Bangladesh is now officially scheduled to be classified as a developing country in 2026. The United Nations General Assembly at its 76th session adopted a historic resolution to graduate the country from the least-developed stage to the developing stage. This recognition of development came when the country was preparing to celebrate the golden jubilee of its independence. While power generation and supply are considered the driving factors behind this development process, the country’s development journey is not above criticism.
Environmentally harmful fossil fuels have been the main source of power generation in Bangladesh: almost two-thirds of the country’s power production depends on natural gas, while the rest comes from coal, liquid fuel and hydropower. The Power System Master Plan (PSMP) adopted in 2016 indicates a growing dependency on fossil fuels in the coming days, which contradicts the global call to “consign coal power to history” to keep the 1.5-degree-Celsius target within reach. It is also inconsistent with the pledges Bangladesh made as a signatory of the Paris Accords, as a leader of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), and as a proponent of the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (MCCP) to the global community at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).
The government’s future power generation plan is completely contrary to the country’s commitments to the global community against climate change.
Adjacent to the Sundarban, the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Rampal coal-fired power plant symbolises the future of power generation in Bangladesh. It is a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDM) being built by Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company (BIFPC). The power plant has been receiving resistance from national and international environmental activists and experts, who claim that the use of coal will destroy the biodiversity of the forest as well as traditional livelihoods of the millions of local communities dependent on the natural resources of the forest for their survival. Yet, environmental activism does not go without consequences in Bangladesh, a country under a ‘hybrid regime’. Threats and intimidation, physical assaults and imprisonments have become common mechanisms to control environmental activism in the country.
The master plan, quick rental and state-corporate complex
In its latest annual report for the fiscal year of 2019-2020, Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) claims that the power sector in Bangladesh has had implausible achievements in recent years. The report estimates that during the year, 1773 MW was added to the national grid, raising the total generation capacity to 20,383 MW, a 7.5 percent increase. Out of this new capacity, BPDB’s addition was 1033 MW. Similarly, the PSMP has incorporated a long-term plan targeting the capacity of 57,000 MW against the demand of 51,000 MW by 2041. The plan is consistent with the current government’s ‘Vision 2041’, with the aim of becoming among the developed countries by 2041.
On the other hand, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), in a January 2021 report, claimed that in the fiscal year 2019-20, Bangladesh’s overall power system utilisation had fallen to 40 percent, down from 43 percent in the previous year. The report estimated that the situation of under-utilisation, hence overcapacity, would be worse by the end of 2025 as another 21,000 MW would be added to the national grid.
This is supported by another study conducted by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in 2020. The study estimates that the amount of overcapacity was 9437 MW, 8806 MW, and 10216 MW on June 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. Both the IEEFA and the CPD studies predict that the country’s per-unit cost of power generation is likely to be increased due to capacity payments (payments from the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) on a contractual basis to Bangladesh’s independent power producers) made to plants lying idle, and due to increased reliance on imported fossil fuels. Consequently, the government will need to increase subsidies or power tariffs.
Environmental activism does not go without consequences in Bangladesh, a country under a ‘hybrid regime’.
Although the government argues that this excessive overcapacity is the result of economic stagnation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts had warned about the looming overcapacity long before the pandemic. In 1996, the Awami League government, under the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, approved the Private Sector Power Generation Policy of Bangladesh and signed a series of contracts with private corporations to produce electricity purportedly in order to address a severe power crisis. The government agreed to provide large amounts of subsidies to these privately owned power companies, known as ‘rental’ and ‘quick rental’ power plants, owned either by the members of the parliament or influential political and business figures attached to the current ruling party.
The government approved these contracts with the quick rental companies under the Power and Energy Fast Supply Enhancement (Special Provision) Act 2010 without considering any formal process of open tender. According to this controversial act, the government enjoyed sweeping powers to approve projects to generate, distribute and sell power. The act also helped the government escape compliance with 2006 legislation established to ensure transparency in public procurement. The quick-rental power-generation process was criticised by power experts and civil-rights activists on the following grounds: there was no mechanism to check whether the producers had any prior expertise in the power sector or not; the price of the quick rental power was comparatively high; and it allowed power producers to charge capacity payments despite zero production of power. This represents Bangladesh’s powerful state-corporate complex in the power sector, where politics and legislation are predominantly occupied by businessmen and the wealthy.
Bangladesh at COP26
While this article was being finalised, global leaders at COP26 agreed to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level, and to net zero around 2050, as well as make deep reductions in other greenhouse gases. The initial draft of the conference declaration had the commitment to “phase out” coal power for major economies by 2030 and globally by around 2040. Halting the construction of new coal power plants and the reduction of emissions from existing infrastructures were identified as top priorities. But the final version of the declaration adopted the term “phase down” instead of “phase out” due to pressures from India and China, among the top carbon-emitting countries in the world.
Bangladesh, as one of the worst victims of climate change, both signed and ratified the Paris Agreement and was recognised as the ‘Adaptation Capital of the World’ by international communities for its leadership position in community-based climate change adaptation efforts. The country joined COP26 as the president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) under the leadership of the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who urged the industrialised countries to fulfil their pledges to reduce carbon emission in the atmosphere and sanction USD 100 billion annual financial aid to less industrialised countries for climate-change adaptation and mitigation efforts that were promised earlier. She also claims that Bangladesh contributes only a small amount to global warming by emitting around 0.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, whereas the figure is 20 tonnes per person for the developed countries.
The situation of under-utilisation, hence overcapacity, would be worse by the end of 2025 as another 21,000 MW would be added to the national grid.
On 18 October 2021, just before COP26, Hasina published an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for a Climate Prosperity Plan instead of “empty pledges”. She argued that Bangladesh is “committed to leading the path to a solution” to tackle climate change “not only because we wish to avert the worst of climate change; it also makes economic sense.” According to her, “investing in zero-carbon growth is the best way to create jobs across the economy and ensure that our nation becomes more prosperous.” She commits that “we will enhance resilience, grow our economy, create jobs and expand opportunities for our citizens, using action on climate change as the catalyst.” However, the government’s future power generation plan is completely contrary to the country’s commitments to the global community against climate change.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Rampal project
Contrary to the pledges to fight against climate change, the government has decided to establish a 1320 MW coal power plant at Rampal upazila (sub-district) of Bagerhat district Khulna division beside the Pashur river. The government acquired 1834 acres of agricultural land in Satmari-Katakhali and Koigordashkathi areas of Lubachhora under Rampal upazila to establish the power plant. Only 86 acres are khash (government-owned fallow land) and the rest of the lands are privately owned, which has been used for rice and fish cultivation by the landowners. The government has also taken the initiative to dredge 10 kilometres of the Pashur river to allow easy access to Indian ships carrying coal for the plant. The government believes that establishing this power plant will be one of the significant initiatives to meet the growing demand for power in the country.
From its very beginnings, there has been staunch opposition to the project. The local communities of the three villages that will be displaced as a result of the project fear that the land acquisition necessary will jeopardise their main livelihood. Further, climate scientists, environmental activists and civil societies in the country and beyond warn that the power plant will be a major threat to the Sundarban and its biodiversity.
Just before COP26, Hasina published an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for a Climate Prosperity Plan instead of “empty pledges”.
According to the Environment Conservation Rules, 1997 (amended in 2002 and 2003), the Rampal plant falls under the ‘red category’, where an environmental clearance certificate from the Department of Environment (DoE) is obligatory. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Guidelines for Industries, 2021, directs that establishment of any industrial facilities should:
avoid unique habitat areas. Sites near or within ecologically and environmentally critical areas and habitats can cause irreversible damage and permanent loss of flora and fauna and ecosystems. The establishment of any industries/projects that pollute water, air, soil and noise are prohibited within the Ecologically Critical Area.
It also mentions that:
siting a facility along of a watercourse that has critical beneficial uses downstream such as, public water supply intake, fisheries (fishing, aquaculture, etc.) or basic riverine livelihood, is to be avoided where the potential for, or risk of, pollution from the facility is significant.
Activists fighting against the establishment of the power plant argue that this project violates both the Environmental Conservation Rules and EIA Guidelines for Industries. The government hired the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), a public trust under the Ministry of Water Resources, to conduct an EIA for this project. But the EIA faces widespread criticism for not maintaining standards and its lack of transparency. Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has quoted multiple violations of the guidelines in its report titled, ‘Rampal and Matarbari Power Projects: Governance Challenges in Environmental Impact Assessment and Land Acquisition’ released in April 2015.
Threat to biodiversity
The Sundarban, a Ramsar site and UNESCO World Heritage site, covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres. In Bangladesh, the forest covers a total area of 6017 square kilometres, the rest falls within Indian territory amounting to 4260 square kilometres. This tidal forest is rich in natural resources, especially floral and faunal diversity. It is also the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, an endangered species and the national animal of both Bangladesh and India. Further, around 3.5 million people directly and indirectly depend on the Sundarban for their livelihoods.
This project could significantly alter the mangrove ecosystem and the food chain. Take, for example, the leaves of the Keora trees, which may be affected due to sulphur injuries from the power plant. The impact would not be confined just to the Keora trees. Spotted deers of the Sundarban depend on the leaves of the Keora trees, which in turn would have an impact on Royal Bengal Tigers as well. The loss of the Sundarban will not only endanger the lives of different flora and fauna, but also make local communities vulnerable in terms of their livelihoods and protection from frequent cyclones.
Climate scientists, environmental activists and civil societies in the country and beyond warn that the power plant will be a major threat to the Sundarban and its biodiversity.
While the government labels the critics as enemies of development, the protesters point out that the government is implementing this project in favour of India by neglecting national and international laws. It is ironic that the Indian company NTPC Limited, a partner of the Rampal project, would not be able to implement such a project in its own country due to EIA guidelines imposed by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Seeped in controversy
The Rampal project has become one of the most controversial development projects in contemporary Bangladesh. Critics of the project argue that the government should pursue alternative mechanisms for power generation or, if the government is determined, relocate the project to save the Sundarban. The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports (NCBD) has taken a leading position against the Rampal project. The committee, composed of academics, students, politicians and human-rights activists, have organised marches, rallies, strikes, seminars and symposiums, street plays and research report publications. They have also organised conferences in countries like Germany and France to inform international communities. However, the government does not pay heed to the resistance and protesters are often imprisoned.
The protesters point out that the government is implementing this project in favour of India by neglecting national and international laws.
It is clear that Bangladesh needs rapid power generation to achieve sustained socio-economic development. But Bangladesh must take into account the consequences of power generation on human settlements and natural biodiversity. The establishment of the Rampal coal plant reminds us that Bangladesh is not on the right track in power generation.
The Sundarban already suffers from various climate-change events: sea-level rise, water salinity and frequent cyclones. The loss of the mangroves will also create a huge burden on the country’s economy. Moreover, the government could consider alternative mechanisms to generate power. Political economy and geopolitics seem to be the main reason for which the government is determined to establish this project. Among the international community, India remains the most enthusiastic backer of the current ‘hybrid regime’, which stands to gain from the project as a significant amount of coal will be imported from India (coal will be imported from Indonesia, Australia, and South Africa too). The irony is that establishing coal-power plants is not permitted within 25 kilometres of a natural setting in India. Therefore, it is important to continue the protest against the Rampal power plant and raise awareness about the negative consequences of the coal-based power generation policy in Bangladesh. It is particularly important for the continued existence of the Sundarban. It is also important to ensure energy justice and environmental justice for the poor and marginalised people who depend on the country’s natural resources for their livelihoods.
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