South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders across South Asia, conducted a fact finding mission in Rampal, Bangladesh on the establishment of a coal-based power plant by the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt) Ltd from 5 — 11 April 2015. The mission was conducted by Dr. Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, Professor of Environmental Science of Khulna University and Sharif Jamil, Council Member, Waterkeeper Alliance from Bangladesh. External expertise from India was provided by Nityanad Jayraman, an Environmental activist. Deekshya Illangasinghe from the SAHR Secretariat in Sri Lanka was part of the delegation.
The objective of the mission was to evaluate the impact of the power plant on the livelihoods of the people and ecology of the region, examine the legal framework governing its establishment and assess if the proposed power plant will violate any laws, policies and guidelines that protect the Sundarbans surrounding the power plant.
The mission visited the site of the power plant by road and river. The mission members met with key stakeholders including affected villagers, environmentalists, lawyers, academics, journalists, human rights defenders and other members of the civil society. The Mission also interviewed government officials including Hon. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, Energy Adviser to the Prime Minister, Hon. Talukder Abdul Khaleque, MP of the Rampal-Mongla area, Mohammad Hossain, Director General of Power Cell, MoPEMR, Vijay Shanker Tamrakar, Managing Director and U. K. Bhattacharya, Deputy Managing Director of the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt) Ltd, and a Director of the Department of Environment.
This mission by SAHR is significant because it has been conducted by a South Asian organization, whose terms have included interviews with both state and non-state actors. The findings of SAHR’s Mission are important as they assess the likely adverse effects of a bilateral project on an international heritage site.
The mission understands that the construction of the proposed plant would accrue some significant benefits to the country, including an increase in electricity production, adaptation capacity, infrastructure development and employment. However, the multi-faceted costs to the local people and the irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystem and biodiversity must be prioritized when proposing such projects.
The key findings of the mission are as follows:
- Due process was not followed in land acquisition and relocation. Compensation to land owners has been inadequate, falling short of the standard market price of equivalent land in the area. A large number of landless families who depended on the land and water bodies for their livelihoods have been displaced without any compensation. Additionally, the river belt from the Mongla port to Rampal is undergoing rapid industrialization, with land being acquired both legally and illegally. Displaced people have lost their traditional livelihoods and thereby face hardships of life.
- The current Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), conducted by a government-owned organization, is faulty on many counts, including its use of secondary data collected before 2010 for most of the parameters; failure to use proper location and methodologyfor primary data collection of air, water, soil, biodiversity, etc; comparison of SOx and NOx levels in the Sundarbans with that of urban areas, discounting the major differences between the two environments; only one-time air samples assessed at three places (8 to 10 km distance from project site), Sarankhola Upazila (43 km south east), nuIna City (23 km north west), but no information on project site, Sundarbans and Mongla port area. Furthermore, without specifying which country the coal will be imported from, the extent of damage from the coal cannot be assessed by an EIA, making the current assessment flawed.
- Approximately, 400 acres of land, including a natural canal, has been filled by about 20 feet. This will in turn deteriorate the ecosystem health of the Pashur and Maidara rivers. The mission highlights that the power plant, by the bank of the Pashur River and surrounded by the Maidara River, is only 8 km away from the Dhangmari dolphin sanctuary. No dolphins were seen by the mission during a six-hour boat ride on the Pashur river, even in the Dhangmari dolphin sanctuary, which is alarming.
- Local people and activists protesting this development have been constantly harassed by powerful quarters through threats, intimidation, assaults and filing of false cases.
The mission was informed by the government that this project was part of a massive power production plan. Department of Environment expressed their concerns about this project and approved the EIA conditionally by giving 59 specific points to be addressed. Concerned authorities stated that it would comply with all conditions, which would in turn increase the production costs. The Mission is concerned that the proposed power plant would lead to considerable loss of livelihoods, scarcity of food and drinking water, loss of habitat for plants and animals, and health hazards. Further a large project in the middle of a vital drainage area will severely alter hydrology, increase vulnerability of surrounding areas to flooding and will have the potential to heighten damage due to extreme weather. Extensive dredging of riverbed and seabed areas and constant leaching of poisons into the water would harm the aquatic biodiversity, endangering the freshwater dolphins and other species living in the Pashur river, We are further concerned that an independent EIA on dredging has not been undertaken. It is disappointing to note that the government of Bangladesh has not considered the opinions given by various environment& experts.
Coal and other materials needed for the plant, as well as wastes generated, will be transported through 75 km of the Sundarbans. With more than 400 ships passing through the river every year, there will be water pollution due to coal and oil spillage, bilge water and ballast discharge; noise pollution; air pollution generating coal dust to the environment. Again, no independent FM has been conducted on the impact of the transportation of coal through the Sundarbans, even though it is a requirement of the Department of Environment.
SAHR, as a regional human rights organization, would like to reiterate its concern that such projects of regional cooperation should not violate the fundamental rights of the people and must adhere to the laws and standards of all countries involved. Therefore, we collectively call upon:
The Government of Bangladesh
- To suspend all construction and other project activities until a comprehensive science-based EIA is conducted by impartial and independent experts. If found damaging to the Sundarbans, the project must be cancelled immediately and relocated at an environmentally sustainable site.
- To respect the right of the affected population and civil society groups to monitor every aspect of the activity nder this project and to voice their concerns regarding negative human rights implications and environmental depletion.
- To ensure that harassment of local people and activists is stopped forthwith, immediate measures are adopted to withdraw false cases that have been filed as a tactic of harassment and to relocate the people already displaced.
- Take all remedial measures to revive the natural ecology and environment of Rampal
The Government of India:
- To ensure that the environmental standards adopted by India are maintained in this project, and that all economic, social and cultural rights as well as.the civil and political rights of the people are fully respected.
SAHR further calls upon both governments:
- To adhere to national laws and international environmental conventions, protocols and treaties in conducting activities through regional cooperation or under bilateral agreements.
- To conduct all activities transparently and in consultation with their citizens.
On behalf of the mission members and South Asians for Human Rights,