Who has been defeated in the fight for the Sundarbans?

When we learnt about a coal-fired power plant being set up in the vicinity of the Sundarbans, a few of us, including engineer Sheikh Shahidullah, went to Rampal towards the end of 2010. We saw the signboard after crossing the river. We spoke to the farmer men and women of the village. Most of them were poor farmers and they said they were under pressure to leave the area, without being given any sort of papers or documents. Sometimes it was the police and sometimes it was miscreants who would come and threaten them.

We looked further into the pros and cons of this project and saw that the country would be pitched into serious danger unless this was stopped. We went to the area again to speak to the people. The miscreants kept us surrounded. A few months later we called for a public gathering in the area. We went there only to find the police had declared Section 144 in the area and so we could not reach the spot. It became difficult to interact with the people there, to listen to them, to understand them. Despite all these obstacles, we managed to convey the news about this power plant in the area. As a result, we went in a long march, covering mile after mile, to reach the area where we weren't even allowed to stand before. Countless people greeted us along the way, on either side of the road, walking, in rickshaw vans, cycles, from the areas all around. We have lost count of how many more times we have been there. And the police assaults, obstacles and threats continued.

In the meantime, so many people, known and unknown, joined up with the movement to save the great Sundarbans. Alongside the programmes of the national committee, so many people contributed in so many ways, giving their time and effort to the movement. The manner in which the people struggled, putting their lives and livelihood at risk to stand and protect the Sundarbans, that is, the country, has created a huge space for hope. Children drew pictures, sang, young artists painted, plays were written and performed on the streets, songs were written, put to music and sung. We have over 40 songs on our list, new artistes emerged, documentaries were made, writers, scientists and experts all worked together. Pro-people political parties, student organisations, women organisations, cultural organisations, young members of reading groups, all remained active.

A woman, eight months pregnant, took up position at the Shaheed Minar, demanding that the devastating project be cancelled. Mothers want a healthy environment for the children. Another woman celebrated her seventh months of pregnancy with the prayer, "Let my child have fresh air, we do not want a power plant that destroys the Sundarbans." Some young people held a cycle rally in Dhaka, demanding that the Sundarbans be protected. The government was visibly alarmed, protestors were caught and the miscreants laid siege to the Shaheed Minar. They used their water cannons against the cyclists, but they could not be stopped.

In face of the government's adamant stand, the various strategies in favour of the Rampal project, the flurry of costly campaigns by advertisement agencies and so on, over these past 10 years many local and international experts have highlighted scientific facts and figures that prove just how threatening this project is financially, how dangerous it is to the ecology and to public interests. For the same reason, UNESCO too has repeatedly termed the Rampal power plant as a threat to the Sundarbans and has called for it to be cancelled.

The last long march towards the Sundarbans was held in 2016 by the national committee. People from various regions of various professions and ages, even 16 representatives from various regions in India, joined in this march. They included scientists, writers, teachers, journalists, artistes and documentary film makers. For two consecutive years, several public gatherings, discussions and documentary film screenings were held in Kolkata and Delhi. I attended several of these events. I spoke to many people. We wanted the joint efforts of the people of the two countries against the dangerous initiative of the governments of the two countries.

On behalf of the national committee we wrote an open letter to the prime minister, with detailed explanation, highlighting the demand of the people. Even this peaceful initiative was met with arrests, baton charges, tear gas and police assaults. In the letter to the prime minister we had written, "...we will be capable of manufacturing everything, from a needle to a rocket, but we will never be able to recreate such a unique world heritage of biodiversity like the Sundarbans. There are many alternative means to generate electricity, but there is no alternative to the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans protects us, it is our duty to protect the Sundarbans." Meetings and processions were also held to issue an open letter to the prime minister of India too. There too, the police attacked. Overcoming all these obstacles, the letter was handed over to the Indian High Commission. It said, "...Over the past few years, your government's environment ministry and green tribunal have suspended and cancelled quite a few power plants and mining projects due to restrictions and environment awareness. The Indian company is violating the laws and the regulations of India in setting this power plant up in Bangladesh..."

Over the past few years innumerable demonstrations and protests have been staged for this same demand. On 7 January 2017 and 10 November 2018, innumerable people all over the world joined global protests for the Sundarbans. History was created by hartals (general strikes) being held to save the forest. Many were arrested and oppressed. Writers and artists began campaigns in various languages and in various countries, including in Bangladesh and India. There were grand public meetings and huge processions following the Dhaka March programme where people from all over the country converged to Dhaka. The national committee drew up the alternative master plan for power and energy.

The biggest defeat is of the government. It has been proven that they have neither the competence nor the commitment to uphold the interest of the country and the people, or to honour the people

Under pressure from this ten-year movement that spread all over the country, the second phase of the Rampal project was cancelled along with several other coal-fired project. But the extensive public opinion, the solid arguments and data, could not completely halt the Sundarban-destroying Rampal. Had there been a minimum of democratic practice, this would have been cancelled long ago. On 6 September, the prime ministers of the two countries inaugurated the project from far away in Delhi, brushing aside all arguments, data, expert opinions and public views. All of us, including the great Sundarbans, have no doubt faced defeat. In this defeat, Bangladesh and the people along coastal India have been stripped of protection.

The biggest defeat is of the government. It has been proven that they have neither the competence nor the commitment to uphold the interest of the country and the people, or to honour the people. But no people-intensive movement is ever in vain. The new spirit of awareness works in various ways. This long struggle will certain leave an impact on the people. From amidst the disgust, anger and despair, a mighty power will arise for nature, for the people.

* Anu Muhammad is an economist and professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University and also the editor of Sarbojonkotha. He may be contacted at [email protected]