The world’s largest mangrove forest lies on the deltas of three rivers: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. It is here, in an area of outstanding natural beauty called the Sundarbans, that the Bangladeshi government plans to site a coal-fired power plant.
The Rampal power project must be stopped. That’s the demand of the Committee to Protect Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources in Bangladesh, which organised a 400km “Long March” from the capital, Dhaka, to the Sundarbans in the district of Bagherhat.
In its ‘Sundarbans Declaration 2016’, the Committee explains that every year the power plant would pollute the atmosphere with 52,000 tons of toxic sulphur dioxide, 30,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide and a million tons of ash, just a few kilometres from the mangrove forest. This will devastate the area and exacerbate climate change worldwide.
The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The mangroves spread over 10,000 square kilometres of Bangladesh and India. But the Rampal project doesn’t just threaten the wildlife – the Sundarbans is the largest home to the endangered Bengal Tigers – but the very existence of the rural poor in the region. The Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests act as a giant breaker against cyclones and monsoon rains that increasingly threaten Bangladesh with storm surges and catastrophic flooding in this low-lying region.
Environmental destruction is making the seasonal monsoon flooding more destructive and climate change is boosting the amount of rain falling on the planet. Bangladesh is a floodplain mostly only 10 meters above sea level. The projected sea level rise of 1.5 meters this century will affect 17 million people in Bangladesh and its effects are already evident in the floods of 2007 which displaced 10 million people.
The Rampal power plant will take “219,600 cubic metres of water every day from the Passur river, potentially changing the salinity and temperature of the water on which mangroves depend” the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported (2 March 2016). Reporting on the Long March, the Guardian quotes Anu Muhammad, an economist and secretary of the Committee in Bangladesh: “No sensible person will deny that there are many alternative ways for electricity generation. But there is no alternative for the Sundarbans.”
The Committee, which unites left-wing parties in Bangladesh with local activists and cultural organisations, has been successful before. It organised protests against a multinational company which threatened to devastate the Phulbari region with an open-cast coal mining project. Three activists were killed during a mass movement which forced the Bangladesh government to refuse permission to the company in 2006. The Socialist newspaper carried several reports of this bloody struggle: Stop corporate plunder of the energy and power sector in Bangladesh
The Committee is now demanding that the Bangladesh government “immediately stop all kinds of vindictive activities against the Sundarbans” and the ending of the Rampal and other “Sundanbans-devastating projects” by the 15th of May. If the government fails to do so, the Committee threatens Dhaka with “sit-in, besiege, strike, blockade and other programs” as it builds support and publicity for a larger movement.
The UK branch of the Committee to Protect Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources in Bangladesh called a solidarity meeting in Tower Hamlets, London while the Long March was in progress.
Socialist Party member Akhter Khan, opening the meeting, said that on the one hand, “Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, has won the 2015 United Nations environmental award for ‘Champion of the Earth’”. On the other hand, “she is destroying Bangladesh’s environment and ecology by promoting this dirty coal-based energy plant jointly with the Indian government.”
Member secretary of the UK branch of the Committee, Akhter was a student organiser in the successful 1990 revolution in Bangladesh which overthrew the Ershad military junta. He declared that Sheikh Hasina has “capitulated to big brother India and big corporate power.”
As in Bangladesh, the UK Branch of the Committee brings together the UK representatives of the Bangladesh left parties and Bangladeshi activists. Committee member Syed Enam, leader of the UK branch of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, pointed out that the Rampal power project is an India-Bangladesh state owned project, not a privately owned enterprise. Syed explained that the capitalist class in Bangladesh is not willing to put up private money for this project.
A vast amount of the Sundarbans mangrove forest has already been destroyed, activists told the meeting, and the Rampal plant could lead to the total destruction of the mangrove forest. Activist Wali Rahman reported on the progress of the march, on the meetings being held at the towns on the way and the attempted police obstruction of the march. Sharial Bin Ali reported that the marchers are finding great support from local people and opposition to the Rampal project.
All activists present at the Committee meeting, which correctly operates by consensus, demanded that the desperate need for electricity of ordinary workers and the rural poor in Bangladesh cannot be met by destroying the environment, local species and livelihoods on which they depend. Development in the region must be sustainable.
Rumana Hashem of the Phulbari Solidarity committee explained the need for the generation of electricity through renewable energy such as solar power – Bangladesh has plenty of sunlight! There is a wealth of research that shows the feasibility of sustainable development through renewable energy, she said.
I expressed the Socialist Party’s solidarity with the long marchers at the Committee meeting. When youth unemployment went over one million in the UK, our youth, organised in Youth Fight for Jobs, marched 330 miles from Jarrow to London in 2011, following the tradition of the Jarrow March of 1936. I argued that in Bangladesh, state ownership of projects such as the Rampal power plant is unfortunately a means to enrich various governing family members and hangers on with kickbacks and privileges. It is a reflection of crony capitalism in Bangladesh, with very little regard for the public good.
“The only way to break crony capitalism is to demand genuinely socialist nationalisation, which means democratic workers’ control and management of the state owned industries, with a democratically drawn up plan of production to replace the anarchy of so-called ‘free market’ capitalism.
“If this seems unrealistic, look at the election success of Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant in Seattle and the campaign of Bernie Sanders in the USA, calling for a political revolution in the heartland of imperialist capitalism, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. A new page of history has opened up. Socialists need to raise a socialist programme of demands in this period as never before.”
Mostafa Farook, of the Socialist Party of Bangladesh, argued that in addition to campaigning on the immediate issues threatening the people of Bangladesh, we must link this to building a mass socialist alternative to the crony capitalist regime. Otherwise we will be forever fighting the crimes of the system.
The Committee then drew up a programme of activities. A protest outside the Bangladeshi embassy is planned with a cultural event. Local trade unions in the UK should be approached to ask for support for this protest and our supporters in India should also approach the trade unions there, as well as in Bangladesh itself to protest to their respective governments.
Pete Mason, Barking and Dagenham Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales)