As soon as the land was handed over to the Rampal plant authorities in 2012, a section of local Awami League leaders including the district administrator started using it to farm fish – thanks to a local lawmaker.
Some of the land owners evicted from the land were given a lump sum amount, while many others have allegedly got nothing as compensation.
The Dhaka Tribune has learnt about these developments during a recent visit to the site where the 1,320MW Maitree Super Thermal Power Project is under construction beside the Pashur River and the Sundarbans mangrove forest.
The government on July 22, 2016 signed the deal for the construction of the plant, disregarding outcry from local and international green groups and experts.
Dismissing the claims of the opponents, the Bangladesh government says it will take necessary measures to mitigate the environmental hazards.
But of the total acquired land -- fenced off from the rest of the area -- the power plant is being set up on an area of only about 241 hectares. The ruling party men have started farming inside the fence on the land left unused by the plant authorities.
According to locals, those involved are the Rampal sadar upazila chairman who is also secretary of Rampal Awami League; the chairman of Rajnagar Union Parishad; the chairman of Gourambha Union Parishad who is also AL secretary of Gouramva unit; a former chairman of Gouramva; and the Bagerhat district council administrator.
During an interview with the Dhaka Tribune at his office last year, Rajnagar UP chairman Sarder Abdul Hannan Dablu said: “We played a key role when the land was acquired for the plant. We stopped the groups of bandits who came to the village and staged movements and long march against the power plant.
“We will use this land until the implementation of the project ...We work following the instructions of Talukder Saheb [Talukder Abdul Khaleque MP].”
Gourambha Union Parishad chairman Gias Uddin Gazi, also admitted that they were working for the lawmaker. “I am not interested in fish farming. I want the project work to continue smoothly. We are here all the time to protect the plant. Our leader [Talukdar] only uses us for protecting the plant, while we are determined to protect it at the cost of our lives.”
He also took credit for deploying hundreds of party men to foil movements in the past. “We did not need the police at that time,” Gazi told the Dhaka Tribune.
When contacted over the phone last year, Rampal Upazila Chairman Jamil Hasan Jamu denied being involved in farming on the project land.
“I do not usually go there. I go there only when a minister or a secretary visits the site. The allegations are false.”
He added that the chairmen and members of Rajnagar and Gourambha union parishads knew about the farming. “I do not know anything,” Jamu claimed.
Former Gourambha chairman Selim Sarder claimed that he had been involved in farming shrimps on the land in the past, but not any more.
Bagerhat district council administrator Sheikh Kamaruzzaman Tuku said he had ghers (enclosures) two years back. “Locals may cultivate fish in the ghers now. But I do not know what exactly is happening there,” he claimed.
“As far as I know we have not received any complaint from the power plant authorities about land grabbing,”said Bagerhat deputy commissioner Md Jahangir Alam.
“No land of the power plant has been grabbed,” he claimed.
Talukdar Abdul Khalek MP could not be reached over the phone despite several attempts to contact him then.
On January 27, the Dhaka Tribune tried again to contact him, but his phone was found turned off.
Debadatta Ray, AGM (Elect & C & I) of Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt) Ltd, told this newspaper that he had no idea about the fish farming on a part of the project land.
The government has recently dropped its plan to set up a second 1,320MW plant beside the existing one. However, a private firm is constructing another coal-based power plant nearby.
The residents of Rampal would not respond easily when a stranger asks them anything about the project. They are evidently scared of something.
There are very few people who talk about protecting the Sundarbans. When approached for interviews, many of them refused to talk on record, fearing reprisal.
They even warned this reporter to hide the camera from the pro-plant elements. There are many incidents of party cadres physically harassing the activists and journalists at Rampal and snatching of pens, cameras, mobile phones, etc.
It is not allowed for the locals to visit the project site. The local police declared ban on gatherings on at least 14 occasions.
More to be grabbed
The road to the project site from Mongla-Khulna highway through a vast wetland is still under construction. This low-lying land where locals used to cultivate fish is connected to the Pashur River.
It was learned that the constructors set up an embankment on an estuary called the Moidara River near the entrance of power plant site. It bars the river current and tide resulting in floods that damage the fish farms of some nearby villages under Rajnagar and Gourambha unions.
It has been happening for the last three months, local people said.
They alleged that nearly 200 hectares of land on the south part of the project site was under the authority of Dablu Chairman while around 280 hectares on the north was controlled by several other ruling party leaders.
Amar Mistry, a resident of Moidara village near the power plant, was seen preparing his tiny land for sowing paddy seeds.
“I do not want to talk about the project. But I doubt whether there will be any dolphin left in the Pashur River once the plant starts operation,” he said showing the reporter a big one swimming in the river.
“They [security guards] gave me ultimatum to leave this place within seven days. If I do not leave, they will destroy my little house,” said a 46-year-old landless woman living on a small piece of government land near the boundary.
On the other hand, it was seen that a vast land which had earlier been used as a fishing zone was being filled with sand brought from the river through two dredgers.
It is the Orion Group authorities that bought some 120 hectares (750 bighas) of land from the local people for setting up a 566MW coal-fired power station. PSP Marine Service has been tasked with the land filling work, its Accounts Officer Khorshed Alam told the Dhaka Tribune.
Many of the evicted people now live in Borni village under Gouramva Union. Requesting to be anonymous, a 55-year-old man alleged that the authorities had taken his 2.4 hectare (15 bighas) land but paid only a paltry sum as compensation.
MA Sabur Rana, member secretary of Mongla-Ghosiakhali Channel Rokkha Committee and member of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), said livelihood of the people living in and around the project area had changed drastically after the land acquisition.
Hundreds of people lost their fertile paddy fields and fish farms as the government had selected a natural wetland for the project, he added.