Around Rampal near the Sunderbans in southern Bangladesh, the water seems to get muddy both literally and figuratively. For the past five years, Rampal has become synonymous with a controversial coal-based power plant currently under construction.

Construction work on the first phase of the 1,200 MW power plant, a joint venture between Bangladesh and India, is well on course to be finished by December. In process, the waters of the Poshur river have got muddied because of the mega plant.

The controversy that has hung over the project from the very onset got a new dimension a few months ago when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage Committee decided not to include the Sundarbans on its World Heritage in Danger list.

A new proposal to keep the Sunderbans – the world’s largest mangrove forest – out of the World Heritage in Danger list had been made by China, Cuba and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the meeting held in Azerbaijan’s Baku from June 30-July 10. Later, 15 countries, including observer member India, made statements in favour of the proposal.

At a previous meeting in Krakow, Poland, the World Heritage Committee changed a “definitive” clause in a report about the region into a “vague” one subject to open interpretation, critics contend. Over the past year, the Bangladesh government used that ambiguity to build arguments to continue the construction of the plant under a joint India-Bangladesh initiative in spite of a massive public outcry against the project.

Tawfique-E-Elahi Chowdhury, the Energy Advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who led the Bangladeshi delegation at Baku, told journalists at a press conference on his return that the World Heritage Committee had not removed the Sunderbans from the potential World Heritage in Danger list merely on a whim. “UNESCO has withdrawn its objection because of our reasonable arguments and practical reasons,” he said.

Since that July 11 press conference, there has been a virtual media blackout about the Rampal power plant in Bangladesh.

Unique ecosystem

The Committee had included the Sunderbans on its World Heritage List in 1997 because of its universal value as a unique ecosystem. Over the past few years, the Committee had expressed its concern over the state of conservation of the mangrove forest. Among the reasons its worry, it said, was the decision by Bangladesh government to construct the coal-based Rampal plant in the area.

In March 2016, a UNESCO team visited Bangladesh to review potential impacts from the construction of the Rampal power plant, assess risks from climate change and evaluate the overall management system of the Sunderbans, including provisions around shipping safety.

It had some queries about the impact of the Rampal power plant would potentially have on the ecosystem of the Sunderbans and asked the Bangladesh government to submit a report on the matter.

Just over a week after the Bangladesh government submitted its 63-page report, the heritage committee on October 18, 2016, said that it would put the Sunderbans in the World Heritage in Danger list.

It also noted that “any large-scale industrial and/or infrastructure development (including the Rampal power plant) is not allowed to proceed near the Sunderbans before the Strategic Environmental Assessment has been completed”.

But curiously, after the meeting in Krakow in 2017, the Committee removed the clause inside the brackets that specifically mentioned the Rampal plant.

This has allowed the Bangladesh government to claim that the plant did not pose a danger to the Sunderbans since the forest had been removed from the Heritage in Danger list. The government said that since there was no mention of Rampal in the Committee’s report, there is technically no problem in going ahead with the project.

Moral fault

Environmentalists and activists say that while there are seemingly no legal or logical flaws in the government’s claim, there is a huge moral fault in it.

Anu Muhammad, the member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, one of several anti-Rampal platforms, said that the World Heritage Committee has asked the government to stop all large-scale industrial and infrastructure development near the Sunderbans.

“If a multi-billion dollar coal based mega power plant project doesn’t fall under the category of ‘large-scale industrial project’, I don’t know which one will,” Muhammad said. “If the government wants to remain blind about Rampal, it can remain so. But that doesn’t prove them to be right morally.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka