AMERICAN writer Mark Twain said that a railroad is like a lie that one has to keep building to make it stand. Our government plans to build a power plant, not a railroad in Rampal. And we hope it's not lying to us when it insists that the plant isn't going to cause any harm to the Sundarbans. But the rush of things and the last minute launch plan are sending a wrong message. Many people wonder if the government is trying to railroad the whole thing.
The recent government press note only reinforced that message. It rightly emphasised that this power plant is an important project for the country. The press note also stated that the plant, once built, will improve the socioeconomic conditions of the people in the surrounding areas. All of that should be music to our ears if not for that pesky doubt that raises its ugly head from time to time: Why are some people opposed to the plant if it's supposed to be good?
A press note is as flimsy as the paper on which it's written. Even flimsier is the idea that the government could address a national concern with a piece of paper. It's not enough to say that a segment of people and a few organisations are spreading propaganda to mislead the people. What has the government done in last nineteen months since it signed the agreement with the Indian company? What has it done to set the records straight and dispel misgivings that snowballed last week into a long march?
Prime minister's energy adviser announced at a press briefing on September 25 that the construction of the plant will be inaugurated on October 22. He also said that the controversy over the plant and its impact on the Sundarbans was not based on facts. But that only gives one man's soliloquy when we needed a national dialogue. The energy adviser sounded as if he was hurling commandments as Zeus did lightning bolts from Olympus.
Instead, why couldn't he invite the long marchers to a meeting? Why couldn't he disclose the actual facts if he knew the other side was out of depth? That the plant will be located 14 kilometers away from the Sundarbans, that there will be a 275-meter high chimney and that the government will import high quality coal don't put our minds to rest. Rather, these only tell us that this power plant has to be run with extreme care, all the more reason why the project deserves a careful second thought.
For argument's sake, let's assume that the distance of the plant and the height of the chimney are going to be safe. Let us also assume that neither of these two is ever going to change. What about the quality of coal? Who is going to see that it does not get compromised if corruption finally infiltrates the plant? What's the guarantee the next government will be equally wise and the next energy adviser will be equally committed?
Those are just the onsite risks of Rampal power plant. What about the offsite risks? The coal will have to be transported through the Sundarbans from Mongla to Heron Point when coal dust is likely to pollute water and air along the way. The increased ship movement will intensify river erosion. Light and sound of ships will devastate marine life.
These are the arguments proffered by the protestors. How does the government want to counter them? It talks about the Environment Impact Assessment done by the Power Development Board. It also talks about the certification given by the Department of Environment. Now both of these being government bodies, their findings are taken by people with a grain of salt for obvious reasons.
Why does the government have to build the plant in the face of so much resistance? And why is it so important to start the work in the last days of its tenure? This country needed many more projects implemented but the government couldn't get them started.
The Padma Bridge, the monorail project, the tunnel under the Karnaphuli River, modernisation of Chittagong and Mongla ports, construction of a deep seaport, completion of the 4-lane Chittagong Highway and extension of rail network were promised in the ruling party's election manifesto. Most of these ambitious projects either never got started or are left in limbo. On bilateral side, the Farakka Barrage, Teesta water sharing and corridor issues are still unresolved with India. If so much can wait, why is the big hurry in Bagerhat?
The Rampal plant should wait until this nation reaches a consensus. We surely need more electricity to tide over power shortage. But one less project cannot be a disaster for this country. Not when immediate illumination threatens to leave long-term future in the dark.
The writer is Editor, First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.