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Sundarbans’ activists are against the upcoming NTPC power plant in the area

Local activists said that with the assurance of cheap power from the project, over 300 industrial units, 190 within ECA, had made a beeline to the area. "Had you visited the region a few years back, you would've found a different Poshur," Jamil said.

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A diesel ferry cuts through the Poshur river -- the lifeline of Sundarbans -- with travelers watching its heavily industrialized bank, which is rapidly increasing at the cost of world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest. wikimedia commons
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A diesel ferry cuts through the Poshur river — the lifeline of Sundarbans — with travelers watching its heavily industrialized bank, which is rapidly increasing at the cost of world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest.

Activists are looking with a wary eye at the upcoming 1,320 MW coal-based power project being set up by India’s NTPC, a mere 14 km north of the Sundarban Reserve Forests and four kilometres from the Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), which they say would pose a threat to the wildlife and dependent communities.

The Maitree Super Thermal Power Project at Rampal in Khulna division is being constructed in an area of over 1,832 acres on the eastern bank of Poshur. In August 2010, a pact was signed between India and Bangladesh to set up the project.

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While journalists and protestors are not allowed near the project, a small group of visiting journalists from India could see for themselves the massive erosion, waterless canals, huge waterway traffic, oil spills and major infrastructure coming up along the river.

Some 10 km before the busy Mongla Port is a broad 5.5 km-long road west of the Mongla-Khulna highway that goes to the project site. Around this road there were some 5,000 families which were displaced, we are told.

Sushanto Das, one of the land owners in Bagerhat district, lost over 33 acres of land. “My house was burned down by the local goon with support of the local Member of Parliament. I approached the court. Now they don’t even allow us to protest at the site,” he told IANS from his residence in Ranjitpur, a town between Khulna and Sunderbans.

As per official count, Sundarbans had 180 tigers in 2015. Now, those in the area are under threat.
NTPC Ramagundam, wikimedia commons

At places, the river, along this special economic zone, has become much broader because of excessive erosion of its banks. Ferrymen say that because of this, the Poshur is becoming more aggressive. The western bank, where forest communities dwell and ECA begins, is also being industrialized.

A 2016 joint report by the governments of India and Bangladesh — and supported by the world bank — on the status of tigers in the Sundarbans, a copy of which is with IANS, criticized this coal-fired project, saying it would further “exacerbate the problem” of climate change, pollution and tiger conservation. As per official count, Sundarbans had 180 tigers in 2015. Now, those in the area are under threat.

The report, which labels vessels plying on the Poshur as “mobile bombs”, reminds everyone of the December 2014 incident when 358,000 liters of oil spilled into the Sela.

Spread across 10,000 sq km — of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh — the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. For Bangladesh, it accounts for 44 per cent of its forest area, generating 50 percent of the forest revenue from tourism, fishery and the sale of honey.

A wetland of global importance, the ecosystem saves the inlands from cyclones, stabilizes sediments and makes the region a nursery of major fisheries, playing a key role in food security.

“All this stand threatened. The power plant is located to make best use of the river but existing power industries are already discharging effluents into the river and ash in the atmosphere,” Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, Professor Environment Science at Khulna University, told IANS, warning of a micro-climate change altering different patches of the Sundarbans.

With warming of water, Chowdhury observed that soil quality had dropped and salinity in the area had increased over time, threatening its flora and fauna. “The government doesn’t check how natural resources are being overexploited. The DoE (Department of Environment) gives license to industries under pressure,” Chowdhury said.

UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global organization, have already raised an alarm over the Rampal project. “There is only one Sundarbans in the world, once destroyed, no amount of money could replicate it,” he said.

The $1.6 billion power project is controlled by Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd (BIFPCL), a 2012 private venture comprising India’s NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB). India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) is constructing the plant which is scheduled to start operations in 2019.

Spread across 10,000 sq km -- of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh -- the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
NTPC logo, wikimedia commons

Queries sent to NTPC and BIFPCL went unanswered.

Ironically, India plans to phase out coal-power and not sanction any new project after 2022.

While the Bangladesh government has judged the project location to be at a “safe” distance from the mangrove forest, facts suggest otherwise.

According to a Bangladesh’s Department of Environment (DoE) document, available with IANS, several “red-category” industries — oil refinery, ship building, cement, gas cylinder, brick kilns, LPG, saw mills and

others — operate deep within the ECA across Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhir districts. Also, a railway line is being set up there to import coal from West Bengal to Jessore.

The Bangladesh government in 1999 declared a 10 km radius from the reserve forest as ECA. However, DoE permitted setting up of over 190 industries, located 1.5 to 9 km from the forest reserve, of which 24 units are listed as “Red” or “extremely harmful”, 63 are “Orange (A)” or “harmful” and 103 are “Orange (B)” or “less-harmful”. Not a single industry within ECA is “Green” or “safe”.

According to environment experts, heavy industrialization in the region had blocked canals, eroded the banks and sunk several villages. “Over 50,000 people suffered, mostly from the minority Hindu community, and many have migrated to India,” environmentalist Sharif Jamil from Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (BAPA) told IANS.

Local activists said that with the assurance of cheap power from the project, over 300 industrial units, 190 within ECA, had made a beeline to the area. “Had you visited the region a few years back, you would’ve found a different Poshur,” Jamil said.

Sundarbans has thousands of interconnected canals which balances the pressure on the main river.

“Industries level those canals, putting extra pressure on the river, causing erosion,” Jamil said, adding that Banishanta, Laudob, Shelabuniya, Amtali, Sindurtala, Kalabari and Joymoni areas suffered the maximum erosion.

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“Crocodile nestings have vanished from Joymoni near Mongla, tiger too,” Professor Chowdhury said, adding that a “proper study” was difficult since the government doesn’t allow it.

According to academicians in Dhaka, an anti-India feeling is slowly taking shape. Some locals who were affected told IANS that they had got death and rape threats and were attacked by musclemen while protesting. Several refused to talk. Many cases have landed in the courts.

“We approached the Left parties in India too for help. But D. Raja (National Secretary of the Communist Party of India) told us that they cannot help as Bangladesh itself had asked for it (the power plant),” Anu Muhammad, Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, told IANS. He was later denied a visa to attend a conference in New Delhi. Even a tourist visa to India was declined. (IANS)

 

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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Rohingya, myanmar
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

Rohingya, myanmar
Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

Rohingya, myanmar
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)