Declaring war against the Sundarbans?
In a verdict in 2012, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) of India, while suspending the environment clearance (EC) for a proposed coal-based thermal power plant near Pichavaram Mangrove forest in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, directed the company to carry out a cumulative impact assessment study within a radius of 25 km from the project site. It also directed the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest to initiate a 'carrying capacity study' in the region where a number of projects have been proposed in proximity to the Cuddalore Industrial Area and Pichavaram mangroves (The Hindu, May 25, 2012).
The tribunal in its verdict explained the importance of cumulative impact assessment studies in the following way: “We strikingly feel keeping in view the precautionary principle and sustainable development approach, cumulative impact assessment studies are required to be done in order to suggest adequate mitigative measures and environmental safeguards to avoid any adverse impacts on ecologically fragile eco-system of Pichavaram Mangroves and to the biological marine environment in the vicinity. We, therefore, direct that cumulative impact assessment studies be carried out by the Project Proponent especially with regard to the proposed Coal Based Power plant (2x660MW) of Cuddalore Power Company Ltd. and the Nagarjuna Oil Refinery and other industrial activities within a radius of 25 km from the power project…” (Green Tribunal, November 10, 2014).
While the Indian Green Tribunal recognises the importance of 'the precautionary principle and sustainable development approach' for any development project within 25 km of a small mangrove forest, the National Committee on Environment of Bangladesh, chaired by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina, did not hesitate to give clearance to 320 industrial projects within 10 km radius of the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, without any cumulative impact assessment!
And in doing so, the highest government body to ensure environmental protection has even violated the Environment Conservation Act (1999) of the country, which declared the 10 km area surrounding the Sundarbans as an ecologically critical area (ECA). Setting up of any polluting industry is strictly prohibited in the ECA (Refer Ecologically Critical Area Gazette).
According to a report published in national daily, Prothom Alo, the National Committee on Environment, in its meeting on August 6, 2017, issued permission to a total of 186 industrial projects which were there previously around the Sundarbans. Clearance of the other 118 industries—which had received preliminary clearance earlier—was also renewed. The committee also approved a total of 16 new industrial projects near the Sundarbans. Of them, eight are Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) plants that are known to create serious environmental degradation (Prothom Alo, August 11, 2017). The remaining eight are large and medium-scale industries.
From the very beginning, activists have predicted—and warned—that the Rampal Coal Power Plant is not the end, but just the beginning of a new 'land rush' around the Sundarbans region. Its establishment would attract other polluting industries, land speculators and looters which would accelerate and intensify the ongoing degradation of the Sundarbans ecosystem. The evidence is already there, as reported by The Daily Star in 2016: “Powerful people are snapping up lands within the ECA to set up industries posing additional threats to the unique mangrove forest… Some of those investors are influential politicians or their kin who manage clearances for industry and are buying land like homesteads, wetland and crop fields. Already over 100 business groups and individuals have bought land in the ECA zone.” (October 04, 2016).
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has also expressed its concern regarding industrial development near the Sundarbans several times. Emphasising the importance of cumulative impacts assessment, the UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission, after visiting and assessing the dangers of different industrial coastal development projects near the Sundarbans including Rampal Coal Power Plant, wrote in its report in 2016: “None of the relevant EIAs for these coastal developments take into account the cumulative effects of associated activities that come with the actual development. In addition, each development is assessed independently without consideration of the accumulated effects.” The mission also noted the importance of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA): “The purpose of an SEA is to assess the cumulative impacts at a landscape and regional scale before individual projects are decided upon…”
In the much publicised 41st annual general meeting of UNESCO held in July 2017, Government of Bangladesh (GoB) committed to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the entire Sundarbans Region. UNESCO welcomed Bangladesh's decision, adding that it “…requests the State Party to ensure that any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure developments will not be allowed to proceed before the SEA has been completed.”
Barely one month since its commitment to UNESCO, the GoB has given its go-ahead to 320 industrial projects adjacent to the Sundarbans. While the government is supposed to stop all current large-scale industrial development projects including Rampal Coal Power Plant before completing the SEA, in practice, let alone stopping the existing projects, it is giving clearance to hundreds of new polluting industrial projects in the ECA of the Sundarbans, which is tantamount to declaring war against the mangrove forest.
The GoB, of course, tries to assure the people by uttering its usual promises that the people setting up the industries have taken steps to protect the environment, that it will enforce strict terms and conditions to protect the environment and so on. But even if one ignores the violation of ECA rules and somehow manages to keep faith in the government's promises, one cannot believe in its capacity and capability to enforce its promises considering its past and current track records. For example, thousands of tonnes of untreated pollutants from different industrial areas in and around the capital city are being dumped in the surrounding rivers. Most of the industrial units of these areas have no sewage treatment or ETP plants of their own. If environmental pollution of this scale is allowed in and around the capital itself, who will believe the same will not be allowed to happen in remote areas like the Sundarbans?
That's why it is important to cancel all the large-scale industrial projects including Rampal Coal Power Plants surrounding the Sundarbans. There are many ways to develop the country, many places to establish power, LPG, RMG and other industrial units, but the Sundarbans is unique; no one has the right to gamble with this unique mangrove forest and world heritage site.
Kallol Mustafa is an engineer and member of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Ports and Power.