‘Yes’ to life: people’s movement to save the Sunderbans

Anu Muhammad | Published: 17:20, Dec 17,2017 | Updated: 17:33, Dec 17,2017


WE HAVE entered the seventh year of resistance against the government-sponsored disastrous project that is going to make irreparable damage to human security by destroying the very inner strength of the Sunderbans, in the south-west coast of Bangladesh. This is the largest single tract mangrove forest and a UNESCO natural world heritage site. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, this beautiful forest (the literal English for the Sunderbans) is intersected by a network of tidal canals, creeks and rivers. More than four million people depend on the Sunderbans for their livelihood. This has also been a huge natural safeguard against frequent cyclones, storms and other natural disasters in the country. This is the strongest shield for the people to fight against climate change. Lives and property of almost 50 million people will be threatened if there is no Sunderbans.

The Sunderbans have experienced many state-sponsored harmful intervention from both India and Bangladesh. The Farakka Barrage in India brought salinity into the Sunderbans; shrimp farming and projects in the name of irrigation and flood control in Bangladesh damaged ecological balance in the region. Governments in both countries have been consistently showing their ignorance of and insensitivities to the Sunderbans.

The 1,320MW Rampal coal-fired power plant project sponsored by both Bangladesh and India has come to be the worst attack on the Sunderbans. Moreover, this power plant project has become a centre of attraction for other harmful business in and around the Sunderbans. Therefore, it is urgent to scrap the project before it is too late. In this context, people from different sections living in the locality, in other parts of the country and also living abroad have gathered to raise their voice to stop this madness.

This has been the people’s movement against the killing of our natural protector, our lungs, and the last of our natural big forests in Bangladesh. Along with the National Committee, thousands of people at home and abroad spontaneously engaged themselves in organising protests that have continued despite oppression, harassment, threat and anti-people propaganda.

Researches, long marches, open letters, demonstrations

SO FAR we have tried our best to convince the governments of Bangladesh and India that the largest mangrove forest should not be a playground for grabbers, mindless business; it must survive for survival of lives. There have been many research studies, discussions, debates, publications and exchanges with government agencies in Bangladesh as well as demonstrations, protest meetings and long marches to the Sunderbans to make the point. There were also cycle rallies; and art exhibitions on the Sunderbans were organised; many songs and documentaries were created by spontaneous initiatives from young people. Moreover, we wrote open letters to both the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India where we explained our concern in details.

But the governments have shown extreme insensitivity towards all public exhortations. Not only that, we faced several incidents of police atrocities, obstruction or attacks on the Sunderbans movement; death threat and harassment were also used to stop the vocal campaign. The police used brutal force indiscriminately, including firing teargas shells and rubber bullets and using water cannons on July 28, 2016 into the peaceful procession that was marching to hand over an open letter to Bangladesh’s prime minister, also on October 18 into the procession marching to hand over an open letter to India’s prime minister. On September 30, 2016, both ruling party goons and the police attacked on a ‘Save Sunderbans’ cycle rally. Many demonstrations, discussion programmes, photograph exhibitions and cultural programmes have been obstructed, denied permission or attacked by ruling party men and/or the police in Dhaka and around the country since the beginning of the protests.

But despite that, people have not given up. Support for the movement spread fast to all sections of society. On November 26, 2016, Chalo Chalo Dhaka Chalo (March to Dhaka) culminated into a grand gathering of more than 20,000 people at the Central Shaheed Minar. In the last few months, there were also public polls in different places, including public universities. Nearly 41,000 students and teachers cast their vote in these unofficial but transparent referendums. More than 92 per cent of them cast their vote against the Rampal coal-fired power plant to save the Sunderbans.


Global protest

ABOUT 200 organisations from different countries appealed for scrapping of the project in 2016. On January 7, 2017, ‘global protest day for Sunderbans’ was celebrated in more than 30 cities around the world.

A large number of experts and activists in India expressed their solidarity with the movement in many ways, including participation in the long march. A number of protest rallies and solidarity meetings took place in Kolkata and Delhi. To register solidarity with Bangladeshi protesters, Indian scientists, environmentalists, teachers, filmmakers, writers, researchers, fish workers and forest workers urged their prime minister at a press conference in Delhi on October 18, 2016 to withdraw the project. The argument was that ‘this project is opposed by people in Bangladesh and India for its monumental social and environmental negative impacts, particularly the irreversible damage to the Sunderbans and the fragile ecosystem around it. The project is partly owned by the NTPC, financed by the Indian Exim Bank, equipment supplied by BHEL and PricewaterhouseCoopers Private Limited, India contracted for long term coal sourcing. Hence, India’s share in this project is significant.’ (Protest in India over Rampal power plant, the Daily Star/ANN, October 19, 2016).


‘You can shoot me, I will not give the Sunderbans’

A half-day general strike in Dhaka city was called for January 26 to press the government further to save the Sunderbans. It was different in essence and form. It was the first general strike in history to save a forest. There was no violence from the organisers. Although the protest remained peaceful, the police in different places were violent to foil protest rallies. At Shahbagh, the central place of Dhaka city, the police continued with their violent action for at least eight hours. They fired teargas shells and rubber bullets and used water cannons continuously to drive away protesters from the street, but they failed because of the high morale and passion of the protesters. At one point, one young protester, Mahtab, walked towards the police to stop their atrocity with his injured hand bandaged saying, ‘You can shoot me, but I will not give the Sunderbans.’ In return, the police started beating him mercilessly. Then, another activist, Mizan, tried to stop the police water cannon; he was also severely beaten. They were both arrested in a senseless condition. Journalists gathered there to cover the incidents. ATN news reporter and photographer were also beaten until their legs were broken. Many more were injured and sent to hospital. Two singers were also arrested when they were singing song of the Sunderbans.


Alternative master plan for power generation

WHILE subsequent governments of Bangladesh have pursued corporate-controlled, private profit-centric, debt-dependent and environmentally-disastrous energy and power policy, this movement also came up with viable safe and cheaper alternatives. The movement, on the one hand, put forth the demand for scrapping the anti-people and anti-environment projects, including Rampal and Rooppur; it has advanced the vision of equity, pro-environment energy security and pro-people technological advancement, on the other. To reflect people’s aspiration, the National Committee worked hard to work out an alternative energy and power plan, containing the vision of a progressive, egalitarian, democratic, pro-nature, and pro-human development model.

Relying on two decades of experience of people’s movement, along with a year-long research, investigation, and dialogues with a large number of scientists, environmentalists, engineers, and renewable energy experts from all around the world, the National Committee presented a pro-people, pro-environment master plan on July 22, 2016 for the people of Bangladesh to meet the energy and power demand. This alternative plan proposed by the National Committee has prioritised people’s ownership of all natural resources, the protection of environment, the development of national capability and the use of environmental friendly technology.


‘No’ to projects of mass destruction

FOR any sensible person, it is a matter of common sense that no project can be called development project if that is a threat to the survival of a natural forest such as the Sunderbans. There are sufficient scientific evidence, arguments, and facts and figures to support this. But the problem arises when the authorities dance to the corporate interest.

Real development should aim at economic growth without long-term irreversible destruction of the nature and threat to human survival. We would like to emphasise the point that no deadly experiment should be taken when the Sunderbans is concerned. Therefore, we continue with our protest, we demand the cancellation of the project immediately and an end to other harmful navigation and commercial activities in and around the Sunderbans. The Sunderbans should not be a field of greed and power game. If Sri Lanka and India could scrap similar projects, why not Bangladesh, to prevent a much bigger disaster?

If we say ‘yes’ to life we have to stand for the Sunderbans and we must say ‘no’ to commercial projects harmful for its survival. Whether it is a power plant or any other commercial activity, whether that is foreign investment or local investment, whether that is investment from India, or China or the United States or any other countries, even from Bangladesh, whether it increases the GDP or generates power, the issue of saving the Sunderbans cannot be compromised. Because there are many alternatives for power generation and commercial activities but there is not any alternative to the Sunderbans. There are many ways to increase the GDP but there is no way to reproduce the Sunderbans.

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