The Sundarbans and our guiltless sleep
by Tibra Ali for AlalODulal.org
In the south-west of Bangladesh stand the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarbans are home to countless unique species and varieties of animal and plant life, the most famous of which is the Royal Bengal Tiger that graces all the official emblems of Bangladesh. The Sundarbans are criss-crossed by rivers and tributaries, and because of their proximity to the Bay of Bengal, this is where the saline water of the Bay mingles with the fresh-water coming down from the Ganges. The water-level of the Sundarbans fluctuate with the rising and falling of the tides, and in this watery environment grows the sundari trees whose roots throw up breathers that can breathe even when the rest of the root system is under water. Many believe that the Sundarbans are named after these sundari trees – a marvelous play on words since in Bengali sundari also means ‘a beautiful woman’ and bans means forests, and so Sundarbans literally means ‘beautiful forests’.
And beautiful they are to those who have been lucky enough to visit them. Beautiful and mysterious… As you walk through the forest, in many places devoid of any grass or undergrowth due to the periodic invasion of the tide, you can’t help but notice that the keora trees all have leaves starting at a particular height. It is as if someone had gone around the forests carefully trimming all the trees so that the leaves and branches don’t stoop below a certain height. This mystery is solved once you realize that amongst the denizens of this forest is the spotted deer and that these herbivores have learned how to stand on their hind legs and feed on the leaves of the keora trees – and thus the forest have been trimmed at certain height related to the average size of the deer.
No one knows exactly when but many centuries ago tigers from the north came down to the Sundarbans and made it their home. Some say they arrived as a result of flooding, floating on trees. These so-called man eaters (who in reality would rather avoid human beings) have learned to adapt to their new home by learning how to swim. These tigers have disappeared from the rest of Asia and now the Sundarbans are the last refuge of these majestic beasts. The tigers are so feared in the forest by the other animals that they have developed interspecies collaborations to protect themselves from the tigers. In the Sundarbans you will see monkeys, wild roosters and deer grazing together in groups in order to increase their chances of survival in case of a tiger attack.
The Sundarbans are so beautiful and magical, and so full of natural wonders that the UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. A World Heritage Site, as the name suggests, is a site that is so unique and beautiful that it is considered to be a treasure for the entire world. The Sundarbans are the only natural World Heritage Site in Bangladesh. So, in a sense, we have been given the stewardship of one of the natural wonders of this earth that is increasingly becoming bereft of natural wonders.
The Sundarbans have a complex and unique ecological system, but it is more than that. It is also a natural dam that protects the soft delta landmass of Bangladesh from washing away into the Bay of Bengal. Historically it has also provided protection against the frequent cyclones that nature periodically hurls at Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal. And lastly, not least, the Sundarbans are also home to many pockets of rural communities who have developed unique ways of life dependent on the functioning and regenerating forest.
However, human greed and corruption are threatening the existence of this forest.
Responding ostensibly to the insatiable need for power to drive the engine for economic development, the Bangladesh Government has given the go-ahead for a coal-based 1320 mega-watt power-plant to be constructed at Rampal, about 14 kilometers from the Sundarbans.
From the very beginning, this power plant has been a shady and opaque business. The land for this proposed plant was have been forcefully taken from local farmers and fish-farmers in 2010 long before the project was officially approved in 2013. The contract to construct the power-plant has been given to the Indian state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which is to run the power-plant jointly with the Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB).
As mentioned above, the proposed site of the power-plant is about 14 km from the Sundarbans. However, in India a recent proposal to build a power-plant by the same NTPC at Chhattisgarh was rejected by the Government of India because according to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for that project no coal-burning power-plant should be constructed within 25 km with an environmentally sensitive area. So, it would seem that what the NTPC can’t get away with in India, it can get away with in Bangladesh.
Although the EIA produced for the proposed plant at Rampal says that the plant would be only 14 km away from the Sundarbans, given the guideline that there should be at least a 10 km buffer zone between an ecologically sensitive area like the Sunderbans and any construction site, the distance between the forest and the proposed power-plant is further reduced to just several kilometers. For more details see here.
This EIA, produced by the Department of Environment of Bangladesh, have been severely and rightly criticized for being inconsistent and self-contradictory. A detailed critique of the EIA can be found here and here. However, all that needs to be said here is that the miracle by which the Department of Energy EIA has found a way to justify the building of the power-plant right next to the Sundarbans is by a semantic trick: the Sundarbans are classified in the EIA as a “residential and rural area” rather than an ecologically sensitive area! The Bangladesh bureaucracy, usually so stodgy and boring, becomes so imaginative when it sees an opportunity to sell the country short.
The truth is there has not been any comprehensive and credible EIA conducted by the government. Usually EIAs are conducted before the go ahead of a project is given, but in the case of the proposed Rampal power-plant it was issued after the decision was already taken. Thus the government EIA is little more than eyewash.
However, there has been two independent studies by two Bangladeshi academics, Dr. Abdullah Harun Chowdhury of Khulna University and Dr. M A Sattar of Bangladesh Agricultural University, both of which have concluded that the proposed power-plant will destroy the Sundarbans and wreak havoc on the ecology of that region.
Although the Bangladesh Government seems bent on selling our natural resources, the proposed Rampal project has proved to be hugely unpopular among the common people and the younger generation of activists. Today, on the 24th of September, organized by the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power, a volunteer organization led by Anu Muhammad, is starting a five day long-march from Dhaka to Rampal to protest the building of the plant as well as to raise awareness. These protestors represent the brightest hope for the Sundarbans right now. You can read more about them here.
Many years ago, the great Bengali poet Jibanananda Das wrote a beautiful poem called “The Hunt” (shikar) which describes a spotted deer in the Sundarbans, who after a long night of avoiding the tigress finally relaxes when the dawn comes only to be shot dead by human hunters. The poem contrasts the peaceful and beautiful morning of the deer grazing with the human hunters sitting around the camp fire at night and feeding on the flesh of the spotted deer. Their hunger satiated, the hunters then fall asleep – a sleep that the poet describes as “guiltless”. The great poet, through the magic of his words, nudges us towards the realization of the ugliness of our inherent ignorance and indifference to nature.
Our politicians have fallen into that guiltless sleep.
Shall we too? Or shall we stand tall for the Sundarbans?
Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
– Milan Kundera, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’.