Voices of Sun­dar­bans

A pro­posed coal plant near the Sun­dar­bans, the world’s largest man­grove for­est, has many in Bangladesh in an up­roar, but it’s ac­tivists’ songs that are loud­est of them all, writes Ari­tra Bhat­tacharya

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he Bangladesh gov­ern­ment’s plan to build a mas­sive 1,320 megawatt coal-fired power plant within kilo­me­tres of the Sun­dar­bans, a Unesco world her­itage site, has been fac­ing stiff re­sis­tance from lo­cal res­i­dents, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists and in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions. But it is cul­tural groups and ac­tivists who have been in­stru­men­tal in get­ting thou­sands of cit­i­zens to the streets ral­ly­ing to save the world’s largest man­grove for­est and bio­di­ver­sity hotspot.

Since 2011, when the project was an­nounced, these groups have taken the “Save the Sun­dar­bans” mes­sage to uni­ver­si­ties and pub­lic spa­ces, en­sur­ing the strug­gle did not stay lim­ited to the nar­row ge­o­graph­i­cal con­fines of the pro­posed plant site or ex­perts who are crit­i­cal of it.

“These cul­tural groups have been cru­cial in coun­ter­ing con­tin­u­ous gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda on and around the pro­posed plant,” says Anu Muhammed, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at Ja­hangir­na­gar Univer­sity and mem­ber sec­re­tary of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Oil, Gas, Nat­u­ral Re­sources, Power and Ports. “The main­stream media here re­fuses to carry any news crit­i­cal of the plant ow­ing to gov­ern­ment pres­sure, if not out­right al­le­giance to the rul­ing dis­pen­sa­tion,” he says. “In such a sce­nario, cul­tural groups have un­der­taken the im­por­tant work of reach­ing out to peo­ple with the truth, thus broad­en­ing and strength­en­ing the strug­gle.”

Protests erupted among lo­cals in Khulna, the area of the pro­posed plant, soon af­ter the Bangladesh Power De­vel­op­ment Board (BPDB) signed an agree­ment with In­dia’s state-owned Na­tional Ther­mal Power Cor­po­ra­tion (NTPC) in 2010. Ac­cord­ing to it, the two en­ti­ties will im­ple­ment the project on a 50:50 eq­uity ba­sis, with NTPC be­ing re­spon­si­ble for build­ing and op­er­at­ing the plant. The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment main­tains that the plant will not ad­versely af­fect the world’s largest man­grove for­est or the four mil­lion peo­ple de­pen­dent on it. It has also said the im­port of high-qual­ity coal to run the plant, a 275-me­ter-high chim­ney and state-of-the art tech­nol­ogy will en­sure the im­pact on the environment is “neg­li­gi­ble”. But en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and ac­tivists are not buy­ing that claim. Sharif Jamil, joint sec­re­tary of the environment group Bangladesh Poribesh An­dolon, says the gov­ern­ment has hired ex­perts and con­sul­tants to talk in favour of the Ram­pal power plant. Oth­ers, such as Sul­tana Ka­mal, con­vener of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee for Sav­ing the Sun­dar­bans and an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist, says those speak­ing in favour of the plant are “driven by their own in­ter­ests”.

The project has run into trou­ble with the courts and in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions, too. In 2011, a bench of Bangladesh High Court asked the gov­ern­ment “why the con­struc­tion of the plant should not be de­clared il­le­gal”. In Au­gust 2016, Unesco called on the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment to halt the project. It asked the power de­vel­op­ment board to sub­mit a re­vised en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment (EIA) re­port since the one submitted ear­lier to se­cure ap­proval vi­o­lated EIA guide­lines.

“These are things we tell the peo­ple via songs and other cul­tural forms, even as the gov­ern­ment spends crores on pro­pa­ganda to mis­lead them,” says Muhammad, who has him­self writ­ten a song, Amra Boli Shor­bo­jon, Tomra Balo Un­nayan (We say ev­ery­one, you say de­vel­op­ment).

TSome of the left­ist cul­tural groups and bands that are part of the team work­ing on the Sun­dar­ban is­sue, such as Sa­m­ageet, So­ho­jia, Madal and Leela, have sung and per­formed in sup­port of var­i­ous move­ments against land grab, coal plants, oil ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion. Many of them have also been as­so­ci­ated with the Na­tional Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Oil, Gas, Nat­u­ral Re­sources, Power and Ports for sev­eral years.

Sa­m­ageet (songs of/ for equal­ity) is one of the groups that started work­ing on the Sun­dar­bans is­sue as soon as the Na­tional Com­mit­tee de­cided in 2011, af­ter analysing the pro­posed bilateral ven­ture and con­sult­ing ex­perts, that it would join and broaden the lo­cal re­sis­tance against the plant. Four independent units of Sa­m­ageet – in Dhaka, Narayan­ganj, Chat­togram, and Ra­jshahi Univer­sity in Chat­togram – started bring­ing up the threat to the Sun­dar­bans in their con­certs, per­for­mances, art works and in­stal­la­tions.

The fifth unit, a band-like group, took on In­dia’s big-broth­erly in­ter­fer­ence in Bangladesh’s af­fairs. In per­for­mances at uni­ver­si­ties and civil-so­ci­ety gath­er­ings, they dis­missed In­dia’s claim of help­ing a poor neigh­bour­ing coun­try set up a much needed

I did make a con­scious de­ci­sion to speak about things openly with Amra Boli, but also with an­other forth­com­ing al­bum of my own songs … Such are the times we live in that I feel if I don’t speak out openly, I can’t call my­self an artist

Anusheh Anadil singer

Anik Rah­man / NurPhoto; Getty Images

Pro­test­ers rally against the pro­posed Ram­pal power plant, which will be just a few kilo­me­tres away from the Sun­dar­bans. Ac­cord­ing to the Unesco, the project threat­ens the man­groves’ en­dan­gered tigers and dol­phin species. Be­low, a fish­er­man on the river be­tween Joy­muni vil­lage and the Sun­dar­bans.

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