I last went to the Sundarbans on a three-day trip in the third week of November, 2015.
The Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources took a group of journalists there on a launch-trip from Khulna to Hiran Point shed light on the scenario surrounding the construction of the ‘infamous’ Rampal power plant.
Dubbing that much-hyped trip “purposeless”, the environmentalists and academicians said it would change neither their stance nor that of the government.
Fast forward 19 months, the environmentalists and the government are still locking horns on the same issue. While the coal based 1200 MW power plant is well on course to be finished by December 2019, environmentalists and activists are still hoping that the construction of the plant will eventually be stopped for the sake of protecting the largest mangrove forest in the world.
An unfortunate co-relation
For the last few years, instead of Royal Bengal Tiger or Sundari trees, the word ‘Rampal’ has become more synonymous with Sundarban.
This is because a large part of the population including a good number of environmentalists and academicians strongly believe that the construction of a coal-based plant of such a large scale would be a death-knell for Sundarban.
They have cited enough reasons and presented enough evidence to back their stance but the government seems to be adamant about not giving any heed to their concerns. Interestingly, the facts and logic presented by the government in favour of Rampal also seem to be based on firm ground and thus subject to rational consideration.
The disagreement between the two resembles a classical situation in where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. But in this case, the government obviously has the upper hand, mobilising necessary power to finish their tasks. Nonetheless, this stalematealong with several social media movements have somehow made Rampal an unwanted synonym of Sundarban.
A positive step after the WHC session
After the construction of the power plant in Rampal had begun, many other large industries started buying lands near the areas as they had anticipated that the whole area would turn into a massive industrial zone with the presence of a mega power plant.
This was one of the fears expressed by the environmentalists that the government would not be able to control the development frenzy surrounding the plant. Apparently, after the latest meeting of World Heritage Committee (WHC) in Krakow, Poland, where a high level Bangladesh delegation attended under the leadership of Dr Tawfique-E-Elahi Chowdhury, the Energy Advisor to the Prime Minister, the government has at least decided to put a cap on that development frenzy.
The government now declares that it will not allow the construction of any large-scale project near the Sundarbans, obviously except the coal-powered Rampal power plant, before conducting a strategic environmental impact assessment report (SEIA).
The SEIA would be prepared and submitted at the 42nd session of the WHC of Unesco in December 2018 and after getting the observations and comments of WHC, the government will move forward with any further development plan near Sundarban.
A ‘counter-plan’ by the government?
The government is also now planning to take up a Tk840 crore project to protect the Sundarbans. The Ministry of Forest and Environment has prepared the Detailed Project Plan (DPP) and sent it to the Planning Commission, for review.
Under the Tk840 crore project, which will be implemented within 2016-2021, a number of programmes will be undertaken. These include biodiversity conservation, alternative livelihood programme, and installation of digital monitoring and smart patrolling systems.
As part of the alternative livelihood programme, employment opportunities will be created for around 100,000 people of the area, in two phases. Besides, a regular vigilance committee, comprising law enforcement personnel and influential persons from the area, will be created, to ensure the protection of the forest, said the project document.
Environmentalists seem to differ, as usual
Prof Anu Muhammad from Sundarban Protection Committee who has been the front runner of the protesters against the plant however terms this project as nothing but eyewash.
“There is no need of spending Tk840 crore and there is no need for spending billions of dollars to implement Rampal power plant near the forest. The best way to protect Sundarbans is to leave it alone.”
Anu Muhammad said that the project money will be misused. “Who is giving money for implementing the project? If you look at the project proposal, you will see that a large portion of it will come from the donor agencies. That money will be used for the foreign trips of the bureaucrats.”
“Under the project, employment will be created for 100,000 people. How about the millions of people who will lose their livelihood due to destruction of the forest? The entire population of the coastal area will be affected.”
“We have repeatedly urged the government to stop this controversial project. But, the government is paying no heed to these demands. I believe, this Sundarbans protection project is just a hoax that the government is trying to play with its people,” he said.