ByÂ Priyanjana Pramanik:
Perhaps I am biased when I say that Sundarbans is the most beautiful place in the world. It is to me. Scientifically speaking, it is the largest single block of tidal halophyticÂ mangrove forest in the world. It houses a national park, a tiger reserve, and a biosphere reserve, all located in the Sundarbans delta in West Bengal. In Bangladesh, the Sundarbans are protected forests. And of course, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There is nothing whatsoever civilized about the Sundarbans. I’ve heard bored tourists complain that it’s all water, water and more water, as far as the eye can see. But that river is a very convenient hiding place. Saltwater crocodiles, muggers and water monitors sun themselves on the islands, sliding lazily into the water the second they hear a boat nearby. Tigers swim from island to island, by day or by night. The waters and islands are snake infested; if you’re lucky (or unlucky) you could encounter a king cobra or a common krait. If you are incredibly lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of a Gangetic river dolphin, or an otter. And yes, the locals swear they’ve even seen a couple of sharks.
Around 4 million people live in the Sundarbans. However, most of it is free of permanent habitation; the locals live their lives at the mercy of the forest. Around a hundred are killed every year in tiger attacks; those who venture into the core areas of the forest rarely return. This is probably one of the last places in India where the wilderness actually prevails, because there is simply no way to cultivate it, tame it or civilize it. Every moment you spend in the forest is a risk, and that is what makes it so beautiful.
Despite the fact that several species have been driven to extinction by excessive poaching, the Sundarbans is famed for its biodiversity. The forest has both productive and protective functions, and the people who live there understand this. The people of the Sundarbans have their own gods, the gods of the forest, like Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai. And so the law of the jungle has prevailed in the Sundarbans, and life has remained both difficult and simple.
Until now, that is. Because even at this very moment, plans are being made for a coal-based power plant in Rampal, Bagerhat (in Bangladesh), and the Sundarbans may be completely wiped out if they are approved. The project is located close to the forests, and will affect both the water resources and the cultivable land. Experts have said that building the plant will not solve Bangladesh’s energy problems. In fact, they fear that it will aggravate existing issues for Bangladesh. And environmentalists strongly feel that the energy crisis can be solved by utilizing the available renewable resources, thus sparing the Sundarbans.
The plant is to be built and operated by the Indian company NTPC, and India and Bangladesh signed the joint venture agreement on April 20. By any interpretation, this agreement is a violation of international norms. And by signing it, all the arrangements have been made to utterly destroy the Sundarbans. Coal-based plants create a variety of ills. They emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which everyone knows is a greenhouse gas. They use up huge amounts of water every days, discharging superheated water back into the rivers and destroying animal species.
The sludge released by coal plants contains arsenic, mercury, cadmium and chromium. These elements contaminate ground water, and damage the vital organs and nervous system of any living being they come in contact with. That means that it’s not just the biodiversity of the Sundarbans which is at risk; it is also the lives of at least four million people. The governments of both countries claim that advanced technology will be used to avert pollution; the experts disagree. Environment management plans are in place, but even if they are implemented to the fullest, irreversible damage to the world’s largest mangrove forest, and the people and animals living in it, is inevitable.
I do not want to see the Sundarbans turn into a wasteland. The creation of the power plant will not solve any problems; it will create more. We are told practically from the moment we are born that renewable sources of energy can be used to meet at least a part of our energy needs, that exhaustible resources cannot ever be recovered. Why, then, a coal-based power plant? And why at Rampal, where so much is at risk? The debate rages on, but now is the time to speak out. Otherwise, it will be too late, and the Sundarbans won’t be there to debate about.
Photo Credits: Prithvijit Pramanik
All photographs are the copyright of Prithvijit Pramanik