Scrap Rampal power plant project, save Sunderbans

Published at 11:27pm on October 18, 2016

Below is the text of the open letter that the National Oil, Gas, Mineral Resource, Power and Port Protection Committee, Bangladesh sent to the prime minister of India on October 18, 2016

The honourable prime minister,
WE RESPECTFULLY address you with grave concern and anxiety. The people of Bangladesh today is sternly worried over the future of the Sunderbans, which not only happens to be the only protection barrage of the southern belt of Bangladesh, but also the largest mangrove forest of the world, as well as the most valuable ecological habitat of the country and a world heritage site. The joint venture of both India and Bangladesh to build a 1,320MW capacity coal-fired power plant has caused much worry among the people of Bangladesh.
We have already written to the honourable prime minister of Bangladesh regarding this. As India is the major partner of this project, we believe, as the head of the Indian government, it is fundamentally important for us to address also to you in this regard, mainly for two reasons. The Rampal Power Plant, officially known as the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project, is a joint-venture project of the BPDB of Bangladesh and the NTPC Limited of India. As per the joint venture agreement signed between Bangladesh and India, the NTPC is responsible for planning, building and operating the plant. Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited is now officially responsible for engineering, procurement and construction of the Rampal power plant. Exim Bank, a state bank of India, has been officially selected for financing this project whereas Coal India Limited, most probably, is going to be appointed for the supply of necessary coal.
Secondly, if the Sunderbans, adjacent to the Bangladesh part is damaged, it would have a massive spillover effect on the Indian portion as well, affecting the lives and livelihood of the people of India living near the Sunderbans.
Based on studied opinion of a significantly large number of local and international experts, it is obvious that this particular coal-fired power plant would bring extensive destruction to the forest. It is also worth noting that following the decision of building a power plant in Rampal, a range of influential business groups and commercial projects have pierced into the same area. It is predicted that the cumulative effect of such commercial aggression would ultimately cause fatal destruction to the Sunderbans.
It is important to note that around 3 to 4 million people including forest and fishing folks are dependent on the Sunderbans and the adjacent water bodies for their natural livelihood. Around 40 million people live in the southern coastal belt of Bangladesh. The power plant is ringing an alarm to the entire coastal community. Moreover, the damage would not be merely restricted to the Bangladesh portion of the Sunderbans. Around 5 million people living near the Indian portion of the Sunderbans would be put into grave danger, too. Eventually, future generations of both the nations would have to bear the deadly impact of the plant.
Obviously, we do not deny ‘development’. Power grids are also vital to modern lives. However, what is not acceptable is the implementation of some environmentally deadly projects which would merely benefit the vested interest groups at the cost of the people and environment.
You must be aware of the fact that this project has drawn huge criticism from both India and Bangladesh and around the world. UNESCO, the Ramsar Authority, the South Asian Human Rights Forum led by IK Gujral of India, along with other 150 various organisations have also opposed the plant and demanded that the deal should be scrapped. The Norwegian Council of Ethics has already withdrawn its fund from this controversial project.
Even the minister of finance of Bangladesh has admitted that inevitable environmental damage will be there, nevertheless the project must go on (February 15, 2016, ‘¶wZ n‡jI mi‡e bv ivgcvj we`¨yr †K›`ª: A_©gš¿x’, Ittefaq [] and ‘Rampal power plant to be commissioned despite risk to ecology’, []). We do not want to believe that it is the government of India which is insisting on the project. Rather, we believe that the government of India can play a vital role in saving the world’s largest mangrove forest by scrapping this controversial project.

Honourable prime minister,
THE plant site is located to the north of the Sunderbans, only 14 kilometres away from its boundary and within merely 4 kilometres of the ecologically critical area. This site is only 2 metres above the sea level. It obviously holds a key financial and operating risk given the fact that it falls within a tidal delta region which experienced a tidal surge with the height of 5 metres. The EIA study itself further notes that the Rampal plant would be in the ‘wind risk zone’ of Bangladesh. It is worth noting that this particular zone witnessed 16 cyclones in the past 25 years. We are deeply worried that the site’s location and elevation will be at extreme risk should sea levels rise or should an extreme weather event occur. In such events, the ash ponds — located near the River Passur — could easily be washed away putting the river at a serious ecological risk. The river is, in fact, one of the vital water bodies that provides fresh water flow to the world’s largest mangrove forest.
The Indian EIA guideline 2010 itself disallows setting up of similar projects within 25 kilometres of ecologically sensitive areas of India, including forests, rivers, and sanctuaries (‘Locations of thermal power stations are avoided within 25km of the outer periphery of the following: (a) metropolitan cities; (b) national park and wildlife sanctuaries; (c) ecologically sensitive areas like tropical forest, biosphere reserve, important lake and coastal areas rich in coral formation…’, []). You must have been aware of the fact that due to such environmental consciousness of the Indian government, a number of coal-fired plant and coal mining project has been called off by the Green Tribunal and the Ministry of Environment of India (‘The need to preserve the Khajuraho temple, famous for its erotic sculptures, as well as nearby tiger and crocodile sanctuaries has prompted a government panel to hold off on clearing a Rs 18,000 crore thermal power plant in Madhya Pradesh. []; ‘The National Green Tribunal (NGT) …. quashed the environmental clearance for the 3,600MW thermal power plant proposed by IL&FS Tamil Nadu Power Company Limited in Cuddalore, on the grounds that no proper cumulative impact assessment was done.’ []; and ‘Noting that a thermal power plant near human habitat and on agricultural land was not viable, a central green panel has refused to give approval to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) to set up a 1320MW coal-based project in Madhya Pradesh.’ []). We would like to call your attention that while moving forward with this project, the Indian company has violated all environmental rules and regulations of the Indian government itself.
For the production of electricity, the plant will annually consume 4.72 million tons of coal (Rampal EIA, p 378 []). The coal and other toxic and chemical materials required for the construction and operation of the power plant will be transported to the project site through the waterways of the Sunderbans. The transportation of coal (nearly 13 thousand tonnes per day) through the waterways of the Sunderbans holds dire prospect of coal spillage, ballast water, bilge water, oil spillage, lubricant, and garbage. For the next 30 years, the transportation of cargo and lighter vessels, and the loading and unloading of coal will, indeed, cause extensive damage to the ecology of the forest and the wildlife habitats.
To run the power plant, water of the River Passur will be withdrawn (at the rate of 9,150m3/hour) and discharged (at the rate of 5,150m3/hour) into it again after use with a varying temperature (Rampal EIA, p 117). This will reduce the oxygen in the water and damage the fish stocks of the River Passur. The rising temperature, the company admits at least 2ºC (‘Temperature of discharge water shall never be more than two degrees Centigrade (2ºC) above river water temperature’ – Question to answer from Rampal authority []), will also affect the entire ecosystem and biodiversity of the forest, including the zooplankton, the phytoplankton, and the marine ecology. If it continues for the next 25 to 30 years, the marine ecology and the biodiversity of the River Passur as well as the hydrological characteristics of the river, including its salinity front, salinity level, sedimentation pattern, and tidal behaviour, would be destroyed. The discharged water will also contain a huge amount of mercury if coal-washing is done as confirmed by the authority.
Zoologists have shown concern that the toxic substances emitted from the coal-fired power plant, including arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, vanadium, beryllium, barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium, and radium, are capable of contaminating the air and water to such an extent that it could harm the reproductive health system of the wildlife and the species of the Sunderbans. Bird scientists are concerned that the coal-fired pollution may hamper the existence of at least three rare species of bird, which shelter in the Sunderbans.
The experts and engineers have long suggested that Ultra Super Critical Technology itself is only capable of reducing pollution only at a rate of 8 to 10 per cent. Even if other pollutant reducing technology should be used, no record suggests that risk of pollution could be entirely eliminated. For instance, the installation of the FGD may reduce the risk of SO2 pollution, while increasing the chances of water pollution through the release of heavy chemical materials, including arsenic, mercury, selenium and boron (‘Cleansing the Air at the Expense of Waterways’ []). If low NOX burner should be used, pollution could be reduced by upto 40 to 60 per cent, nevertheless the rest of the toxin chemicals would remain hazardous enough to spoil the environment (An overview of technologies for reduction of oxides of nitrogen from combustion furnaces', p 4 []). Though the authority has assured the use of the FGD and the ESP, the combined application of all such technology is capable of dropping the contamination level merely by upto 48 per cent ( On the other hand, the risk of release of an extensive amount of mercury still persists as there is no mention of applying any technology in tender document that regulates or controls the release of mercury into the forestry and water (‘State-of-the-art technology for mercury control is sorbent injection in the boiler or in the flue gases followed by capture of the resultant particulates in a bag house. These technologies are simply missing in the tender document.’ []).
In the past few years, a number of accidents in the water routes, including deadly oil spill, had left its long-term footprints on the sensitive forest lives. The current transportation system on the Sunderbans area itself is creating severe sound and water pollution around the forest ecology. Lately, some sensitive locations around the forest have been announced as ‘endangered’ for the Irrawaddy dolphins by the government of Bangladesh. The prime minister of Bangladesh previously suggested bringing a complete halt to the transportation routes in the River Sela. However, the attempt failed. In these circumstances, we simply cannot take further risk by allowing a 1,320MW capacity coal-fired plant on the backyard of the Sunderbans. Our experience with institutional capability is also frustrating (‘90,000m3 polluted water flowing into rivers around Dhaka every day’, Banik Barta, April 2 , 2016 []).
A coastal belt, in general, survives on the resistant capacity of the mangrove swamps. For instance, extensive commercial establishments in the coastal bodies of the New Orleans state of the USA have ultimately damaged the natural flow of the Mississippi River. Due to the vulnerability of these coastal belt areas, Hurricane Katrina could make unprecedented damage to the coastal areas of New Orleans. In Bangladesh, during Hurricane Sidr and Aila, the Sunderbans has largely protected the people and resources of the southern coast. If the Sunderbans is damaged, the people and the species of the entire coastal belt will be practically unprotected.
We would like to stress on the point that no deadly experiment should be taken when the Sunderbans is concerned. Rather we demand cancellation of the project, along with every other pollution-enhancing projects and commercial activities around the Sunderbans. We also demand a halt to the transportation of hazardous commodities around the Sunderbans. As the Rampal power plant is not only a risk by itself but also has consistently attracted a range of commercial ventures into the area, by scrapping the deal, the Indian government could play a crucial role in protecting the Sunderbans from all kind of forest damaging ventures.
The Sunderbans to us is not a subject of negotiation. Meanwhile, alternative locations and technology are available for power generation. Lately, the Sri Lankan government had cancelled a similar power plant deal with India (May 18, 2016, ‘Sri Lanka scraps NTPC’s plan to build coal plant’ []). If Sri Lanka and India could scrap it, why not Bangladesh, to prevent much bigger disaster?

Honourable prime minister,
WE GRATEFULLY remember the contribution of India during the time of our liberation war in 1971. The people of Bangladesh have not forgotten the safe shelter that was provided by the people of India in a time of despair and misery. Nevertheless, it is also observed that the people of Bangladesh also hold much resentment towards India due to its consistent measures of oppressive and humiliating policies. The Farakka barrage, the upcoming dams along with the Indian river-linking projects, border killing, the erecting of border fence, unfair trade agreements and loan terms and the one-sided transit deal are a few Indian policies which have generated discontent in the minds of people of Bangladesh. And now it is the destructive power plant project.
We would like to stress on the point that people still expect solution of all earlier disputes, but if the Sunderbans is affected, the damage would be irrecoverable and there would be no turning back. The resentment and anger would stay for ever, the ‘friendship’ company will turn into a permanent ‘source’ of hostility. We certainly do not want to create a condition as such. Rather we expect, for the sake of the friendship, the project should be called off. We believe that peaceful co-existence of the two nations could only be achieved through mutually respectable agreements and arrangements that would reflect the aspiration of both people in a fair and just manner.
Based on such aspirations, we hope that, you, as head of the Indian government, along with our prime minister, would consider the genuine concerns of the people of Bangladesh and immediately scrap the Rampal power plant project.

On behalf of the National Oil, Gas, Mineral Resource, Power and Port Protection Committee, Bangladesh

Engineer Sheikh Muhammad Shahidullah

Professor Anu Muhammad
Member Secretary