Stop Rampal, Save Sundarbans, Save Bangladesh! What is that? Where is that? Why do you do that? How do you do that? How do you save Bangladesh by stopping something rather than starting? Well, this was the line of questioning raised by a non-resident Bangladeshi living in New York who had never heard of the Rampal power plant issue and confused Rampal with Indian self-styled godman Baba Rampal! I cannot claim that the person is at fault for not knowing such an important issue! After all, the environment, in today’s context, is a new concept for most of the Bangladeshis – home and abroad. So, the questions, I imagine, were intended to know more.
What is Stop Rampal, Save Sundarbans?
Environmental awareness in Bangladesh is a hard proposition for people. Historically Bangladesh never needed that. Fertile soil and healthy rivers provided plenty of food and god gave the disasters now and then – nothing to worry about too much! But now it’s a different story. Bangladesh is one of the most environmentally vulnerable countries in the world due to the climate change. Many people are already experiencing the effect of this change each day in Bangladesh. Some people may also aware of the impending catastrophe on the horizon, say by 2050.
Like many countries, the effects of globalization, mass commutation, economic development, heightened expectation, connected media stream – all have created tug-of-war sort of situation in Bangladesh. The traditional development model has now been in direct confrontation with the natural environment. The case of Rampal power plant fits the situation.
The story of Rampal can be found here, here, here, here and more online. In short, this is the case: Rampal Power Station is a proposed 1320 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power station in the Rampal area of the southwest of Bangladesh. The project is the collaboration between governments of Bangladesh and India. The station supposed to produce 1320 MW of energy to meet the ever-growing demand of energy in Bangladesh. Cow dung, jute stick, rice straw, firewood, wigs, leaves can not secure energy security of Bangladesh anymore, therefore, Bangladesh government plans to set up 25 coal-fired power plants by 2022, to generate 23,692 MW, in order to meet rising electricity demand.
Good intention, except, the location of the Rampal plant is very close (only 14 kilometers/8.5 miles away) to world’s largest mangrove forest the Sundarbans which is an environmentally fragile area and a UNESCO world heritage site. Because of corruption, inefficiency, rapid careless development, non-transparency in both public and private sectors of Bangladesh, many environmental groups fear that the project will cause irreparable damage to the livelihoods of two million inhabitants dependent on the Sundarbans. Plus, it has huge environmental effects such as air pollution, biodiversity loss, floods, global warming, loss of landscape, noise pollution, soil contamination, soil erosion, waste overflow, deforestation, water pollution, groundwater depletion, reduced ecological connectivity and so on.
Indeed, what could happen in the future was on display in 2014, when an oil tanker spilled 350,000 liters/92,000 gallons of furnace oil in the Shela river in Sundarbans. Authorities were not sure what to do, villagers used spoons, sponges, and shovels to clean up oil, 12 million US dollars estimated loss, no one took the responsibility in Bangladesh! It was perhaps small but impending disasters could be proven manifold catastrophic.
Certainly a concern! All hell breaks loose with a long list of concerns!
In the light of this, a group of Bangladeshi youth from Ganashanghati Andolon North America, organizes a discussion meeting about ‘Stop Rampal, Save Sundarbans, Save Bangladesh!’ in Jamaica on August 13 at 7 pm. Curious, I went to listen to the discussion. Waiting an hour for others to show up, the organizers started the discussion at 8 pm. Organizers were young, welcoming and full of energy. Although they wanted a participatory discussion, the start was a formal event like most Bangladeshi events. (This is one of the most hilarious act my people love to do. They love to fill up empty chairs slowly by calling guests’ names!)
So what did they say?
Simple. They are against implementing Rampal power plant to save Sundarbans, save Royal Bengal Tigers, save Bangladesh. To elaborate the issue the first speaker, Mohammad Nasir Uddin, talked in a larger context: Signs of climate change are everywhere. We have no other planet to live, therefore we must save the one we have. As a human species, we have achieved many technological feats. But that achievement came with a price. We are destroying our environment in the name of development. We must act now for the sake of our future generations. We want Bangladesh to be energy independent by using proper politics, applying sound public policies, nurturing environment and addressing people’s voice – not by destroying Sundarbans. The Sundarbans is the pride of Bangladesh; we the people must act and use the power to save it. All over the world, the trend is to use alternative energy sources – the wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, etc. – not dirty coal.
The second speaker, Humayun Kabir discussed three points. First, he raised the question about the concept of development. What kind of development model Bangladesh should follow? Development for whom? Should Bangladesh follow the Western model of growth? Must Bangladesh accept ‘some’ environmental destruction for ‘more’ expansion? Second, he expressed his doubt about the possibility of an open and honest discussion on the current political situation in Bangladesh. Can anyone really ask questions or express concerns about national issues without the fear of political reprisal? He observed from his personal experience that in Bangladesh no one can speak freely and fearlessly his/her mind on the national interests of Bangladesh today. He proposed that outside of Bangladesh, such as New York, can be a great place for raising and discussing those concerns without restriction. And third, he emphasized that mere meetings breed nothing. Very few organizations are working on Bangladeshi environmental issues abroad. Bangladeshi organizations, district based associations in New York are very difficult to approach or motivate! He wanted to know what are the strategies to make an effective forum on this issue?
Other speakers and participants spoke about
- the protest they organized in Jackson Heights about Rampal power plant issue that day,
- how Bangladesh is now a playground of foreign energy companies,
- how Bangladesh’s gas resources are not properly utilized,
- weak government policies in Bangladesh,
- recent environmental protests in Bangladesh,
- how Bangladesh Environment Network is working among the non-resident Bangladeshis (NRB) and writing scholarly articles,
- how Bangladeshis abroad are more interested in shallow social media posting but nothing about serious national interest issues,
- how the Sundarbans – a national treasure and world heritage – is the heart of many conflicting and rapacious interests,
- how and why Bangladesh need democracy first to solve environmental issues like Rampal,
- why a demonstration in front the UN during Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s visit there is important,
- need for delivering a protest memorandum with signatures of NRB to Bangladeshi policy makers,
- the need for both traditional and innovative strategies to follow,
- how any environmental work/protest/meeting by NRB abroad can encourage environmental activists in Bangladesh,
- how Bangladeshi people abroad, Bangladeshi newspapers in New York sometimes wrote about Rampal issues but did not keep any record or documentation, etc.
Almost everyone stressed on the need for feedback, conversation, multi-facet strategies to stop Rampal, save Sundarbans, and ultimately save Bangladesh!
Impression and ideas
Even though the presentation was dry, the interaction was dynamic. Information handout was bare minimal. I personally love data visualization – that could be audio, video, picture, or simple story! For example, everyone knows, ‘Save Water, Save Life’ or ‘No Water, No Life’. It feels mundane. Now visualize: when we are using 3 gallons of water in one toilet flush, a child in Africa is walking 6 hours every day in scorching hot weather to get that amount of water for her family so that they can drink! For Stop Rampal, Save Sundarbans campaign organizers may use some compelling set of fact-based visual materials to convince and motivate people.
The discussion was respectful, open, engaging and idea driven. Organizers encouraged everyone to share their ideas and thoughts to create a momentum for the next steps. I am not sure how much this kind of discussion works without personal commitment! Bangladeshis are great in the art of encouraging each other, except for themselves! Hope this will not be the case forever. Great to see that Bangladeshi young community has come forward to organize the event. Now they have to find innovative, intuitive and transformational ways to do things. Perhaps Sundarban need sundar mon (bright mind) to save Bangladesh all the way.
I think it is good to start small but stay smart and below are a few random thoughts on this issue:
- Use technology effectively: Use social media to write short comments, not just ‘Like’ it! Be vocal on websites and social media of the newspaper, environmental, policy-making organizations. Search environmental issues related to Bangladesh and then post comments. Forward/post articles on the issues to your friends or fans.
- Connect with the community: Not only with Bangladeshi community – more with non-Bangladeshi community. Be interested in communities who are facing similar environmental issues – support them. They may reciprocate.
- Give petition and memorandum: Do sign in the campaign – offline and online – keep the records (video/audio/picture). Send the petition to organizations, post the records online for others to see. Make some fun so that it is also enjoyable!
- Protest innovatively: For example, stand in Times Square in New York with an impressive banner with the message for seven days (ok, not seven; three, two, one!). Make some video diary, post it online for a few days! Make fun. Stand with tourists of the world, take pictures, post them online, write what that is about. Show them how to write Stop Rampal, Save Sundarbans in Bangla perhaps, if they are interested!
- Create visual content: Use all available technologies and talents to create content related to Bangladesh’s environmental issues. Use them in a way so that it becomes clear that implementing Rampal power plant is a fool’s paradise!
- Create emotion with data: Don’t be shy with using numbers, data and fact to create an urge or emotion! Show alternatives to coal-based alternative that makes sense in Bangladeshi context.
- Use tradition route: Be visible in front of the United Nations, tell your opposition to policy makers of Bangladesh, write to US Congress members expressing your concern, write to the ambassadors of the UN, create social pressure on investors of the project. France and Norway said no to the Rampal coal plant.
- Include Bangladeshi community: Devise innovative plans to involve non-active Bangladeshi community with minimal interruption in their lives. Go to their picnic/Iftar party to collect signatures, street fairs to ask for a few minutes of stage time!
Many thanks to the organizers for arranging the event. Let’s see what comes next from these few good fellas!