Bangladesh, the country which has given us the International Mother Tongue day (21st February), is one of world’s most beautiful countries full of gigantic rivers and amazing cuisines. The country, for whose liberation from the barbaric Pakistani rulers the entire Indian administration, military and Intellectuals of all over the world came together to support the Sk Mujibar Rahman led Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force), is itself a unique nation. Both India and Bangladesh has got an amazing commonality, the national anthem of both the nation has beentaken from the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Kavi Nazrul Islam, whom the West Bengal, Bengalees called the Bidrohee Kavi (Poet of Revolution) and who was born in Churulia, near Asansol city of West Bengal, is the National Poet of Bangladesh. We share many emotions and historical bond which are inseparable and classical. But time has come to taste the tie again. This story, unfold before you a real life problem, an economic, industrial and environmental problem, which could have been easily avoided, and which has put the two nations and one of the world’s most fragile and unique ecosystem at danger.
The Bangladesh Government is going to establish a 1320 megawatt coal based Thermal power plant in Rampal which is situated in Bagerhat district of Khulna. India’s NTPC of India and Bangladesh Power Development Board of Bangladesh are jointly developing this project and this will be the largest power plant of that country which covers an area of 1834 acre. Export Import (EXIM) Bank of India, which is the main funding agency of this turnkey project, has already signed a MoU to invest Rs.1.6 Billion USD.
Reading up to this, if you started thinking that this is just another success story of India Incorporation, then hold your breath and read the whole story.
It is quite understandable that Bangladesh being a power deficit country, may need such a project which can be established with technical and main resource like coal and funding support of its nearest and biggest neighbor of South East Asia, i.e. India, as it would be cheaper and hugely beneficial for them. But has the proposal for funding come naturally and primarily to India. No, it is not. And here lies the cache. The Norwegian Pension Fund Global, one of the richest funding agencies with strong ethical norms had earlier denied funding to this project sighting environmental violations. Three French investors, including BNP Paribas followed the same path. And they all have sighted that the project is noncompliant with minimum environmental and social standards and contains high risks. In fact the Pension Fund Global has blacklisted (i.e. not to involve or invest in any projects) several Indian firms including the NTPC, which derives significant portions of their revenue from Coal and which fails to comply with any acceptable Green standards.
Coming back to the ground, let’s find out the exact location of the project site. The project site is only 14km from the northern most part of the Bangladesh Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangroves which also contain the UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to amazing floral and faunal resources including the fantastic Royal Bengal Tiger. Infact the distance between the power plant and the World Heritage Site of Bangladesh is only 65 km through the Sundarbans. Here it will be pertinent to mention that the sixty percent of the whole Sundarbans falls to the Bangladesh and rest forty percent remains in West Bengal in India. The Sundarban Tiger Reserve of India is not very far from the project site through the Sundarbans and it is a Biosphere Reserve in India (The BRs are jewels in the crown of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Ministry of India), and separately declared as World Heritage Site by the WHC of UNESCO.
The Sundarbans is not only a magnificent forest, estuarine and mangrove ecosystem but it also supports the main coastal economy of fisheries by its nutrient rich out welling (a natural process by which decaying leaf litters of mangrove forests fertilizes the mud flats and waters of estuary and that washed down to the near shore during the ebb and fertilizes the waters of Bay of Bengal, as well). At the same time it also protects the hinterland from storm surges and waves of seas. Infact the existence of a coastal state like Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal of India is critically hinged on the health and well being of the Sundarbans.
But this beautiful forest is now critically threatened due this project. As per reports the rivers will be dredged to create navigation channels for coal carrying heavy containers. It will create such a huge turbidity and chemical pollution in the estuary that the main energy supplying food chain with its plethora of micro and macro flora and fauna will be annihilated. The fly ash and mercury pollution will spread and toxicity which will be created will either smother the waters or mudflats but also mercury may bio accumulate through food chain affecting every living things including the local population. With the biogeochemical cycle affected due to pollution the mangroves, even with their amazing resilience capacity, will start dying. The intake of water from the estuary and the release of boiler water which shall be released in the estuarine water will make things much worst. The smoke stacks of the power plant at what ever height it may remain, belch out huge amount of flue gas which will increase the level of oxides of sulphur, in the air much above the permissible level. This will happen with even the best of the technologies available, as per the experts from all over the world. All these acting together will not only cause the death of this magnificent ecosystem but the life and economy of the whole region will be destroyed. Moreover the existence of the Bangladesh and part of West Bengal of India will be heavily threatened.
The UNESCO has already voiced their objections for this project. They have instructed the Government of Bangladesh to prepare a Strategic Action Plan, that how the project would be built without causing any damages to this fragile ecosystem. Infact they have instructed the GoB to stop all Civil Construction for the power plant before that report is submitted to the WHC and properly evaluated and investigated.
Scientists, Environmental experts and activists from Bangladesh and all over the world have voiced their concerns for the project.
This is thus a time to act. Both Government of Bangladesh and India need to realize that yes we want development but the Sundarbans is too very costly and unaffordable price to pay. And it is too very precious for the survival of the tiny but beautiful nation like Bangladesh, West Bengal State of India and the whole coastal population. The project site needs to be changed immediately from that present location to save the mangrove ecosystem of Sundarbans. If coal needs to be transported it may now be transported via railway line from India and not through the fragile estuarine ecosystem of Sundarbans (if a thermal power plant needs to be built at all, and thus should be built much more northern site somewhere to augment the negative environmental effect on Sundarbans).
But this is where the real opportunity lies, which the two nations should grab in both hands that is to fully or partly ground the magnitude of this project in its present form and invest that fund in developing solar powered and wind driven power stations which will much more environment friendly. In fact the entire neutral and non Governmental expert reports coming from Bangladesh, suggest that the entire energy status of that country will change if that nation rationally utilize its huge reserve of natural gas and properly harness its nonconventional energy resources and it can set forward a path of green development which will be replicable and iconic.
There is little doubt that such a move only will facilitate the position which has been taken by the World Heritage Committee of South East Asia Pacific under UNESCO to save the Sundarbans and its luxurious wealth.
The people of India and especially West Bengal have always been a great friend of the Independent nation of Bangladesh. But the thaw which has been created during the Bangladesh liberation war has long been lost under the blood laden body bags of the entire family of Sk Mujib. It has been submerged under the water of Tista. It has been imprisoned behind the gigantic sluice gates of Farakka barrage. Yes the present Sk. Hasina Government has taken enough initiatives to rejuvenate the bond. But that needs to be a bond, a bond of equity and justice and not bondage or blackmail for the benefit of both the nations. A prosperous, safe and confident nation of Bangladesh is much more beneficial for India than a politically trouble torn and fragile neighbor. Anti Rampal protest has already become a political issue against the Sk. Hasina Government and by trying to play the development card through it, the present Awami League Government not only got itself in a real fix but added fuel to anti India politics in Bangladesh.
The goal of sustainable development in Indian sub continent will be through rational use of its natural resources, environmental safety, justice and peace. The Rampal based Maîtree thermal power project is certainly a great threat towards the same. And it is time people of both the nations, cutting across their political believe should raise their voice against it. The Sundarbans is one and unique, we just cannot take a chance.
Courtesy: #Bachaosundarban Movement in Bangladesh, Reports of National Committee on Oil, Gas, Mineral, Power and Port Protection, Bangladesh, Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, WHC-UNESCO, Friends of Nature and Natural Resources, Indian Express, the Guardian, the green humour.
The writer is a mangrove biologist, activist and teacher based in Kolkata, West Bengal, India