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
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
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.