A diesel ferry cuts through the Poshur river — the lifeline of Sundarbans — with travellers watching its heavily industrialised bank, which is rapidly increasing at the cost of worlds largest contiguous mangrove forest.
Activists are looking with a wary eye at the upcoming 1,320 MW coal-based power project being set up by India’s NTPC, a mere 14 km north of the Sundarban Reserve Forests and four kilometres from the Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), which they say would pose a threat to the wildlife and dependent communities.
The Maitree Super Thermal Power Project at Rampal in Khulna division is being constructed in an area of over 1,832 acres on the eastern bank of Poshur. In August 2010, a pact was signed between India and Bangladesh to set up the project.
While journalists and protestors are not allowed near the project, a small group of visiting journalists from India could see for themselves the massive erosion, waterless canals, huge waterway traffic, oil spills and major infrastructure coming up along the river.
Some 10 km before the busy Mongla Port is a broad 5.5 km-long road west of the Mongla-Khulna highway that goes to the project site. Around this road there were some 5,000 families which were displaced, we are told.
Sushanto Das, one of the land owners in Bagerhat district, lost over 33 acres of land. “My house was burned down by the local goon with support of the local Member of Parliament. I approached the court. Now they don’t even allow us to protest at the site,” he told IANS from his residence in Ranjitpur, a town between Khulna and Sunderbans.
At places, the river, along this special economic zone, has become much broader because of excessive erosion of its banks. Ferrymen say that because of this, the Poshur is becoming more aggressive. The western bank, where forest communities dwell and ECA begins, is also being industrialised.
A 2016 joint report by the governments of India and Bangladesh — and supported by the world bank — on the status of tigers in the Sundarbans, a copy of which is with IANS, criticised this coal-fired project, saying it would further “exacerbate the problem” of climate change, pollution and tiger conservation. As per official count, Sundarbans had 180 tigers in 2015. Now, those in the area are under threat.
The report, which labels vessels plying on the Poshur as “mobile bombs”, reminds everyone of the December 2014 incident when 358,000 litres of oil spilled into the Sela.
Spread across 10,000 sq km — of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh — the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. For Bangladesh, it accounts for 44 per cent of its forest area, generating 50 percent of the forest revenue from tourism, fishery and the sale of honey.
A wetland of global importance, the ecosystem saves the inlands from cyclones, stabilises sediments and makes the region a nursery of major fisheries, playing a key role in food security.
“All this stands threatened. The power plant is located to make best use of the river but existing power industries are already discharging effluents into the river and ash in the atmosphere,” Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, Professor Environment Science at Khulna University, told IANS, warning of a micro-climate change altering different patches of the Sundarbans.
With warming of water, Chowdhury observed that soil quality had dropped and salinity in the area had increased over time, threatening its flora and fauna. “The government doesn’t check how natural resources are being overexploited. The DoE (Department of Environment) gives licence to industries under pressure,” Chowdhury said.
UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global organisation, have already raised an alarm over the Rampal project. “There is only one Sundarbans in the world, once destroyed, no amount of money could replicate it,” he said.
The $1.6 billion power project is controlled by Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd (BIFPCL), a 2012 private venture comprising India’s NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB). India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) is constructing the plant which is scheduled to start operations in 2019.
Queries sent to NTPC and BIFPCL went unanswered.
Ironically, India plans to phase out coal-power and not sanction any new project after 2022.
While the Bangladesh government has judged the project location to be at a “safe” distance from the mangrove forest, facts suggest otherwise.
According to a Bangladesh’s Department of Environment (DoE) document, available with IANS, several “red-category” industries — oil refinery, ship building, cement, gas cylinder, brick kilns, LPG, saw mills and
others — operate deep within the ECA across Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhir districts. Also, a railway line is being set up there to import coal from West Bengal to Jessore.
The Bangladesh government in 1999 declared a 10 km radius from the reserve forest as ECA. However, DoE permitted setting up of over 190 industries, located 1.5 to 9 km from the forest reserve, of which 24 units are listed as “Red” or “extremely harmful”, 63 are “Orange (A)” or “harmful” and 103 are “Orange (B)” or “less-harmful”. Not a single industry within ECA is “Green” or “safe”.
According to environment experts, heavy industrialisation in the region had blocked canals, eroded the banks and sunk several villages. “Over 50,000 people suffered, mostly from the minority Hindu community, and many have migrated to India,” environmentalist Sharif Jamil from Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (BAPA) told IANS.
Local activists said that with the assurance of cheap power from the project, over 300 industrial units, 190 within ECA, had made a beeline to the area. “Had you visited the region a few years back, you would’ve found a different Poshur,” Jamil said.
Sundarbans has thousands of interconnected canals which balances the pressure on the main river.
“Industries level those canals, putting extra pressure on the river, causing erosion,” Jamil said, adding that Banishanta, Laudob, Shelabuniya, Amtali, Sindurtala, Kalabari and Joymoni areas suffered the maximum erosion.
“Crocodile nestings have vanished from Joymoni near Mongla, tiger too,” Professor Chowdhury said, adding that a “proper study” was difficult since the government doesn’t allow it.
According to academicians in Dhaka, an anti-India feeling is slowly taking shape. Some locals who were affected told IANS that they had got death and rape threats and were attacked by musclemen while protesting. Several refused to talk. Many cases have landed in the courts.
“We approached the Left parties in India too for help. But D. Raja (National Secretary of the Communist Party of India) told us that they cannot help as Bangladesh itself had asked for it (the power plant),” Anu Muhammad, Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, told IANS. He was later denied a visa to attend a conference in New Delhi. Even a tourist visa to India was declined.
(Kushagra Dixit visited Bangladesh on an invitation from the Global Strategic Communication Council and Climate Action Network, Australia, in partnership with the Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected] )