The national committee for the protection of oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports had been marching toward the prime minister’s office on 28 July. There were no militants in the procession, no one from the Jamaat, not even anyone from the BNP. They didn’t aim to topple the government, they weren’t even opposed to the government. The sole aim of the march was to protest against the Rampal coal-fired power plant project and to give the prime minister the points justifying their opposition to the project.
Yet the police confronted the procession several times and dispersed the marchers near Sheraton Hotel. They said the march was obstructing smooth flow of traffic on a busy thoroughfare. The irony was that the procession was staged for a much, much more vital issue - the protection of the Sundarbans, one of the most important natural resources of the country. Even more ironical was the fact that the ruling party and its supporters had staged several processions down that very same road, sometimes even with the police protection!
There can be one reason behind the procession being stopped. It seems that the government does not want any public display of opposition to the Rampal project and is even unwilling to hear any arguments to this end. But that does not mean we will shirk our efforts to prevent the project. In fact, many well-wishers of the government see this project as contrary to the spirit of the liberation war. After all, the driving force behind the struggle for independence was to protect the resources and interests of the country. The Rampal project puts all this at stake because it is being constructed right on the edge of the Sundarbans forest.
There are many reasons to worry about the Rampal coal-fired power plant project. Bangladesh is to set up this project in collaboration with the the National Thermal Power Corporation of India (NTPC). India’s environmental law itself is enough to explain how harmful this thermal power project is to the environment. In consideration of the damaging impact of such projects, in 2010 the Indian environment ministry drew up regulations against such power plants to be set up within 25-kilometre radius of forests and environmentally sensitive sites. The Rampal plant is being constructed within a 14-km distance of the Sundarbans. Could that be safe in any way? If it is not safe for India, how can it be safe for Bangladesh?
According to the Indian Centre for Science and Environment’s study report, Heat on Power, the global rating of India’s capacity to control environmental pollution from coal-fired power plants is extremely low. And the company NTPC is the lowest in the rating. It was this company that set up the most environmentally polluting Badarpur project. So by what logic can we even think that Rampal will be a safe project?
The scientific reasoning behind opposing Rampal power plant has been raised time and again by experts. A few weeks ago in Prothom Alo, US-based Bangladeshi electrical engineer Arshad Majumdar raised pertinent questions pointing to the serious risks posed by this project. The government offers no precise replies to all the reasoning, but simply glosses over it all with feeble rhetoric. This has been addressed here.
Firstly, the government reasons that the Barapukuria coal-fired power plant hasn’t harmed the environment, so why should Rampal? The reply to this, there is no evidence that the environment around the Barapukuria coal-fired power plant isn’t being harmed. In fact, environmentalists say this is seriously harming the croplands, the water and the fish in the area. On top of that, the production capacity of the Rampal plant is 1320 MW, over 10 times more than that of Barapukuria (125 MW). Also, it is being constructed in close proximity to the sensitive forest area of the Sundarbans. How can Rampal even be compared to Barapukuria?
Secondly, the government and the company behind the construction of the project contend that similar coal-fired power plants have been set up in Oxford and other places with no damage done to the environment. So why should the Rampal project cause harm? The reply is, the question itself contains misinformation. The Didcot power plant in Oxfordshire was shut down in March 2013 due to the environmental harm it was causing. After the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, many coal-fired power plants were shut down in Europe, America and Australia. Even India shelved the construction of four large coal-fired power plant projects due to opposition from the state governments and people of Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa. And none of these projects were even anywhere near a unique natural resources site like the Sundarbans. If these projects were abandoned due to pollution, then how can we even consider such a project next such a sensitive location as the Sundarban forest?
Thirdly, one of the main points the government puts forward in favour of Rampal is that ‘super critical technology’ will be used in power generation at this plant. As a result, the Sundarbans won’t be harmed. But reality says that, as opposed to ‘sub critical technology’, ‘super critical technology’ only reduces pollution by eight to ten per cent, making hardly a dent in the volume of pollution spewed out by a coal-fired power plant. If such technology was genuine safety valve, why wouldn’t India be implementing it instead of halting similar projects there?
There are many more arguments against the Rampal project. The state minister for power recently said the people were opposing the project without actually knowing the facts. In response to this, on behalf of 52 social organisations comprising the national committee to save the Sundarbans, Sultana Kamal submitted a statement to the media on 1 August. It was stated, “I want to make it clear that the honourable minister’s statement is not at all true and is tantamount to intentional propaganda against the protesting citizens.”
Sultana Kamal said that at a discussion on 19 June 2016 organised in the city by the state minister for power, representatives of the civil society presented scientific facts and reasoning against the Rampal project. The government failed to counter these arguments. Finally the ministers conceded that he was “not on either side, but in the middle of the two sides,” and assured the meeting of further talks.
Sadly, instead of further talks, the authorities within a few days went ahead to sign the Rampal power plant deal.
Bangladesh has multifarious problems. Many countries have similar problems pertaining to democracy, good governance, militancy, and equal distribution of wealth. All these problems can be resolved if the good intentions are in place. Good governance, human rights, and a non-communal and equitable social order can be established, and can be restored too. But a unique forest like the Sundarbans can neither be established nor restored. Once it is destroyed, it can never be revived.
We thus appeal to the government to immediately abandon the plan to construct the Rampal power plant next to the Sundarbans. All projects that are harmful to the Sundarbans, including the Orion Group’s power plant, must be cancelled. Instead of new coal-fired power plants, set up power plants run by gas, waste and solar energy. And if a coal-powered power plant must be set up, it should be done in a relatively less risky area.
The Sundarbans does not belong to any government. It belongs to the state. The Sundarbans does not belong to just this generation or the people of this region. It belongs to all and is a heritage for all times to come.
Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University.