Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Grand Joint Misadventure

An NTPC power plant at the edge of the Sunderbans is the worst advertisement for Indo-Bangladesh ties

THIS MAY sound familiar. A government acquiring land for a mega project even before the court has decided on its merit, or its impact on the environment and local communities has been assessed. Till we come to the dumbfounding bit: the location of this 1,320 MW coal-based power plant. The $1.5 billion project is coming up just 9 km from the Sunderbans, one of the earth’s rarest ecosystems and a UNESCO world heritage site. The project site is on the Bangladesh side of the vibrant mangrove delta but it is going to be run on Indian coal by National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), one of India’s Navratna companies.
It all began in 2010 with an MoU between NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDP) for setting up a power plant in Bangladesh’s Bagerhat district. The site, perilously close to the Sunderbans and about 60 km from the Indo-Bangla border, was apparently chosen because of its proximity to the Mongla port, convenient for importing coal required for the plant.

In 2011, Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) moved the high court, which issued a stay order on the project only to withdraw it temporarily following a petition by the Attorney General. Then the Department of Environment (DoE) issued a primary location clearance, subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) study. Bangladesh had paid NTPC $2,50,000 in 2010 for conducting a feasibility study. The report submitted in April 2011 did not include any EIA.

Instead, Bangladesh allocated the equivalent of Rs 25 crore to acquire 1,834 acres in three villages of Lubachora in Rampal. Since January 2012, according to local media reports, Rs 1 crore (Tk Rs 2.5 crore) worth has already been distributed among 67 landowners. Then, on 29 January, NTPC Chairman Arup Roy Chowdhury and BPDB Chairman ASM Alamgir Kabir signed a 50:50 joint venture (JV) agreement. Already, the authorities are preparing to dredge 10 km of the Poshur river for easier access to ships carrying coal for the plant.

All this while a final court verdict is awaited, an EIA study yet to be commissioned and the funding of the project uncertain. Under the JV agreement, BPDP and NTPC will finance 15 percent each of the $1.5 billion project and the rest will be funded by loans. But international funding agencies such as World Bank do not finance projects without EIA clearances.

On its website, NTPC highlights its “commitment to environment”. But its Sunderbans plant will burn lakhs of tonnes of coal and spew massive amounts of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide (Indian coal is very high on sulphur content) and fly ash. The plant will discharge used hot water in the Poshur river, polluting the entire water system, the lifeline of the Sunderbans, downstream. A coal plant’s sludge waste contains hazardous metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

The cumulative impact on the flora and fauna of the Sunderbans will be devastating. The livelihood and health of 20,000 local fishermen, and possibly many more across the delta, will also be jeopardised.

“Indian laws will not allow such a project so close to the Sunderbans or, for that matter, any tiger reserve or biological hotspot. This plant may have serious consequences for the entire Sunderbans ecology, which is a shared heritage and cannot be managed in isolation. It is surprising that the project is moving ahead without a thorough EIA,” says PK Sen, former director of Project Tiger.

The NTPC website claims the plant will use “super critical technology” to “minimise pollution and environmental damage”. But that does not begin to reflect the impact of that minimised damage on the Sunderbans.

Contacted by TEHELKA, NTPC twice sought “more time” and is yet to answer queries on the project’s EIA, funding and threat potential. It is busy celebrating the “landmark in bilateral economic cooperation” which, if implemented, will result in an ecological disaster, a landmark Indo-Bangla ties would do well to avoid.

BY :  Jay Mazoomdaar.