A number of experts yesterday called for forming an independent commission to monitor the implementation of the coal-based power plant in Rampal to make sure all safety controls being promised by the government are put in place.
“Exactly what is happening should be monitored by a neutral commission,” said Ainun Nishat, professor emeritus of Brac University.
He was backed by Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think-tank.
“We are hearing from our policymakers that there will be control systems etc. Then why don't you say that there will be an independent committee which will monitor during the implementation phase whether it is harmful to the Sundarbans and what other measures we can take?”
They were speaking at a dialogue styled “Bangladesh-India Relations Progress made and the Challenges Ahead”.
Held at The Daily Star Centre in the capital, it was organised jointly by the English newspaper and the Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance.
After the meeting, Mashiur Rahman, economic adviser to the prime minister, told reporters that if there was any scientific basis of the claim that there are faults in the Rampal project, the protesters should publish it and the government would consider it.
Asked whether there is any need to relocate the Rampal plant, he said the protesting groups must provide logic as to whether it needs to be shifted.
Speaking at the dialogue, Ainun Nishat said the quality of coal is of most concern. “If it is high-sulphur coal, we have to worry.”
The environmentalist said that initially, available information about the Rampal project pointed that it was dirty technology.
“As critics started coming up with points after points, the government started giving technological or environmental solution to each one of them.”
He said many of the issues such as transportation of coal have not been cleared by the government yet. “They [the government] had to carry out a separate environment impact assessment study. That report is not available to the public.”
M Tamim, professor of petroleum and mineral resources engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said Rampal has two aspects: one is environmental concern and the other is anti-India rhetoric.
“The Rampal project could be in Anwara [in Chittagong] with India's cooperation. The Rampal project could be a Malaysian cooperation,” he said, while expressing doubt that whether there would have been similar anti-Malaysian rhetoric if it was built by any company from the Southeast Asian country.
The former energy adviser to a caretaker government said if the government puts in place all the controls environmentalists are asking for, the cost of electricity production might be Tk 10 per kilowatt-hour.
“At Tk 10 per kilowatt-hour, we can go for imported liquefied natural gas for generating power. Why do we have to go for coal-fired power plant?”
He said the whole idea of providing affordable power to people in a sustainable way is a big issue for the government.
“That's why we have gone for coal. Unfortunately, the site which has been selected is close to the Sundarbans,” he added.
“My personal view is that if we put all those controls in place, I don't think the global pollution will be that detrimental to the Sundarbans.”
Mustafizur Rahman of the CPD said questions have been raised about the Rampal project because it is near the Sundarbans, not because it is being built by India.
“People are sensitive to that and it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.”
Nitya Nanda, a fellow of The Energy and Resource Institute in India, echoed Prof Tamim's view, saying global pollution would happen if plants are built near the Sundarbans, Dhaka or China.
“But local pollution will depend on many other things. Normally, it [the pollution] is confined to 10-kilometre radius of a coal-fired power plant. But it can vary depending on wind flow, speed and direction.”
If the [Rampal] plant is 15km to 20km from the Sundarbans, it is reasonably safe unless wind blows towards the mangrove forest, he said.
The government says the 1,320MW plant is about 14km from the outer boundary of the Sundarbans and 65km from the world heritage site.
Pankaj Tandon, a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said an independent committee can be a way to check adverse impacts.
He mentioned that there is opposition to coal and nuclear power plants around the world.
He said it is hard to reach a conclusion whether the concerns are real. “If you build plants with clean technology, it has to be expensive and it will cost you money. Are you ready to put in that cost?”
Rajeet Mitter, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, said there is huge energy potential in northeast India, with potential to generate 50,000 to 60,000 megawatts of electricity, mostly from hydropower.
“The only way to evacuate that electricity is to Bangladesh.”
He said if that electricity is transmitted to Bihar from Assam via Bangladesh, the latter would get wheeling charges. “That is a win-win outcome because in passing the electricity a portion of power can be sold to Bangladesh.”