Ground report: India-Bangladesh joint coal-fired power project threatens the Sunderbans

WIth New Delhi and Dhaka going ahead with the construction of Bangladesh’s biggest coal-fired power project in the Sunderbans, the flaura and fauna of the delta stare at extinction.

Photo by Abdullah Mahfuj Ove
Photo by Abdullah Mahfuj Ove

Amit Sengupta

The mangrove forests and tidal estuaries of the Sunderbans, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and other rare ecological species, including flora and fauna and a vast spectrum of sensitive bio-diversity, are in grave danger. With 5,000 square kilometre plus territory of dense forests, swamps, fresh water bodies and tidal rivers in Bangladesh, this UNESCO world heritage site is under grave threat from a huge thermal power project, slated to produce 1320 megawatts of power, close to the pristine mangrove forests and other precious trees, and the core zone, penetrating the buffer zone of the Sunderbans, threatening the ecological balance in this protected zone.

Case in point is the Rampal thermal power project, currently in its first phase of its construction, breathing deep with its concrete and waste into the core area of the Sunderbans in Bangladesh. The project is a coal-fired power station at Rampal Upazila of Bagerhaat, Bangladesh. It is a joint partnership between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power DevelopmentBoard (BPDP). The joint project is called the Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company. The proposed project, in an area of over 1834 acres of land, is situated 14 kilometres north of the world's largest mangrove forests, Sunderbans, an ecological hot spot.

Almost secretive and literally out of bounds for journalists, experts, environmentalists and activists, this is Bangladesh’s biggest power project. It is bound to spell disaster in this sensitive ecological zone, thereby impacting not only Bangladesh, but also the protected forests, rivers, estuaries and flora and fauna and wildlife on the Indian side of this geographically fragile zone in West Bengal. The life and times of the great Royal Bengal Tiger is itself under grave danger.

Indeed, journalists are not allowed to enter the project site, barricaded by boundary walls. Photography is prohibited from the mainland near zero point at Rampal, with vast stretches of fisheries and ponds, now almost abandoned, because they have been taken over by the project authorities. There are reportedly Indian workers stationed deep inside the project site who are allegedly not allowed to come out and interact with people. Bangladeshi workers too are involved in the first phase of the construction of this gigantic thermal power project.The zero point is literally without inhabitation, with massive bulldozers digging new roads and byways. “All the fisheries and water ponds will be destroyed,” said a local student from Bagerhaat near Khulna.

Peaceful fact-finding teams are not allowed to enter the area, not even to speak to affected villagers. Dharnas and protests are banned. Even wall-writing and leaflets are not allowed in the area, or in Khulna, the nearest bustling township around two hours from the site. This reporter visited the site from the mainland near Bagerhaat, and then travelled on a boat from the Mongra Port on the tidal river called Poshur, deep inside the forests, very close to the core area, and behind the hidden project site. Huge boundary walls with security check-posts werevisible from the river, as the project is almost touching the shoreline of the river, almost 10 km away from the main and protected core area of the Sunderbans where the Royal Bengal Tiger lives.

From the Mongra Port, into the river and deep inside the ecologically precious territory, this reporter surveyed the front and back of the prohibited Rampal site. Across the shore line, scores of cement, gas and other industries have been set up. Many more industries and a special economic zone (SEZ) is on the anvil, claim local activists. India might have a stake in private business entering the SEZs in the future. With such brazen and entrenched industrial activity so close to the pristine forests, questions have been raised as to how the project, run with lakhs of tonnes of Indian coal, is going to manage its solid and liquid waste in a delicate ecological terrain.

The Salinity of the wateris changing impacting both the mangroves and the soil. Crocodiles are moving away from these polluted zones, creating a man-animal conflict scenario. Fish species’ are impacted hitting the local economy

“India wants to get rid of its coal. Bangladesh has gas but no coal. So what will they do with the waste,” asked a professor at Khulna University. Another activist pointed out that the cement factories advertise publicly that they don’t use fly ash as waste in their factories for making cement. “So what will they do with the huge quantities of this toxic fly ash from coal in the power plant? Dump it into the river? Or dig huge holes in a deforested forest to hide the huge mass of waste from the world? And what will they do with the hot liquids which will be thrown into the water thereby raising the temperature and directly impacting both natural resources, soil, the river, trees, forests, various kinds of river fish and wild-life,” he further says.

“The share of coal in power generation is still insignificant in Bangladesh, but its future target is horrendous. When rest of the world is in competition to declare their fossil-fuel divestment and coal phase-out plans, Bangladesh is looking for the fastest ever coal plant expansion project in history,” writes an activist from Dhaka.

A professor in the Department of Environment Science in Khulna University says that the existence of industries in the buffer zone so close to the Sunderbans has already created major problems, which has created conditions similar to global warming and climate change. The salinity of the water is changing, thereby impacting both the mangroves and the soil. Crocodiles are moving away from these polluted zones, thereby directly creating a man-animal conflict scenario. Fish species’ are impacted, both in the tidal river and upstream, hitting the local economy. “Gradually, the mangroves will die and perish. And the tigers will start looking for new habitats,” he says.

This will, surely, therefore, impact the Indian side of the Sunderbans, where no industrial activity is allowed, prohibited almost 25 km away from the buffer zone, and the environmental impact assessment, among others laws under the Environment Protection Act and Wildlife Protection Act, are strictly implemented.

So why is the Bangladesh and Indian governments ready to move with this ‘secret’ project, ignoring Unesco concerns and strong opposition by environmentalists, experts and civil society activists? Indeed, big newspapers like the Daily Star and Prothom Aalo are taking up the story on their front pages, voicing deep concern and writing strong editorials. All across Bangladesh there is strong resentment against the possible devastation of the Sunderbans, held with great pride in this young nation, which has done reasonably well in their human development index, such as mass creation of toilets all over Bangladesh and exploring its vast resources of gas.

The united front of the communist parties and students’ groups in Dhaka and Khulna are opposing the project, despite the Awami League government’s repressive clampdown. There was a huge long march from Dhaka to the project site in 2016 which captured national attention. The Bangladesh National Committee of intellectuals, journalists and activists, in Dhaka and elsewhere, has written open letters to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They have also proposed and drafted an alternative and authoritative master plan for the creation of renewable energy, including the use of windmill energy and solar energy. The Bangladesh Prime Minister held a press conference denying that the Rampal project was dangerous and instead said that it would benefit the entire country. Not everyone agrees with her in her own country.

Of the many reasons why India is interested in this project is the idea of dumping huge quantities of coal, activists claim. The waterway, with coal transported in huge barges, will reduce transportation costs. What Bangladesh does with the waste from coal is not India’s concern.

There is apparently a railway line under construction from Kolkata to Jessore, close to Khulna. Besides, with increasing Chinese presence in the political economy of Bangladesh, India wants to consolidate its geopolitical position in what it perceives to be a ‘satellite country’ under the so-called control of the ‘big brother’, even as India’s foreign policy initiatives in its neighbourhood with Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka is perceived to have become big disasters.

There is reign of terror let loose in the area directly impacted by the project. A local activist’s house was burnt and his family threatened. If a foreign delegation or journalists arrive, he is not allowed to visit the place which was his homeland and agricultural land for decades. “It’s kind of a Hitler regime. But, for how long? The tide will one day turn,” says a Ph.D scholar in Dhaka. “It is like a mafia rule. They just don’t want any dissent. And they are ever eager to clamp down,” he adds. Two professors in Dhaka said that when they go to lecture in different universities, they are told not to utter the word “Rampal”. “We are all black-listed,” one of them remarks.

Will this government be any different from any other government, say one led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP)? “Nothing can be worse than this government,” says a professor in Dhaka University, who was denied an Indian visa because he tried to campaign with Indian MPs to raise the issue in the Indian Parliament. CPI leader D Raja reportedly raised the issue but the Indian government brushed it off as policy decisions of the Bangladeshi government, where India wasonly playing a friendly role with its friendly neighbour. The Awami League government is known to be ‘secular’, only playing a tactful chess game with the Islamic fundamentalists whereby the lines get blurred, while the BNP is known to be a hardline Islamic party backed by fundamentalists.

Almost 50,000 people have been displaced and not many have got compensations. Compensation rates are constantly changing. According to one local businessman who owned almost 30 bighas of land, he was paid just about Rs 1.5 lakh per bigha while the current rate is Rs 20 lakh per bigha. The huge ancillary workforce of fishermen, daily wagers, landless farmers and workers in the area, numbering around 25,000, have disappeared and migrated for new jobs. They have not received a penny. Over all, at least half a million people living on the fringes of the Sunderbans, surviving on cultivation, fishing, honey and other forest products like ‘Gol Pata’ for construction of thatched huts, will be directly impacted in due course, argue activists.

An extensively researched document called ‘The Alternative Power and Energy Plan for Bangladesh’,drafted by intellectuals, starts with this introduction: “The corporate interest-driven energy and power generation system has massively affected global environment, agriculture and water bodies; it also caused global conflict, war and occupation. The conventional ideas of development have largely failed to accommodate the basic needs of people and ecology. In the same policy framework, the governments of Bangladesh have been working to ensure profit for a few. While consequent governments of Bangladesh have been pursuing corporate-controlled, private profit-centric, debt dependent and environmentally disastrous energy and power policy, a strong democratic people’s movement has also emerged to resist this. The movement on the one hand put the demand to scrap anti-people and anti-environment deals, it advances the vision of equity, pro-environment energy security and pro people technological advancement. To reflect people’s aspiration, the National Committee worked hard to find an alternative energy and power plan, containing the vision of a progressive, egalitarian, democratic, pro-nature, and pro-human development model.”

Indeed, the Indo-Bangladesh Friendship Project has created widespread ‘anti-India’ feelings in the neighbouring country. In the days to come, protests might just erupt spontaneously, as Bangladesh positions itself for the next election. At stake is a Unesco world heritage site and an ecological hot spot, the pride of both Bangladesh and West Bengal. If the Sunderbans is endangered, whatwill happen to its legendary Royal Bengal Tigers who move across both the fluid borders, and its wildlife, fishes and birds, flora and fauna, the mangrove forests, micro organisms, and its vast tributaries of flowing estuaries, fresh water bodies and rivers?

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Published: 29 Apr 2018, 7:13 PM