued exploitation of produces from this swamp forests, they still survive with multiple threats originating from the modern world’. (Bangladesh Environment Facing the 21st Century, Sehd, 2007)
The forest has been playing unparallel protective and productive functions. In addition to its role as natural safeguard, it is also the single largest source of forest produce in the country. The Sundarbans also plays an important role in creating economic value in the national economy and employment creating opportunities for the millions. It now covers more than 60% of the total reserved forest of Bangladesh, contributes about 50% of total forest revenue.
Forest cover in Bangladesh is far less then adequate, and also the health of the surviving forests is extremely poor. An overview of forests in Bangladesh correctly observed that, this poor health of forests has not been caused by natural process; rather the human greed and corporate aggressive penetration destroyed the natural process of growth and expansion of the forests that also put human survival in danger. Wrong and grabber friendly policies, wrong headed investment and commercialisation, destructive investment made this happen. In fact ‘most of the forests were stolen’ by the process of profit making ventures’ (Stolen Forests by Phillip Gain, 2006). With the rise of extent of primitive accumulation, the Sundarbans also suffered like other forests, rivers and open space in Bangladesh.
Rampal power plant: the final blow
Now the mere existence of the Sundarbans has been threatened by an attempt to build 1320 MW coal fired power plant in Rampal, the larger Sundarban area. This proposed Rampal Coal Power Project is a joint venture project by the Indian state owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh state owned Power Development Board (PDB). We have identified three serious problems with this project.
The contract is non-transparent and unequal
First, the whole process of conceiving the project, selection of the area and the terms and conditions of the project are non-transparent, irrational and biased against Bangladesh interest. Power generation will also not be economically feasible (For more on the contract see, Moshahida Sultana Ritu: “Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant, Who gains, who loses?” Daily Star, June 11, 2013)
Project of mass destruction
Secondly, different independent studies suggest that this project would not allow the Sundarbans to survive and to reproduce. We have two reports from detail studies on Sundarban. These studies were directed by two independent experts of environment and engineering. Those are Dr. Abdullah Harun Chowdhury of Khulna University (“Environmental Impact of coal based power plant of Rampal on the Sundarbans and Surrounding Areas”, 2012) and Dr. M A Sattar of Bangladesh Agricultural University (“Impact of Coal-Fired Power Plant on Air Pollution Climate Changes and Environmental Degradation including Disaster on Sundarban”, 2011). They investigated the possible and inevitable impact of the power plant on the Sundarbans, in construction phase and in production phase. Conclusions of these two independent studies are similar. They found the proposed coal fired power plant as the destroyer of the largest forest in Bangladesh.
In order to understand the extent of concerns by the independent experts of the country, let me quote from Dr Abdullah Harun’s study conclusion, “EIA of physical, biological, social and economic environment indicate that most of the impacts of coal fired power plant are negative and irreversible which cant be mitigated in any way. It is indicating that climate, topography, land use pattern, air and water (surface and ground both) quality, wetlands, floral and faunal diversity, capture fisheries and tourism will be affected permanently due to proposed coal fired power plant. Increasing of water logging conditions, river erosion, noise pollution and health hazards; decreasing of ground water table; loss of culture fisheries, social forestry and major destruction of agriculture will happen due to the coal fired power plant… The benefits/facilities of proposed coal fire power plant of Rampal are very poor compared to the negative irreversible impacts. So economically, socially, physically and environmentally the selected area is not suitable to establish any type of coal based power plant.”
However, many of these concerns were echoed in the EIA authorised by the PDB, only to mention that, everything will be done to mitigate the damages. Engineer Kallol Mustafa pointed out some vital twists, lies, deception and unsubstantiated promises in that EIA document. These include dealing on the issue of Possur River, zero discharge policy, mentioning the Sundarban as residential area and village rather than ‘environmentally sensitive area’, millions of tons of fly ash and bottom ash issues, dangerous waste management policy, coal transportation, etc. After carefully analysing the EIA, Mustafa correctly concluded that, “although the EIA report has tried to justify the Rampal coal power plant near the Sundarbans by using wrong emission standards, underestimating various adverse impacts, not specifying impact in many cases, using words ‘unlikely’, ‘hardly’, ‘very little’, ‘may’, ‘may not’ etc, the impacts of construction & operation of the coal based power plants on the Sundarbans ecosystem documented in the EIA are enough to cancel the project immediately” (Kallol Mustafa: “How the Rampal Coal Power Plant will destroy Sundarbans”, http://ncbd.org/?p=794).
Process of deception
Thirdly, from their work map, the very intention of the governments of both countries can be questioned. Years before the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was done, 1834 acres of land, that was mostly agricultural and shrimp aquaculture pond (gher) had been acquired for the proposed 1320 MW power plant project. That was done by the government without the consent of the people, was done with force by police and local thugs.
Moreover, if we look at the chronology of events it would be clear that the EIA process was merely an eyewash, used as an instrument to rationalise a predetermined project. The events took place as follows:
(1) Land acquisition order for this power plant was issued on 27 December 2010 more than two years before the EIA was done.
(2) Before the EIA was approved, the joint venture agreement to set up the power plant was signed between Indian company NTPC and Bangladeshi company PDB on 29 January 2012.
(3) The EIA was published on January 2013 in the PDB website for public opinion. Experts and some concerned organisations submitted their opinion in due time, they rejected the EIA.
(4) A public consultation was arranged by PDB on 12 April 2013. The experts, who were present there, identified serious problems with the EIA; they categorically rejected the EIA, and asked the government to stop all activities before another independent EIA is done.
(5) A week later of that rejection, two government representatives signed final agreement (on April 20, 2013), the Implementation Agreement (IA) and Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).
Moreover, Bangladesh government made special decision to allow the Indian side to get tax waiver on its share of profit from the proposed plant. Bangladesh will purchase ‘NTPC’s stakes at a price evaluated by an independent Indian firm. Earlier, the PDB had relaxed the Liquidated Damage (LD) and Performance Guarantee (PG) clauses, along with Corporate Guarantee, for implementing the Rampal power project’. Therefore whatever happens to the Sundarbans, Indian company’s huge profit is ensured.
India is violating Indian Law
The spokespersons of the Governments of Bangladesh and India have been asserting on the point that, no damage will be done to the Sundarban since super critical technology will be used in this project. The question remains, why use of this technology could not justify the coal based power plants in India, e.g., in Tamilnadu, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa which were cancelled on environmental concern?
This is very important to note that, ‘as coal based power plant creates serious environmental pollution, no country in the world usually gives permission to set up large coal based power plant within 20 to 25 km distance of forest, agricultural land and residential area’. According to the EIA, the distance of the proposed Rampal coal based power plant from the Sundarbans mangrove forest is 14 km, which they claim as a safe distance. But the EIA guideline manual for coal based thermal power plants prepared by the Indian Ministry of environment and forest in August 2010, clearly states that, the “locations of thermal power stations are avoided within 25 km of the outer periphery of the following: – metropolitan cities; – National park and wildlife sanctuaries; – Ecologically sensitive areas like tropical forest, biosphere reserve, important lake and coastal areas rich in coral formation…” That means Indian state owned NTPC is operating the Rampal project by violating its own principle and legal restrictions. Nevertheless, the Indian government is pushing for that. No company including the NTPC will be allowed to implement similar or much less disastrous project in India. (See, for more on this project, a booklet published by the National Committee in http://ncbd.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Rampal-booklet.pdf)
The Government’s claim about the distance of the proposed plant, 14 km from the forest, has also been contested by the experts. Geographer Wahiduzzaman and Salam, for example, gathered their findings through Geographical Information System (GIS) software exhibited that this distance is between 9 and 13 kilometres. (A.K.M Wahiduzzaman and Mohammed Tawsif Salam: “Rampal Electricity Plant and our Environmental Consciousness”, http://alalodulal.org/2013/08/29/rampal/). More worrying fact is that, if we consider buffer zone, crucial for preservation of forest life, this distance comes down further to 4 km.
People against grabbing and mass destruction
In larger Sundarbans area several corporate houses already erected billboards declaring their new profit making ventures. New projects on shipyard, ship breaking, 5-star hotel, and aggressive tourism are in the air. It is also heard that gas exploration and security installations are also in the planning process of relevant authorities. So, an all out attack on the Sundarban and the country has been in the making.
While visiting Bangladesh few months back, the president of India urged that, both India and Bangladesh should work unitedly to protect the Sundarbans. In reality, the governments of both the countries are working unitedly to destroy the Sundarbans. This huge and vital forest is spread into both India and Bangladesh. Therefore, people of Bangladesh and India should be united to resist Rampal coal fired power plant to save the Sundarbans. In order to protect lives and livelihood of millions of people, the world’s largest mangrove forest, natural defence system against natural disaster, extremely important biodiversity and to protect human and non-human rights we have no other way but to resist any project from anywhere that is disastrous to the Sundarbans.
Concerned people express the main argument of their opposition to the Rampal power plant in one sentence: ‘there are many alternatives for power generation, but there is no alternative for Sundarban.’ People of Bangladesh are gathering to save Sundarban. People of India and the world should join them to save this World Heritage Site.
Anu Muhammad is a teacher, economist, researcher and member secretary of Oil Gas Protection Committee.