We have entered into eighth year of resistance against government sponsored disastrous projects those are threatening survival of the Sundarban, the huge natural protector and the last of natural big forests in Bangladesh. Along with National Committee, thousands of people at home and abroad spontaneously have engaged themselves in organising protests that has made signs of new consciousness about nature and devlopment.
The Sundarbans and the development projects
The Sundarbans located in south-west of Bangladesh , is the largest single tract mangrove forest, and the UNESCO natural world heritage site. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, this beatiful forest (literal English for Sundarban) is intersected by a network of tidal canals, creeks and rivers. More than 4 million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. This has also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclone, storm and other natural disasters in the country. This is the strongest shield for the people to fight against climate change. Lives and properties of almost 50 million people will be threatened if there is no Sundarban.
A recent World Bank study (November 2017) recognised that ‘Mangroves as a natural infrastructure has received increased attention in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.’ It also said that ‘Bangladesh provides an exemplary backdrop for investigation of coastal protection from mangroves during cyclones, as Bangladesh is the world’s most vulnerable country to tropical cyclones (UNDP 2004). Bangladesh was hit by 48 severe cyclonic storms and 49 cyclonic storms between 1877 and 2016, 20 of which recorded hurricane wind speeds during the more recent period of 1966-2016. Bangladesh provides an exemplary backdrop for investigation of coastal protection from mangroves during cyclones, as Bangladesh is the world’s most vulnerable country to tropical cyclones (UNDP 2004). Bangladesh was hit by 48 severe cyclonic storms and 49 cyclonic storms between 1877 and 2016, 20 of which recorded hurricane wind speeds during the more recent period of 1966-2016.’
The Sundarbans have been experiencing many state sponsored harmful intervention from both India and Bangladesh. The Farakka barrage in India brought salinity in Sundarbans, and irrigation and flood control projects in Bangladesh also created problems for Sundarban. Governments in both countries showed their ignorance and insensitivities about Sundarban, Rampal power plant entered as the worst attack on Sundarban.
From the very beginning, the project has been suffering from serious irregularities. The government had selected a natural wetland and fertile agricultural land for the project. Land acquisition order for this power plant was issued on 27 December 2010 more than two years before the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was done. Before the EIA was approved, the joint venture agreement to set up the power plant was signed between Indian National Thermal Power Company (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB) on 29 January 2012. A public consultation was arranged by PDB on 12 April 2013. The experts, invited in the consultation identified serious problems with the EIA; they rejected the EIA and asked the government to stop all activities before another independent EIA was conducted. However, a week later the final agreement was signed by defying that rejection.
In the meantime, more than 3500 landowning families submitted complaints about unlawful acquisition of their land; the police and local thugs were involved in forceful eviction. Many of them did not get the promised compensation. Nearly 8 thousand families are going to be displaced in the process; most affected have been the poor people and the minority community. A recent investigative report revealed that, around two-thirds of the land acquired by the government from the locals has been handed over to local leaders and ruling party men. One such leader proudly claimed that they played a key role when the land was acquired for the plant, also stopped the groups of “bandits” who staged movements and long march against the power plant! (Dhaka Tribune, January 31, 2017)
Moreover, the 1320 MW Rampal coal fired power plant project has become a centre of attraction for other harmful business in and around the Sundarbans. Therefore, it is urgent to scrap the project before it is too late.
Independent experts from home and abroad have pointed out many aspects of serious threat of the project for Sundarbans. UNESCO, South Asians for Human Rights, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, among others, have made their independent studies and reached to the same conclusion: the project will be disastrous for the Sundarbans.
Although the Indian EIA guideline 2010 disallows setting up of similar projects within 25 kilometers of ecologically sensitive areas including forests, rivers, and sanctuaries, the site of Rampal coal fired power plant is located on the north of the Sundarbans, only 14 kilometers away from its boundary and within 4 kilometers of the ecologically critical area (ECA).This site is only 2 meters above the sea level; it falls within a tidal delta region which has experienced surge as high as height of 5 meters and witnessed 16 cyclones in the past 25 years.
The plant will annually consume 4.72 million tons of coal that will be transported to the project site through the waterways of the Sundarbans (nearly 13 thousand tons per day) with serious risk of “coal spillage, ballast water, bilge water, oil spillage, lubricant, and garbage”. The current transportation system in the Sundarbans area itself is creating severe sound and water pollution around the forest ecology. The latest accident took place in January when a vessel sunk with 1000 tonnes of coal. This is the latest of series of disasters. The callous response of the government to these accidents increases the risks of coal transportation. (See for details https://waterkeeper.org/coal-barge-carrying-1000-tonnes-of-coal-sinks-in-the-sundarbans-world-heritage-site/)
To run the power plant, water of the possur river will be withdrawn (at the rate of 9,150 m3/hour) and discharged (at the rate of 5,150 m3/hour) into it again after use with a varying temperature. Experts warn that this will reduce the oxygen of the water and damage the fish stocks of the possur river. The rising temperature will also affect the “entire ecosystem and biodiversity of the forest, the marine ecology and the biodiversity of the possur river would be destroyed, as well as the hydrological characteristics of the river including its salinity front, salinity level, sedimentation pattern, and tidal behavior”. Discharged water will also contain a large amount of toxic mercury that will be released from the Plant every year. This mercury will be mixed up with the food chain through water system.
Zoologists have shown concern that the toxic substances emitted from the coal-fired power plant including arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium, and radium are capable of contaminating the air and water to such an extent that it would affect the reproductive health system of the wild life animals and the species of the Sundarbans. Scientists are also concerned that the coal-fired pollution will hamper the existence of rare species of birds in the Sundarban.
(For summary of some experts’ analysis see, http://ncssbd.org/ and https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0Z2WgWYzVDoT2ZFWU43a1BmM2NZcWk0dzBrMkxYbHhvNTdR/view )
Experts have also asserted that so-called “most modern” technology described in EIA is only capable of reducing pollution only at a rate of 8 to 10 percent. Even if other pollutant reducing technology are used, no record suggests that risk of pollution could be entirely eliminated. For instance, “the installation of FGD may reduce the risk of SO2 pollution, while increasing the chances of water pollution through the release of heavy chemical materials including Arsenic, Mercury, Selenium and Boron.” (Cleansing the Air at the Expense of Waterways, The New York Times, Otober 12, 2009)
A Study on the project by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also found that the proposed Rampal power plant is ‘fraught with unacceptable risk, out of step with the times, and would set Bangladesh back’. (For full report: http://ieefa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Risky-and-Over-Subsidised-A-Financial-Analysis-of-the-Rampal-Power-Plant-_June-2016.pdf)
Response from UNESCO
After sending several notes of concern, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conducted “a reactive monitoring mission to assess the conservation of this iconic area” in March 2016. It was stated that “The mission was tasked with reviewing potential impacts from the construction of the Rampal power plant, assessing risks from climate change, and evaluating the overall management system of the Sundarban, including provisions around shipping safety.” The mission visited the site of the proposed Rampal power plant, as well as the locations of a 2015 cargo vessel accident and 2016 oil spill. It included “meetings with key ministries, industry representatives, port authorities, a small number of researchers and local community members.” They were not, however, allowed to meet the pro-Sundarbans experts, organizations and community members.
On 18 October 2016, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN released final report of the mission. The report concludes that the proposed Rampal power plant, poses a serious threat to the Heritage site. They summarized their four key concerns as: (1) pollution from coal ash by air; (2) pollution from wastewater and waste ash; (3) increased shipping and dredging; and (4) the cumulative impact of industrial and related development infrastructure. The mission recommended, in clear terms, that the Rampal power plant project be cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location. (For details, see http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/148097)
In 2017, in its final decision Unesco urged Bangladesh government ‘to make constant efforts to fully implement all the other recommendations made by the 2016 Reactive Monitoring mission’. It also said, ‘while the State Party provides a long list of measures taken to limit and mitigate negative impacts on the environment, the concern remains that there is insufficient supporting evidence that these measures would prevent impacts on the property from air emissions, coal ash hazards, and shipping and dredging plans to transport coal to the project site. In light of these concerns and the mission’s conclusions, it is recommended that the Committee request the State Party not to proceed with the Rampal power plant project in its current location and to relocate it to a more suitable location where it would not negatively impact the OUV of the property.’ (http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/3563)
The protests and the government
So far we have tried our best to convince the governments of Bangladesh and India that the largest mangrove forest should not be a playground for grabbers, mindless business, it must survive for survival of lives. There have been many research studies, discussions, debates, publications and also exchanges with the government bodies in Bangladesh as well as demonstrations, protest meetings and long marches to Sundarbans to make the point. There were also cycle rallies, art exhibitions on Sundarbans were organised, many new songs, new documentaries were created by spontaneous initiatives from young people. Moreover, we wrote open letters to both the prime ministers of Bangladesh an India where we explained our concern in details. But the governments have shown extreme insensitivity towards all public exhortations.
Not only that, we faced several incidents of police atrocities, obstruction or attacks on sundarban movement; death threat and harassment also used to stop the vocal campaign. Police used indiscriminate brutal force including tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets on July 28 last year in the peaceful procession that was marching to hand over an open letter to the prime minister of Bangladesh, also on 18 October on the procession to hand over an open letter to the prime minister of India. On 30 September, 2016 both ruling party goons and police attacked on ‘Save Sundarban’ cycle rally. Many demonstrations, discussion programs, photograph exhibitions, cultural programs were obstructed, denied or attacked by ruling party men and/or police in Dhaka and around the country since the beginning of the protests.
But despite that, people have not given up. Support for the movement spread fast to all sections of the society. On November 26 last year, cholo cholo Dhaka cholo ‘March to Dhaka’ culminated into a grand gathering of more than 20 thousand people at central Shaheed Minar. In the last few months there were also public polls in different places including public universities. Nearly 41 thousand students and teachers cast their vote in these unofficial but transparent referendums. More than 92 per cent cast their vote against Rampal coal fired power plant to save Sundarbans.
About 200 organizations from different countries appealed to scrap the project last year. On January 7 ‘global protest day for Sundarban’ was celebrated in more than 30 cities around the world.
A large number of experts and activists in India expressed their solidarity with the movement in many ways including participation in long march. A number of protest rallies and solidarity meetings took place in Kolkata and Delhi. To registrar solidarity with Bangladeshi protestors, Indian scientists, environmentalists, teachers, film makers, writers, researchers, fish workers, forest workers urged their prime minister through a press conference in Delhi on October 18, 2016 to withdraw the project. They argued that, “This project is opposed by people in Bangladesh and India for its monumental social and environmental negative impacts, particularly the irreversible damage to Sundarban and the fragile ecosystem around it. The project is partly owned by NTPC, financed by Indian Exim Bank, equipment’s supplied by BHEL and PricewaterhouseCoopers Private Limited, India contracted for long term coal sourcing. Hence India’s share in this project is significant.” (Protest in India over Rampal power plant, The Daily Star/ANN, Oct 19, 2016)
‘You can shoot me, I will not give Sundarban’
Half day strike in Dhaka city on 26 January was called to press government further to save Sundarban. It was different in essence and its form. It was the first general strike in history to save a forest. There was no violence from the organizers. Despite the protest remained peaceful police in different places were violent to foil protest rallies. In Shahbag area police continued its violent actions for at least 8 hours. They used tear shell, water cannon and rubber bullets continuously to drive away agitators from the street, but they failed because of high morale and passion of them. At one point one young agitator Mahtab walked towards police to stop their atrocity with his one injured hand bandaged saying ‘you can shoot me, I will not give Sundarban’. In return police started beating him mercilessly. Then another activist Mizan tried to stop police water cannon, he was also severely beaten. They were both arrested in a senseless condition. Journalists gathered there to take notes and video. ATN news reporter and photographer were also beaten until their legs were broken. Many more were injured and hospitalized. Two singers were also arrested when they were singing song of Sundarban.
Alternative Master Plan for Power Generation
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 peoples movement on the one hand put demand to scrap anti-people and anti-environment deals, it advances the vision of equity, pro-environment energy security and pro-people technological advancement on the other. To reflect peoples 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.
Relying on two decades long experience of peoples’ movement, along with a yearlong research, investigation, and dialogues with a large number of scientists, environmentalists, engineers, and renewable energy experts from all around the world, National Committee presented pro-people, pro-environment master plan for the people of Bangladesh on July 22, 2017 to meet energy and power demand. This alternative plan proposed by the National Committee has prioritized people’s ownership of all natural resources, protection of environment, development of national capability, and the use of environmental friendly technology. It made sure that Rampal or Ruppur are not at all necessary to meet power demand of the country. There are many better alternatives. ( For details see: http://ncbd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/The-Alternative-Power-and-Energy-Plan-for-Bangladesh-by-NCBD.pdf)
Matter of common sense and sensitivity
For any sensible person it is a matter of common sense that no project can be called development project if that is a threat for the survival of a natural forest like Sundarbans. There is sufficient scientific evidence, arguments, and facts and figures to support this. But the problem arises when authorities are not willing to use common sense and deny scientific evidence.
We would like to stress on the point that no deadly experiment should be taken when the Sundarbans is concerned. Therefore, we again call for the cancellataion of the project immediately and to stop other harmful navigation and commercial activities in and around the Sundarban. The Sundarban should not be a field of greed and power game. If Sri Lanka and India could scrap similar projects, why not Bangladesh, to prevent a much bigger disaster?
Real development should aim at GDP growth without long term irreversible destruction of nature and threat to human survival. If we say yes to Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world located in coastal area in Bangladesh, then we must say no to commercial projects harmful for its survival. Whether it is a power plant or any other commercial activity, whether that is foreign investment (FDI) or local investment, whether that is investment from India, or China or the US or any other country even from Bangladesh; whether it increases the GDP or generates power- this position cannot be compromised. Because there are many alternatives for power generation and commercial activities, but there is not any alternative for Sundarbans. There are many ways to increase the GDP but there is no way to reproduce Sundarbans.
Photo Credit: Bri Vos (CC-BY-SA 2.0)