The Sundarbans is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year - back in 1997 the mangrove forest was put on the Unesco World Heritage List. But the biosphere reserve, with its delicate ecosystem, is staring at a possible downward spiral that's threatening its existence, affecting human lives and stirring up a cross country political storm. Death threats to leading activists are there in the mix for good measure, and at the centre of this spiral is the Rampal power plant.
The Rampal project is a proposed 1,320 MW coal-fired power station at Rampal, part of Bagerhat District in Khulna, Bangladesh. It's the result of a joint partnership between India's National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board, and financed by India's Exim bank. The joint venture company is called Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company Limited (BIFPCL). Scheduled to open sometime in 2018, the plant would also end up producing around 125,000 cubic metres a day of chemically-tainted water - the site of its discharge is anyone's guess.
The project has been getting criticism from both Indian and Bangladeshi activists and locals on the ground for the serious consequences it might have on the Sundarbans. Once set up, the coal plant will occupy an area of approximately 1,834 acres or more, and it will be perilously close to the core area of the Sundarban forest reserve. Officially it's being said that the plant will be about 14 kilometres north of the Sundarbans but some activists warn that it could be less than that.
"Let me tell you one thing, I would have been the first person to oppose the power plant had there been the slightest chance of damage to the Sundarbans," Sheikh Hasina had said recently. And BIFPCL managing director Ujjwal Kanti Bhattacharya had said, "We respect the concern of the people of Bangladesh, we are set to maintain the maximum environmental standards for the plant." But there hasn't been any reaction or response yet from government officials that can counter the specific charges of environmentalists.
Indo-Bangla Joint Protests
A number of people's movement groups across both sides of the border have been galvanising the public and protesting against the project. One of the groups at the forefront of the protests is the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and, the leader of the Committee, Professor Anu Muhammad, has already received death threats because of his role in leading the protests. Prof Anu is a noted Bangladeshi economist and political activist who's been very vocal in his opinions admonishing the Rampal project. In an official statement recently he said that the plant is just "an illusion of development."
"Burning coal will cause smog, soot, acid rain, global warming, and toxic air emissions. It will impact water and the ecosystem. Around four crore people in the coastal areas are protected from natural disasters by the mangroves. Since the mangroves are connected, the Indian side will also face the threat," he said while he was in Kolkata recently.
Just a day back in New Delhi, a collective of various groups including the All India Union of Forest Working People and National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to intervene and stop the project.
The same day in Bangladesh dozens of people faced police action as the cops fired tear gas at campaigners marching to the Indian embassy in Dhaka, with another letter asking the Indian prime minister to scrap the project.
AFP quotes Prof Anu saying that, "UNESCO has done a responsible job. The government should heed their call and scrap the project. The sooner it is scrapped, the better for the Sundarbans."
What's at stake
A number of independent assessments have been done to gauge the viability of constructing the plant bang in the middle of a biosphere reserve, and the results have largely been very critical of the project. The NGO network Banktracks, which works extensively in areas of sustainability, had said in its assessment that the Rampal project doesn't factor in the potential for industrial accidents, transportation incidents and ignores the scope of any natural calamity - or how to cope with it.
The most serious implication, the executive summary of the Banktrack report had noted, was the way the Rampal project was in contravention with the Equator Principles - a risk management framework adopted by 80 financial institutions globally for managing environmental and social risk in project finance.
"The analysis shows that serious deficiencies in project design, planning, implementation and due diligence obligations render the project non compliant with the minimum social and environmental standards established by the Equator Principles, as well as the International Finance Corporation's Performance Standards," read the executive summary.
What might finally get the attention of the mainstream is the latest UNESCO report that's come down heavily on the project. Earlier this year in March, the World Heritage Centre and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) carried out a mission to assess the conservation of the Sundarbans. The report, which was released on Tuesday, said that the plant "located just 65 kilometers from the World Heritage property, poses a serious threat to the site."
The detailed report identified 4 key concerns: pollution from coal ash by air, pollution from waste-water and waste ash, increased shipping and dredging, and the cumulative impact of industrial and related development infrastructure.
In the most direct indictment yet, the report said that the Rampal project should be "cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location."
Clearly, there's substantial resistance - local and global - on the ground regarding the Rampal project. But the question is whether the government is listening. Or if it wants to.