Nidheesh J Villatt | November 18, 2016 7:38 pm
Reliance and Adani look to gain from the project which is funded by the Indian taxpayer and is near the world’s largest mangrove forests which in itself is endangered.
Anu Muhammad, a professor of Economics at the Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, is regarded as one of the seniormost radical public intellectuals in his country. Professor Muhammad is also the member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. He was in India recently, seeking the support of people in India against a proposed power project in the vicinity of the Sundarbans, the already endangered world’s largest mangrove forests.
Locally known as Rampal power project, a joint venture between India and Bangladesh, it has created tremendous resentment in the affected areas. In a chat with Nidheesh J. Villatt, Professor Muhammad says the project will destroy the Sundarbans. He says Indian and Bangladeshi big business would make a huge profit at the cost of the camaraderie between the people of two countries.
Nidheesh J. Villatt: Why are the people of Bangladesh vehemently opposing the Rampal power project?
Prof. Anu Muhammad: The Rampal power project, officially known as the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project, is a joint venture between the NTPC of India and the BPDB of Bangladesh. It’s proposed in the vicinity of the Sundarbans. As several studies by international (including a UNESCO study) and local experts pointed out, this project would permanently damage the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest as well as the only protection barrage of the southern part of Bangladesh.
To be honest, Sunderbans is the last forest left out in Bangladesh. Authorities would say there are forests in other regions of Bangladesh like the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In reality forests in those regions exist only in paper. Massive encroachment by corporates has vanished forests.
Around 3 to 4 million people in Bangladesh, traditional forest-dwellers, and fish workers depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood. The proposed coal-fired plant can ruin their livelihood. Add to this, 5 million people who live in the vicinity of the Indian portion of the Sundarbans. It’s going to generate a big crisis.
Coming back to the struggle in Bangladesh, it’s growing into a massive movement. One could say it’s an unparalleled struggle in the contemporary history of Bangladesh. Soon after the announcement about the Rampal project, there was a flourishing of commercial activities in the surrounding area. There are well-planned attempts to buy off the land from the peasantry in these regions.
People of Bangladesh have great gratitude to India for playing an important role in our liberation war in 1971. But some of the recent actions from the Indian side are alienating Bangladeshi people from India. For instance, construction of the Farakka dam, other upcoming dam projects, unfair trade agreements, and loan terms, etc are creating resentment against India. The announcement of the Rampal project has accelerated this ill-feeling. This is primarily because this project can permanently damage the Sundarbans. This can also permanently damage the Indo-Bangladesh friendship.
Villatt: Can you tell us more about the political mobilisation that’s happening in Bangladesh against the project?
Muhammad: Apart from Bangladeshi big business and close collaborators of the ruling dispensation led by Awami League, all sections of people are opposing the project. Physical participation in the struggle is awesome. Cutting across age groups, people actually participate in the movement. There are several student and youth movements that were spontaneously formed to support the movement. People use all forms of communication strategies to register their protest including theatre and poetry. Social media is also creatively used.
The National Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port Protection Committee is coordinating the struggle. Different Communist parties and progressive social movements are actively involved. Progressive writers and artists are at the forefront of the struggle. Unprecedented support from masses has created fissures even among the rank and file of the ruling Awami League. In several cases, ordinary supporters of Awami Leauge are supporting us. This is in spite of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina taking an authoritarian position within the Awami League. The prime minister is vehemently campaigning for the project and is in not a mood to entertain dissent. But people are deserting her. There is growing resentment against Hasina even in armed forces and police. This October, we had organized a march to Indian High Commission in Dhaka. We wanted to give a representation to the Indian prime minister through High Commissioner. Police prevented the march and unleashed brutal violence on peaceful protesters. In a touching gesture, a policeman gave water to an injured protester at the spot. The policeman said that several people like him in the police force are emotional with protesters.
Villatt: What is the role played by mainstream opposition parties like BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh?
Muhammad: BNP and Jamaat are conspicuously silent. Both are keen to be in the good books of the Indian establishment. But I don’t deny that they might shrewdly try to capitalize on the growing resentment. Since it is an Indian funded project, the issue is politically sensitive. We are very clear that we want to maintain the historically warm relation we have with the people of India. Progressive and democratic individuals and social movements from India are also opposing it. While governments of India and Bangladesh are trying to push it undemocratically, people of two countries shall unite and struggle together to protect the Sundarbans. Our movement is not an anti-India movement but anti-corporate and anti-destructive movement.
Villatt: As you said most expert studies hinted that this power plant would permanently damage the Sundarbans. Then why is the Bangladesh government pushing for it?
Muhammad: The Bangladesh government is dancing to the tune of Indian and Bangladesh big business. Big corporates are keen to encroach on the fertile land of the Sundarbans. Once the plant gets operationalized whole forest area would be systematically privatized. Big business groups close to the Bangladeshi prime minister are actively involved in suppressing people’s protest also.
It is very important to understand the role and vested interests of Indian big business in this project. Technically NTPC, an Indian public sector unit is responsible for planning, building, and operating the project. All matters related to engineering, procurement, and construction of the power plant would be looked at by BHEL, another Indian PSU. Exim Bank, a bank wholly owned by the Government of India, is financing the project. To be precise, public funds from India are going to be pumped here. But Indian big business groups like Reliance and Adani have signed MoUs with the Bangladeshi government to operate power and energy projects in the vicinity of the project area. What does it mean? Indian public money would be used to fund a project that would permanently damage the Sundarbans as well as the camaraderie between people of two countries. At the same time, Indian corporates like Reliance and Adani would reap a huge profit. It’s anti-people in all senses.
Villatt: You are quite successfully leading the movement against the plant. How hostile has the government been to you?
Muhammad: When it comes to rhetoric, the Bangladeshi government led by the Awami League is completely against terrorism and fundamentalism. But Bangladeshi intelligence agencies have unholy nexus with Islamic fundamentalist groups. Intelligence agencies use these groups to eliminate political rivals. I too have got a death threat from a self-claimed Islamist fundamentalist group on October 13. I was threatened with death if I’m continuing with the movement against the power project. I have complained to the police. Even after two months, the investigation is nowhere. Death threats or actual killings cannot stop us from fighting for justice.
Nidheesh J Villatt reports on political economy, rural affairs, and human rights. He tweets @NidheeshJV