Thousands of people, young and old, women and men, prepared for more than a 400km five-day-long march from Dhaka, the capital city, to Digraj, a place in Rampal -- the extended Sundarbans area, in southwest Bangladesh, beginning from September 2013.
Organised by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral, Resources, Port, and Power, the main demand for this long march was to cancel the Rampal coal-fired power plant, and stop all activities that would destroy the Sundarbans. Why have people around the country become so sensitive, and why are they coming forward to resist this?
How the Sundarbans is vital for our existence
The name “Sundarbans” is a combination of two Bangla words, meaning the beautiful forests. Yes, it is. Not only is it beautiful in every sense of the word, it is extraordinarily rich in bio-diversity and it is the single largest mangrove forest in the world.
UNESCO declared it as a world heritage site. The Sundarbans has also been a huge safeguard against frequent cyclones, storms, and other natural disasters in the country. Sidr, Aila, and Mohasen were some of the recent ones. Our living memory shows that, in every natural disaster, the Sundarbans save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, their properties, and other animals.
About 200 years ago, the Sundarbans were much larger -- measured and found to be about 16,700 square kilometres. The size of the present Sundarbans is one third of that, covering a total land area of 4,143sq-km and a water area of 1,874sq-km, consisting of rivers, small streams, and canals.
“Rivers in the Sundarbans are meeting places of saltwater and freshwater. It is a region of transition between the freshwater of the rivers, originating from the Ganges and the saline water of the Bay of Bengal.”
The Sundarbans are spread over two countries, Bangladesh and India, but “freshwater reaching the mangroves has been considerably reduced since the 1970s due to diversion of freshwater in the upstream area by India through the use of the Farakka Barrage, bordering Rajshahi in Bangladesh,” says Wahid, Alam, and Rahman in “Mathematical river modelling to support ecological monitoring of the largest mangrove forest of the world -- the Sundarbans.”
Despite many activities of grabbing, looting, and eco-unfriendly activities, about 60% of the Sundarbans is still surviving in Bangladesh. It is a unique mangrove forest because of its history, size, productivity, and significance in balancing the local eco-system.
“It is the largest mangrove patch in the world; the second largest is only one-tenth of its size in Malaysia. The Sundarbans are unprecedented in biological diversity and wildlife resources too. The renowned Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris) is synonymous with the Sundarbans which is the largest remaining natural habitat of the man-eating wild cat. Despite official land reclamation programs and continued exploitation of produces from these swamp forests, they still survive with multiple threats originating from the modern world.” (Bangladesh Environment Facing the 21st Century, Sehd, 2007).
The forest has been playing uncontested protective and productive functions. In addition to its role as a natural safeguard, it is also the single largest source of forest produce in the country. The Sundarbans also play an important role in creating economic value in the national economy and employment, creating opportunities for the millions. It now covers more than 60% of the total reserved forest of Bangladesh, contributes to about 50% of total forest revenue.
Forest-cover in Bangladesh is far less than adequate, and also the health of the remaining forests is extremely poor. An overview of forests in Bangladesh correctly observed that this poor health of forests has not been caused by natural process -- rather the human greed and corporate aggressive encroachment destroyed the natural process of growth and expansion of the forests which also put human existence in danger.
Ineffective and land grabber-friendly policies, harmful investment and commercialisation, and destructive investment made all this happen. In fact, “most of the forests were stolen” by the process of profit-making ventures, says Philip Gain in Stolen Forests. With the rise of the extent of primitive accumulation, the Sundarbans also suffered like other forests, rivers, and open spaces in Bangladesh.
Rampal power plant: The final blow
Now the mere existence of the Sundarbans has been threatened by an attempt to build a 1,320MW coal-fired power plant in Rampal, the larger Sundarbans area. This proposed Rampal Coal Power Project is a joint venture project by the Indian state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh state-owned Power Development Board (PDB). We have identified three serious problems with this project.
The contract is non-transparent and unequal
First, the whole process of conceiving the project, selection of the area, and the terms and conditions of the project are non-transparent, irrational, and biased against Bangladesh’s interest.
Project of mass destruction
Secondly, different independent studies suggest that this project would not allow the Sundarbans to survive and to reproduce. We have two reports from detailed studies on the Sundarbans.
These studies were directed by two independent experts of environment and engineering. The experts are Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury of Khulna University (“Environmental Impact of coal-based power plant of Rampal on the Sundarbans and Surrounding Areas,” 2012) and Dr MA Sattar of Bangladesh Agricultural University (“Impact of Coal-Fired Power Plant on Air Pollution Climate Changes and Environmental Degradation including Disaster on Sundarban,” 2011). They investigated the possible and inevitable impact of the power plant on the Sundarbans, in construction phase and in production phase. Conclusions of these two independent studies are similar. They found the proposed coal-fired power plant as the destroyer of the largest forest in Bangladesh.
In order to understand the extent of concerns by the independent experts of the country, let me quote from Dr Abdullah Harun’s study conclusion: “Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of physical, biological, social, and economic environment indicate that most of the impacts of coal-fired power plant are negative and irreversible which can’t be mitigated in any way. It is indicating that climate, topography, land-use pattern, air and water (surface and ground, both) quality, wetlands, floral and faunal diversity, capture fisheries, and tourism will be affected permanently due to proposed coal-fired power plant.
“Increasing of water-logging conditions, river erosion, noise pollution, health hazards, decreasing of ground water table, loss of culture fisheries, social forestry, and major destruction of agriculture will be caused due to the coal-fired power plant. The benefits/facilities of the proposed coal-fire power plant of Rampal are very poor compared to the negative and irreversible impacts. So economically, socially, physically, and environmentally, the selected area is not suitable to establish any type of coal based power plant.”
However, many of these concerns were echoed in the EIA authorised by the PDB, only to mention that everything will be done to mitigate the damages.
Engineer Kallol Mustafa pointed out some vital twists, lies, deception, and unsubstantiated promises in that EIA document, which include dealing on the issue of Possur River, zero discharge policy, mentioning the Sundarbans as a residential area and village rather than “environmentally sensitive area,” millions of tons of fly ash and bottom ash issues, dangerous waste management policy, coal transportation, etc.
A version of this article previously appeared on anumuhammad.net and bdnews24.com.