The Rampal issue seemed to have died out. While the opposition against it was and remains to be quite significant, the media seemed to not cover it with equal significance after a certain point.
The media, be it electronic or print, seemed to have implicitly adopted (with few exceptions of course) a uniform policy to black out this story.
The government meanwhile continued to proceed with the 1,320MW plant in question with unflinching fervour and no propensity for compromise. However, the recent attacks by the police on the protestors against the plant in Shahbagh and other parts of the capital city on January 26 seem to have forced the issue back in the information mainstream.
This begs the question: What makes this plant so unique that the government is willing to take on such overwhelming opposition to forward this agenda? Let us look at it from a layman’s perspective. The coal-fired plant in question is a joint partnership between India’s state owned National Thermal Power Corporation and Bangladesh Power Development Board. The joint venture company is known as Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC).
The proposed project, on a substantial area of over 1,834 acres of land, is situated 14 kilometres north of the Sundarbans and, once implemented, will be Bangladesh’s largest power plant.
However, basic precondition states that such projects must be outside a 25-kilometre radius of the outer periphery of an ecologically sensitive area. Furthermore, transportation of coal to fuel the plant through the river flow path that cuts through the Sundarbans adds a greater dimension of risk.
While the environmental threat posed by this proposed plant was never in question, a UNESCO report, published in 2016, overtly labeled the environmental impact assessment (EIA) undertaken to proceed with the plant to be highly questionable and thus vindicated the general consensus by suggesting the project to be shelved.
Various environmental experts have also labeled the EIA to be grossly faulty. In light of the very basic information furnished thus far, let us just say that we have enough materials to comprehend what the activists and the environmentalists are protesting against.
Exploring the fundamental financial viability of the project is likely to open a new can of worms. Reportedly, 70% of the project is funded by loan and the remaining 30% is shared equally by the governments of Bangladesh and India.
According to a 2016 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the Rampal power station will produce electricity that will cost 32% more than the average electricity costs in Bangladesh, despite multiple subsidies from Bangladesh and India.
Furthermore, the government of Bangladesh is proposing a tax exemption of 15 years for the plant, which also amounts to a significant figure in terms of revenue loss. Thus, a rudimentary view of the financial aspect of the project also points towards ambiguity and encourages no confidence.
Upon exploration of basic facts thus far, from a general citizen’s perspective, there is no perceivable rationale behind driving this project forward with such extant uncertainty. However, if the motivations and the priorities of the state are to be entirely different from what we think they are, such an obdurate position of the government could be understood.
The government can only be judged by the actions it is undertaking and only through positive approaches can it convince the citizen otherwise. If they fail to do so, we will see more Rampals in the future where preservation of Bangladesh’s nature and environmental standards are never a priority
Let me further expand on what I am trying to say. As the Indian government is an equal partner in this project, one could argue that Bangladesh is prioritising prior commitments/obligations towards its financial partner, which is a neighbouring country, over its own constituents. If that is the case, then the issue of environment by default becomes secondary.
There is something even greater we have to be concerned about here and that would be the state of our national sovereignty. With the manner in which the government is proceeding with this plant, one cannot be blamed for questioning the loyalty of the state towards its own constituents.
Thus far, various phases of the protests against the plant have been met with acrimony by the government followed by the usual failed lip service of defending the project, whereas it should not at all proceed with such a project with even minimal probability of risk.
The bait of “development” has been used incessantly by the government in this regard to justify their position but so far it has failed to produce a viable cost-benefit analysis to appease the real stake-holders. Furthermore, it intentionally shied away from engaging various platforms and pressure groups that oppose the plant as if to avoid any scope of compromise.
The protests are purely about the location of the plant and in no way undermine the need for energy to enable a sustainable economic growth. Hence, Bangladesh’s intractably static position regarding a possible relocation is rather baffling. Given the events that have unfolded regarding this solitary project so far, one cannot be blamed for thinking that our sovereignty is under threat.
The government can only be judged by the actions it is undertaking and only through positive approaches can it convince the citizen otherwise. If they fail to do so, we will see more Rampals in the future where preservation of Bangladesh’s nature and environmental standards are never a priority.
We cannot afford to fall prey to hegemonic motivations of external factors that cloud our decision-making process.
As the movement to save the Sundarbans gains momentum, time has come for us to acknowledge the fact that something greater than the issue of environment might be at play and has to be addressed to ensure clarification.
The mainstream media, in this regard, needs to play a pro-active role. The Rampal plant has become a symbol of various issues that intertwine to make it significant at various levels and the media’s coverage of it has been rather inadequate and guarded at best.
Like our government, our mainstream media also needs to think seriously about their priorities. There has to be concerted effort in this particular case and sitting on the fence will not bear any fruit.
Israfil Khosru is a businessman and a concerned citizen.