The Sundarbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, currently faces irreversible threats posed by the construction of the proposed Rampal coal-fired thermal power plant in Bangladesh. This project will not only destroy an extraordinary rich and valuable ecosystem but also negatively affect the lives of millions local people, in particular, women. In deeply patriarchal Bangladesh, environmental degradation and climate change impacts are disproportionately felt by women.
Though the agreement for Rampal coal plant was first drawn up in August 2010 between the Indian government-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power Development Board, UNESCO's monitoring mission evaluated the impacts only in 2015. The mission reported that the plant would lead to increased pollution from wastewater, waste ash and coal ash. It also noted adverse impacts due to shipping, dredging, and industrial and infrastructure development, adding that the site lacked prior comprehensive evaluations on the effects of coastal development.
While on one hand, India disallows construction of such projects on its own territory, it aids the building of the environmentally damaging Rampal coal power plant in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Environmental Impact Assessment of the Rampal power plant proposal conducted by the government of Bangladesh stated that toxic gas levels will rise significantly, and the high presence of coal ash produced will increase the risk of hazardous and radioactive metals and chemicals within the project area. The Sundarbans mangrove, spread over 10,000 sq km of which 40% is located in India, is home to a complex ecosystem teeming with unique wildlife and provides livelihoods to over four million people in India and Bangladesh. In addition, losing the natural barriers provided by the Sundarbans would be detrimental. For years, residents of the coastal areas of West Bengal have attempted to combat the rising sea levels by creating dams and building mud- and stick-based embankments. However studies estimate it to be much more effective in the long run to restore and renew the Sundarbans mangroves to reinforce their roles as natural barriers.
In the past, Indian courts have successfully challenged energy projects that fail to fully assess environmental impacts. In December 2016, the National Green Tribunal withdrew environmental clearance of Welspun Energy's proposal for a 1320 MW thermal power plant project in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. This decision was based on further evaluation of the project's implementation, which found that public hearings were held in hostile settings and that the final report had failed to disclose the existence of surrounding reserve forests and to assess the potential damage on the region's water flow. The NGT's decision to pull Welspun Energy's environmental clearance was also preceded by opposition from displaced farmers who outlined the various offenses of the project, including fraudulent land seizure and threats posed by increased pollution to protected animals, local landmarks, and on the health of students of a nearby university.
The Rampal power plant will be located only 14km away from the Sundarbans. While the law in Bangladesh does not specify limitations in geographical distance for power plants, Indian regulations prohibit the implementation of thermal power plants within a 25km radius of forests like the Sundarbans. Indian companies such as NTPC, BHEL and India Exim Bank have taken advantage of the lack of regulation by Bangladesh to move ahead in this project. This should serve as a moral and environmental dilemma for India. While on one hand, India disallows construction of such projects on its own territory, it aids the building of the environmentally damaging Rampal coal power plant in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Activists say that the construction of the plant will lead to widespread displacement, affecting marginalised communities living in the area, particularly women.
Protests against the Rampal power plant proposal are already spreading throughout Bangladesh and are gaining national and international support from many feminist and civil society groups. A global day of protest was held early this year with demonstrators across major cities in Asia and Europe demanding to halt the project. In Dhaka, the protest march held by activists was shut down by police brutality and tear gas. The public opinion in Bangladesh is veering towards scrapping of the project.
Activists say that the construction of the plant will lead to widespread displacement, affecting marginalised communities living in the area, particularly women. In Bangladesh, women are responsible for providing food and water to the household, the availability of which will be severely diminished due to the pollution caused by the power plant. As a result, many people would be compelled to migrate and give up their homes, making displaced women particularly vulnerable to increased threat of gender-based violence and becoming victims of trafficking. India is no stranger to such issues and it would do well to listen to these voices and concerns.
Climate change is an alarming reality and should compel us to adopt tough decisions—the first of which being to stop investing in fossil fuel projects. While there is no denying that Bangladesh needs energy, it needs sustainable and clean energy that would benefit all segments of the population and challenge the status quo of corporate power that destroys our environment and violates women's human rights.
To continue moving forward with the proposed plant in the Sundarbans would unnecessarily damage a shared, valuable and protected ecological site and neighbourly relations between both countries...
The Indian government has already decided to engage in the path of renewable energy domestically. Other governments in the region, including China, have adopted similar programs in response to the multiple co-benefits a fossil fuel free future can bring. Bangladesh also has embraced the path of clean energy, to such an extent that the World Bank has lauded its efforts and called it "a role model for solar power". By supporting community-owned renewable energy
initiatives, governments could add an environmentally sound feminist objective to their energy policies. Women are more likely to benefit from small-scale, renewable and sustainable energy initiatives. Those same initiatives can bring electricity to off-the-grid rural areas, enable energy democracy and increase gender equalities where local people, especially women and other marginalised groups, can make decisions over the use of their resources and energy needs.
To continue moving forward with the proposed plant in the Sundarbans would unnecessarily damage a shared, valuable and protected ecological site and neighbourly relations between both countries, when other viable options exist.