Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sundarban Put In Jeopardy

THE decision of the High Court to vacate the order on maintenance of a status quo on the much-talked-about coal-fired power plant near Sundarban, without hearing on the rule issued on the government in March 1 this year on why the plant should not be declared illegal, has effectively paved the way for two 1,320MW power plants to be established only nine kilometres away from the world’s largest mangrove forest and a world heritage site. The government is likely to sign the agreement during Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 6-7, following a memorandum of understanding already signed between the Power Development Board and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation. Considering the binding obligations that come with an international agreement signed between two head of governments, the likelihood of any other proceedings or development halting the establishment of the plant in the future now looks slim. 

The court, meanwhile, is set to hear the rule in October, after its month-long vacation. It appears that in its haste to find answers to acute power shortage as well expedite friendly relations with India, the government has put in jeopardy one of the country’s finest treasures, and the court, by vacating the status quo, has all but played into its hands.

From the very outset when the proposed thermal power plant came to public knowledge, there have been strong protests demanding the project be scrapped, both from environmental activists as well as locals at Rampal, Bagerhat, the proposed site for the plant. While local farmers lament the potential loss of arable land, environmentalists point out that the coal-fired power plants would drastically reduce the diversity of vegetation, wildlife and micro-organisms in Sundarban. The project will destroy the ingredients of the soil that support the lives of millions of inhabitants of a large region, increase the proportion of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the air and seriously harm the flora and fauna of Sundarban. Moreover, it is important to remember that Sundarban serve as a natural barrier to the protection of the people in a large area of the coastal region from calamities such as cyclones Sidr and Aila. Given these circumstances, the court issued the March 1 order after hearing a public-interest litigation writ petition filed by the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh seeking cancellation of the installation of the power plant.

The government is yet to provide any serious argument that disputes the claims of environmentalists nor has there been any feasibility study on the likely impact on the Sundarban following the establishment of the plants, as far as media reports go. Under these circumstances, the government stands to risk threatening a great national asset, ironically vying to become one of the seven natural wonders on earth, if it goes ahead with the signing and subsequently the establishment of the plants. It would be well-advised at least wait out the hearing on the court rule before proceeding with such a major project.