Sundarbans are threatened by India’s export of coal powered energy to Bangladesh

Rampal coal fired power plant project site

At a time when India has shelved several planned coal power plants across many of its states, it is constructing a new coal power plant to supply electricity to energy starved Bangladesh. Located at the edge of the Sundarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests shared by India and Bangladeshand a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rampal power plant in Bangladesh’s Khulna districtis the result of a joint venture between the two countries state owned power companies, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. Together the companies have nearly 30 % equity stake in the project and the remaining money comes from loans provided by India’s Exim Bank.The choice of location for the project is influenced by the nearby river Pashur,water from which will be used for running the plant.

The ill effects of the under-construction power plant are already visible. Close to 2000 acres of farmland has been cleared for setting up of the project. Traditional lifestyles and occupations such as shrimp farming and honey collection haveendedabruptly.Theplant based on the obsolete Supercritical / ultra-supercritical technology, once operational, will belch copious quantities of greenhouse gases and have an immediate deleterious impact on the surroundings. Effluents will be emptied into the Pashur River and the crocodile habitats will be destroyed. Toxic fly ash will be dumped in land fill sites. Heavy metal from coal waste will eventually leach into the water table and creep into the food chain.

Most crucially, this power plant spells certain death for the unique Sundarbans which is home to numerous species of flora and fauna, its most famous inhabitant being the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. Unsurprisingly, the pristine Pashur River itself is threatened since an estimated 4.72 million tons of coal per year will be transported across it in order to feed the coal plant. A number of coal carrying barges have already capsized in it.

Apart from the questionable location of theRampalpower plant, its economic viability is also subject to serious doubt. Coal appears increasingly unviable in India. Many coal based power plants have become unsustainable due to poor quality domestically sourced coal coupled with slack electricity demand and the rising cost of imported coal. Indian coal contains high ash content of around 30 to 45 % and on combustion leaves behind a huge residue of fly ash. As a result, the country often resorts to importing superior quality coal from places such as Australia, Indonesia, and America, in order to feed the coal plants and to keep then sustainable and running if not profitable.

News reports indicate that the Rampal power plant too shall operate on expensive imported coal.Pertinently, several of India’s existing coal power plantsalready face a severe fuel shortage. Many of them may not be revived without a steady supply of coal that Coal India, the state owned coal giant, has been unable to provide, and are at risk of ending up as stranded assets. The rise of cheap renewable energy has also contributed to this phenomenon.A 2016 report by the US based think tank Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis warns thatin such a scenario operationalising the Rampal power plant means that the it could also be a potential stranded asset.The report further points out that the project is highly subsidized by Indian taxpayers’ money and evades the country’s prohibition of constructing a coal power plant within the 25 kms of the Sundarbans. It also states that the Bangladeshi consumer will end up paying 30% more per each unit of electricity.

Furthermore, the lifespan of the power plant is likely to be shortened to 25 years instead of the intended 75 years due to the impact of the weather since it lies ina severe cyclone zone and the substandardmaterial being used for construction.This leads one to question the very rationale behind construction of such a power plant.

The project, apart from its impact on the climate, has resulted in other unintended consequences. There is an unofficial gag on protests by residents of the area and other concerned citizens. Interaction with government officials and affected people, both in India and Bangladesh, is next to impossible. Compensation given to those displaced by the project is inadequate. Livelihoods have been decimated.

The Rampal project also raises questions on India’s credibility and promiseto stick to its climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement. The Nationally Determined Contributions submitted by India under the Agreement state the country’s goal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and by 2030 derive 40% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources and there have been significant gains in the field of renewable energy with costs declining manifold over the past few years.

This internecine partnership between the India and Bangladesh is a blow to the Sundarbansshared by them. Instead of exporting dirty energy to a neighbouring country, the Government of India ought to have utilised clean cheap renewables powered energy. This would have demonstrated its commitment towards fighting climate change and inspired other countries to follow suit.

Zeenat Masoodi is a Lawyer living in Srinagar
email id: [email protected]

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