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Bangladesh: Banshkhali Coal Power Plant Propaganda and Reality | Kallol Mustafa

14 April 2016

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The Daily Star - 13 April 2016

Banshkhali Coal Power Plant Propaganda and Reality

Locals protest the setting up of a coal-fired power plant in Banshkhali. Photo: Star

Kallol Mustafa

I had the opportunity to visit Gondamara of Banskhali upazila as part of a fact finding mission organised by the National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Mineral Resources, Port and Power on April 8. I wanted to understand why the locals were resisting the proposed coal-fired power plant and what led to the killing of people on April 4. The role of the police and the S. Alam group in the Banshkhali killings has already been exposed. Here I explore the rationale behind the local uprising against the coal power plant.

The proponents of the project argued that people were instigated by some ’vested quarters’ which provided them ’misinformation’, thus leading to this tragic incident. However, I found the local people to be very well-informed about the impacts of the coal power plant and felt that they did not need to be ’instigated’ by ’misinformation’ to protest against the said plant. Let me give some examples.

I asked one young man, “Why are you against the coal power plant?”

He replied, “There will be huge amounts of toxic smoke and ash from the stack of the coal power plant”.

I challenged him, “How can you say so? Have you seen any?”

He then showed me a video on his mobile phone where a lot of smoke was coming out of the stack of a coal power plant in another country.

I learned that people in the area had been familiarised on the issue through videos, articles and debates via an educated section of the community. This community has also read newspaper articles and booklets published as part of the campaign against the setting up of a coal power plant near the Sundarbans, and even discussed its impact with others. As a result, the local farmers, housewives, salt workers, fisherman, etc. were very aware of the impacts of the coal power plant on health, local agriculture, water and aquatic life.

A local fisherman told me that the hot water discharge from the power plant would have negative impact on the availability of fish. This reminded me of a study report of JICA on the impacts of coal-fired power plant in Chittagong. The report acknowledged: “Sea area in front of the power plant is open water, and thermal effluent is diffused at the surface layer. Fish avoid the sea area if it exceeds a suitable water temperature, therefore living fish are likely to be impacted even though the thermal effluent is diffused.” (“Preparatory Survey on Chittagong Area Coal Fired Power Plant Development Project in Bangladesh,” Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Tokyo Electric Power Services Co., LTD and Tokyo Electric Power Co., LTD, 2015). Local people also expressed their concerns on the possible impact of gaseous emission and fly ash on their health and agricultural production. These are all very legitimate concerns as there are numerous examples all over the world of how big coal-fired power plants have caused havoc on health, life, agriculture and environment. For example, a study on the impact of Dahanu coal power plant in Maharashtra, have found that “During the period of 1995 to 2003 the overall yield of Sapota from Dahanu’s orchards dropped by around 60 percent.” (“Impact of coal-fired thermal power plants on Agriculture: A case study of Chicku Sapota orchards of Dahanu Maharashtra,” Arun. P. R., Azeez PA and Maya V. Mahajan, Global Environment: Problems and Policies, 2009). Another study on the impact of coastal coal-fired power plants in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu concludes, “Coastal thermal power plants have massive and serious impacts on the local water systems, local communities and livelihoods. They were found to have salinized groundwater, contaminated local water bodies, disrupted water drainage patterns, dumped pollution irresponsibly, impacted yields of fish and affected people’s livelihoods.” (“Impacts of Coastal Coal Based Thermal Power Plants on Water Report of Visit to Some Operational and In Pipeline Plants in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu,” Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, 2014).

My next question was: “Then how could S. Alam group manage to buy 660 acres of land from you for the power plant?” They argued that S Alam group had bought land from them saying that it would build garments and other factories which would generate huge employment in the area. In recent days, S Alam Group denied this allegation in their advertisement titled “Confusion and Reality” published in almost all national or local newspapers. However, a letter issued by Bashkhali Upaziala land office dated November 15, 2015 clearly mentioned that 660.40 acres of land was bought by S Alam group to be used for setting up the “Genesis Textile and Apparels Limited” and “S.Alam Vegetable Oil Ltd”! Moreover, the local land office had issued this clearance for S. Alam Group, after showing that there are only 150 households in the entire area. However, according to locals I interviewed, there are more than 7,000 households with several mosques, schools, bazaars, and health clinics in the area, which seems more credible to me, as per my observations of the three unions in that area. The letter also mentioned that S Alam Group’s original intention was to own 5,032.14 acres of land to build two 1,320 MW coal-based thermal power plants, of which 1,728.97 acre is Khas land and 3,303 acres is private land. The Land Office gave its clearance to S Alam Group to buy 3,000 acres of land, terming the acquired land as “barren land”; this is also a baseless claim, as I have myself seen that the land is fertile with rice and salt farming.

While the JICA report acknowledged that “there will be permanent losses or reduction of livelihood means in salt farming, shrimp farming and fishing activities”, in its advertisement, S. Alam Group claimed that 1,000 people would be given permanent employment after the project is completed. When I asked local people about their opinion on this prospect, they simply rejected it by saying, “What will we do with 1,000 jobs when the power plant will destroy the livelihoods of 50,000 people?” We need to note here that the villagers of Krishnapattam region of Andhra Pradesh, India, were also promised thousands of jobs, but in reality, the huge capital investments in the port and power plants, that promised development for the local communities, have, at best, offered them jobs of sweepers and security guards, and that too, on a contractual basis (“Breaking the myth behind Coastal Thermal Power Plants”, indiatogether.org, July 28, 2014).

While S. Alam Group uses examples of China, India and other countries in its advertisement to justify its coal power plant, the real picture is rather bleak for proponents of coal-fired power plants. Beijing, where pollution averaged more than twice the national standard pollution of China last year, will close the last of its four major coal-fired power plants next year (“Beijing to Shut All Major Coal Power Plants to Cut Pollution”, Bloomberg, March 24, 2015).

While India continues to build coal power plants, it at least imposes restrictions on building coal-fired power plants not only near forests, but also near human habitats and agricultural land. India’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Guideline 2010 prohibits coal-fired power plant within 25 kms of metropolitan areas. Recently, a central green panel of India refused to give approval to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) to set up a 1,320 MW coal-based project in Madhya Pradesh, noting that a thermal power plant near human habitat and on agricultural land was not viable (“NTPC’s coal-based project in MP turned down”, The Hindu, October 8, 2010).

But in Bangladesh, local and foreign private and public companies are being allowed to build huge coal-based thermal power plants near reserve forests like the Sundarbans, heavily populated areas, and agricultural lands. Bangladesh does not have sufficient regulations and EIA guidelines to protect forests, wetlands, and agricultural lands. Although insufficient, the acts and guidelines we have are not strictly followed. In the Bashkhali case, S. Alam Group bought land concealing information, started constructing pillars, deployed excavation machines for land development and also set up temporary tin-sheds to monitor and manage the work, without taking any of the three clearance certificates - site clearance, EIA approval, and environment clearance – which are mandatory for any red-listed projects like the coal power plant, according to the Bangladesh Environment Protection Act 1995 (“Banshkhali power plant yet to get environmental clearance”, Prothom Alo, April 10, 2016)!

The government needs to understand that the population density of Bangladesh is much higher than that of China, India or USA. So, the ’big country mega project model’, which requires huge amounts of land and risks the livelihood of thousands of people, cannot be followed in Bangladesh. It would be best if we can completely avoid destructive coal-fired power plants, but if that’s not possible then we can build smaller units (say 100 MW), considering the impacts on local agriculture, health and environment and following strict rules and regulations. We need to learn to sacrifice profits, instead of sacrificing lives and livelihoods.

The writer is an engineer and member of National Committee to Protect Oil-Gas-Mineral Resources, Port and Power.

o o o

New Age

3,000 villagers prosecuted for Banshkhali killing

April 6, 2016

Staff Correspondent . Chittagong

Hundreds of villagers hold a rally on Rahmania Senior Madrassah premises at Banshkhali in Chittagong on Tuesday, demanding cancellation of coal-fired power plant project in the area and protesting at the death of four villagers in firing on Monday. — New Age photo

Hundreds of villagers hold a rally on Rahmania Senior Madrassah premises at Banshkhali in Chittagong on Tuesday, demanding cancellation of coal-fired power plant project in the area and protesting at the death of four villagers in firing on Monday. — New Age photo

Three cases accusing over 3,000 people were filed on Tuesday over the Monday’s clash with police, in which four villagers were shot dead during protests against a move to construct a coal-based power plant at Banshkhali in Chittagong.
Of the cases, families of the four dead filed two cases while the other was filed by the Banskhali police, police said.
Over 20 people, including 11 policemen, were also injured in the clash.
The agitators alleged that a local conglomerate, S Alam Group, was grabbing their land in the remote village of Gondamara to set up the China-funded power plant.
Locals on Tuesday continued their agitation in the area demanding punishment of the killers.
Several thousand people took part in the funeral prayers after the bodies were taken to the village.
After the prayers, the agitators — males, females and children — held a rally where they vowed to continue the protest at any cost.
Killing of four people in police firing has sparked protests by different political parties and rights organisations.
BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, in a statement on Tuesday, condemning the attack, demanded a judicial probe into the killings and said now it was a common practice in the country to open fire on demonstrators.
Leaders of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports demanded in protest rallies in the capital and in the Chittagong city on Tuesday immediate arrest of the killers and their exemplary punishments.
The authorities in Chittagong formed a probe body beside tightening security as the clash-hit locality witnessed fresh agitation on Tuesday against the killing of villagers, officials said.
‘We formed a probe body, headed by additional district magistrate Mominur Rashid, to investigate the clash at Chinese power plant site. It was asked to submit the report within seven days,’ said deputy commissioner of Chittagong Mesbah Uddin.
‘We also beefed up security in the area as a tense situation was prevailing there,’ he added.
Officer-in-charge of Banskhali police station Swapon Kumar Mazumder informed that three cases were filed in connection with the clash — one by police and two others by relatives of the dead.
‘Already we have arrested three people and we are on a hunt for others. Besides, our lawmen have been kept on high alert to maintain peace at the clash-hit area of Gondamara,’ Swapon said.
Additional superintendent of police in Chittagong Md Habibur Rahman said that Banshkhali police station sub-inspector Bahar Mia lodged a case accusing 57 identified people and 3,200 unidentified people for assault on the police.
Villager Bashir Ahmed filed a case over the killing of his two brothers — Anwar Ali and Murtaza Ali and Mortaza’s son-in-law Zaker, accusing six identified people and 1500 unnamed people.
Monowara Begum, wife of another deceased Zaker Hossain, 50, filed another case accusing 1,500 unnamed people.
Additional police superintendent Habibur Rahman told New Age that they had handed over four bodies to the respective family after autopsy.
Fear of environment pollution and other hazards, if the power plant was installed, prompted the people of Gondamara area of Banshkhali to go for agitation, local sources said.
The locals alleged that some people in favour of S Alam Group forced them to sell their land to the group.
Mosharraf Hossain, an Imam of a mosque in Chittagong city and resident of Gondamara, told New Age that there were several hundred homesteads in the area where S Alam Group was trying to set up the coal-fired power plant.
‘We will not be able to live there if the power plant is set up. Our household, arable land and salt processing fields would be damaged due to the pollution if the plant was set up,’ said Mosharraf.
Hanif, an honours student of Chittagong College and resident of the village, said S Alam Group engaged some paid brokers to grab local people’s land.
‘The brokers forced local people to sell their land at lower price. They threatened us when we did not agree to sell our land,’ said Hanif.
Aziz Ahmed, another villager, said ‍ the coal-fired power plant would have negative impacts on the environment — water and air of the area would be polluted and they would in the end have to leave the area.
Meanwhile, witnesses of the Monday’s incident said that police and agents of S Alam Group opened fire targeting the villagers that caused the casualties.
Abdur Rahim of the village said that police or any other authorities did not inform the locals about imposing section 144.
‘Police and hired goons of S Alam Group opened fire targeting the local people who gathered at Hadipara Primary School field to hold a rally against the move of coal-fired power plant’, said Rahim.
Jahirul Islam, 30, owner of Al Madina Hotel at Gondamara Bazar, who is now undergoing treatment at Chittagong Medical College and Hospital with bullet wounds, said at the hospital on Monday night, ‘Police shot me in one leg from three to four feet away when I was running for shelter after shutting my hotel’.
S Alam Group chairman Mohammed Saiful Alam, denying the allegations, said, ‘We have no involvement in whatever has happened. We have no problem about the ownership of the land and with the people of the locality,’ he told New Age over phone on Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports organised a protest rally in front of National Press Club, where its member secretary Anu Muhammad said local people would lose their homesteads and the environment of the area would be destroyed if the power plant was set up there.
He urged the government to take immediate steps to find out the killers and give them exemplary punishment.
Communist Party of Bangladesh, Socialist Party of Bangladesh and Jatiya Mukti Council held separate rallies in the capital protesting at killings at Banskhali.
In separate statements, rights body Ain O Salish Kendra and Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan, an NGO working on environment, condemned the police firing.

P.S.

The above article from The Daily Star is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use