Mongla (Bagerhat district, Bangladesh): Four kilometres from the port town of Mongla are the Sundarbans – the world’s largest single-tract mangrove forests, a UNESCO World Heritage and RAMSAR site, and Bangladesh’s pride.
We reached Mongla by bus from Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city. As our bus headed out, about 14 km from Rampal town in the Bagerhat district, a signboard by the highway caught our attention. It said: “Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt) Limited”, announcing a “1,320 megawatt Maitree Super Thermal Power Project”.
The Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Limited (BIFPCL) came into being on January 29, 2012 to develop the joint thermal power project in Rampal sub-division of the district. The India-Bangladesh power project has since been mired in controversy, with civil society organisations and environmentalists – from within and outside the country – and UNESCO and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) expressing serious reservations about the coal-induced project coming up just four km from the ecologically critical area (ECA) of the Sundarbans.
Local resistance to the government’s bid at acquiring land for the multi-crore project began in 2010, two years before the Ministry of Environment (MoE) approved the initial environment impact assessment (EIA) for the project, leading to the formal agreement between the public sector Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and India’s state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). In response to widespread opposition against the first EIA by green activists and international organisations, a second EIA was carried out in 2013 with 59 conditions to be fulfilled by the plant.
In July 2016, BIFPCL appointed state-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) to construct the project with the debt financing for it flowing from the Exim Bank.
The resistance – which also had resonance in the capital Dhaka, situated about 200 kms from the Bagerhat district – was not just against the contamination and possible destruction of the Sundarbans and Pasur River running through it, but also against the displacement of “over 3,500 land-owning families” and others dependent on the forest for livelihood.
An EIA carried out in 2015 by Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of Environmental Science at the Khulna University, on behalf of South Asian Human Rights (SAHR) stated: “More than 500,000 people are directly and indirectly dependent on the Sundarbans for their livelihood as well as socio-economic purposes.”
At Mongla, as we got off the bus, a man riding a motorised pushcart – popularly called ‘van’ across Bangladesh – offered us a ride for the 5.5 km road to the project site, where, he said, “Not too long ago stood nothing but water and fishing nets”.
The road had been laid through wetlands. Multiple blue nets cast on the marshes indicated that many were still carrying out shrimp farming – a common means of livelihood in the Sundarbans area – in what seemed was their home once. Truckloads of soil and stones were, meanwhile, being emptied on the marshes running along the paved road to widen it to accomodate the increased traffic in coming times, indicating that it was just a matter of time before those marshes would be gone.
“I used to be a shrimp farmer. My house was in Shapmari. Then I got five lakh taka as compensation for the land I had to surrender to the government for the project. I bought some land five kms away from here and this van with the money. In the mornings, I still sell shrimp fries in the local market caught in these marshes. Together with riding the van, I make about 700 takas everyday,” the driver said.
Pointing at some mud huts standing on strips of land separating the patches of shrimp farms near the site, he said, “Those people have not been given compensation because they apparently were on government land. They are still there but will soon have to leave the site.” As per Abdullah Harun’s EIA, conducted after he led a fact-finding team on behalf of SAHR, there were 400 landless families who lived and worked on the land acquired for the project.
Water from nine rivers – Pasur, Mongla, Daud Khel, Shella, Maidara, Bhola, Kumarkhali, Poydahar and Darahana – fills these marshes with brackish water, making them ideal for shrimp farming – the reason why over 75% of the agricultural land in the area shifted to it in the last few decades.
The mouth of the road leading to the site has a fish market. Vendor Nurul Islam was one such fisherman who occupied government land till a few years ago.
“I am landless. I have moved a little ahead on the highway now, to another patch of government land. Thankfully, we can still continue to fish in the marshes near the project. I make three to four hundred takas on most days,” he said. Picking out a handful of shrimps from a bucket filled with muddy water, he prodded us to buy some, saying, “Caught this morning, fresh, see, some are still alive.”
What will he do when the marshes by the project site are gone? “What can I do? I am a fisherman, will move my net further into Pasur and Shella,” he replied.
Further on the road to Sundarbans, in the Chulkati area of the district, stood a sizeable timber shop. Inside a glass office sat Sushanta Das – he surrendered 33 acres of land for the project.
“I never wanted to part with my land but I had to under intense political pressure from the local politicians who threatened me and my family. In 2014, my house in Ranjitpur, situated about five kms from my shop, was attacked. The gate and the granary were burnt. The tube well was pulled out. The fire brigade from Bagerhat town reached on time. The house got saved. But the SP of Bagerhat didn’t allow me to file an FIR. Many others had to surrender their land like me, under pressure.” He continued, “This was agricultural land. People grew paddy, vegetables, did shrimp farming. The labourers who worked on those fields didn’t get any compensation for losing their livelihood.”
Das “got 99 lakh taka as compensation, much lesser than the market price then.”
“Even to get the compensation money, I had to pay ten thousand taka per one lakh as bribe to the local officials,” he claimed.
As per the SAHR EIA, no committee was formed to determine or review the compensation. It said: “According to the Acquisition and Requisition of Immovable Property Ordinance, 1982, the owner of the property is entitled to compensation, which includes compensation for all structures, buildings, corridors, huts, trees or standing crops thereon. However, the compensation package provided to the victims did not take into account these additional aspects. Further, the existing law does not provide assistance for relocation, even for those who lose a homestead.”
The report, quoting the district administration of Bagerhat, said a total of 65 crore 50 lakhs taka was given out as compensation to set up the project covering 1,834 acres of land. Though the government’s ECA named only 150 families as affected by land acquisition (based on the 2011 Census), the locals put the number at “more than 3,500”.
To resist land acquisition and loss of livelihood, Das led a mass movement under the banner of Krishi Jomi Rokkha Sangram Committee (Agri Land Protection Action Committee). “We went to the court also but false cases were slapped on us.” The SAHR EIA mentioned not just Das’s petition but some others too filed against the project in various courts of Bangladesh over the years which had received no recourse yet.
In March 2016, Das’s committee joined hands with the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources Power and Ports, Bangladesh, which has been spearheading the protest to save the Sundarbans to organise a “Long March” in Rampal. “It was a four-day protest where people from all across Bangladesh and also concerned citizens from India gathered, calling for scrapping of the project for protection of the Sundarbans,” he related.
Later, in Dhaka, Anu Muhammad, professor of economics at the Jahangirnagar University of Dhaka and member secretary of the National Committee, related, “We have tried our best to convince both the Bangladesh and India governments that the Sundarbans should not be the playground for mindless business; it must survive for the survival of lives. Many research, studies, discussions, publications, protests and discussions with the Bangladesh’s government bodies have been held to underline the point. Over the years, we have held cycle rallies, art exhibitions; music and documentaries made on the importance of Sundarbans. We have written open letters to prime ministers of both the countries explaining our concerns but they have shown extreme insensitivity towards all public voices against it.”
He said, “We are not opposed to development or generation of electricity. All we are saying is use renewable energy, solar, wind or gas based energy, to save the Sundarbans, which is unique to Bangladesh. Instead, we have faced police atrocities, obstruction and attacks, death threats, false cases.”
In an article published in Shuddashar magazine on past February 8 seeking scrapping of the power project, Muhammad wrote:
“But…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.”
Referring to the cancellation of a coal power plant of NTPC in Trincomalee in Sri Lanka in 2016 in order to have renewable energy sources, he asked, “If Sri Lanka and India could scrap similar projects, why not Bangladesh, to prevent a much bigger disaster?”
An additional concern of the activists and environmentalists has been that the area is slowly being turned into an industrial zone as it is situated close to the Mongla port by the Pasur that connects the Bay of Bengal.
The road from Mongla to Pasur ghat is lined with industries, manufacturing cement and gas cylinders, bottling LPG, producing rice and saw, processing betel nut, building ships, oil and saline water refineries, brick kilns, etc. An April 6 news report published in the Dhaka-based Daily Star stated that even though the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 doesn’t allow any factory to be set up in the ECA, “The government itself gave permission for setting up at least 190 industrial units within the ECA of the Sundarbans, which according to experts, will pose a serious threat to the biodiversity of the world’s largest mangrove forest.”
Quoting a department of environment submission in the Dhaka high court, the report said, “At least 24 of the industrial units fall under ‘the red category’, meaning those are extremely harmful to the fragile biodiversity of the Subdarbans.” In an editorial on April 8, yet another newspaper, Daily Observer wrote, “Despite repeated national and international concerns and protests, nothing is changing. Only a countrywide movement can perhaps stop the systemic destruction of the forest. There is no reasonable case to justify risking the safety of the Sundarbans, whose value as a unique nature reserve and bulwark against the sea should be held as sacrosanct.”
The mangroves are considered a natural infrastructure for Bangladesh against cyclones and tsunamis. A 2017 World Bank report said, “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.”
On arriving at Mongla port, a row boat took us over to the other side of Pasur, wherefrom a motorboat could be hired to enter the Sundarbans. The backs of all the factories that were visible from the bus window along the route could now be seen from the boat. The long ride presented a disturbing site of dust emanating from some of those factories polluting the river and the air. The concrete structures didn’t seem to end even though our attention was caught by a bunch of river dolphins playfully popping up and down the Pasur just metres away from where the core area began.
The biggest of all worries of those opposed to the project, including environment scientists, is that the coal will be carted from the sea to the project site through the five-km river route passing by the Sundarbans.
Speaking to The Wire, professor Abdullah Harun said, “Since the waterway from the sea is narrow, coal for the plant would be transported from larger vessels to smaller ones and thereafter through the river. Five vessels will continuously travel on the route. Per year, the shuttle service of coal is supposed to make 400-500 trips. The river is home to many aquatic species including dolphins and river turtles besides plants like the Golpata. The wastes, sounds and waves due to the movements and light pollution will destroy their habitats and if any accident or spillage, like the one that happened in 2014 on Shella river, takes place, it will cause an ecological disaster. Deer, the prey of the tiger, is dependent on the water and grass in the area. Imagine what would happen to the tiger if its prey base is affected due to the changed water conditions.” He said that even to establish the anchorage at Akram Point, extensive dredging of the riverbed had to be carried out, which would also affect the aquatic animals.
Speaking to the team headed by Abdullah Harun in 2015, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the energy advisor to the prime minister, said a “super critical technology” would be used at the plant, the fly and bottom ash would be collected and sold and kept in a pond to prevent its diffusion; the coal would be carried in covered containers, the DoE’s conditions would be met and the government would set up an external body to monitor the activities of the company.
Well-known Indian environment scientist and green activist Soumya Datta, who took part in the Long March protest at Rampal in 2016, stated, “Even if super critical technology is used, it is bound to have an impact on the agriculture and aqua system of the area within 20 km radius. There will be wet cooling, so warm water would be released back to the river, which will certainly affect the aquatic life. The mercury released from such a plant would contaminate the water bodies nearby and affect the lives using them.” Calling for renewable energy instead, he also asked, “Where from will the coal be procured for the plant? If it is Indian coal, then it has higher ash content, much more than that of Australian or Indonesian coal.”
In June 2016, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) counted ten flaws in the Indo-Bangla project, including the plant’s “reliance on imported coal” which it said, “will expose consumers to global coal market risk”.
“Global coal prices currently are near multi-year lows and are expected to remain low for the foreseeable future, but any major unforeseen increase in global coal prices and / or the exchange rate would have a major impact on required tariffs. It is more than possible that cost of coal use will increase as the world adopts more stringent carbon policies. Rampal customers (of electricity produced by the plant) would bear the brunt of such increases,” it said.
Movement leaders also point at geo-political interest between India and China playing out in the region. While China has already showed interest in expansion and modernisation of the Mongla port, India and Bangladesh governments have a memorandum of understanding to use the port to ferry goods. “A railway line linking Mongla to Jessore (Benapole) on the West Bengal border is also being readied for this purpose,” pointed out S.A. Rashid, convener of the Khulna chapter of the National Committee.
In the last few months though, Sushanta Das said the momentum of the movement has waned on the ground. “People are scared to speak out due to threats. I am not allowed to go anywhere near Rampal. Recently, I went and in no time, I was surrounded by some people and forced to leave. There is a clear attempt by the authorities to shut our mouth.”
Muhammad said he and some others were “recently denied visa by the India government” to travel to Kolkata to address a gathering on threat to the Sundarbans due to the project. He further asked, “While Indian environmental rules don’t allow any such project to come up within the 25-km stretch of an ecologically sensitive zone, why is it allowing it to happen in an area which is just 14 kms from the world’s largest mangrove forests?”
Though in October 2016, both UNESCO and IUCN urged the Bangladesh government to shift the location of the project, it has since softened its stand. By December 2018, the government would have to submit to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee a report stating whether it had adopted its 11 recommendations before starting the construction of the project, failing which the world body would declare the Sundarbans in danger. Adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi, according to media reports, promised to follow those recommendations.
Meanwhile, construction work at the site had picked up pace. The boundary wall was nearly complete. Labourers could be seen lumbering down cement bags from the river to the site. Entry to the site is restricted and no official was willing to talk. Aside from this project, the NTPC, in February, also won a contract for supplying 300 MW electricity to Bangladesh for 15 years. As per media reports, the deal would help NTPC earn a revenue of Rs 900 crore per year.
BIPCL has also recently stated that it would take forward its joint venture with NTPC for the Rampal project by building a solar or coal power plant in India. As per some news reports, the Rampal project is likely to be operation from December 2018.
On being asked what would he do if the project was shelved and he was given an opportunity to reclaim his land, Das was quick to reply: “I will return the compensation money in a matter of hours.”