Four killed as Bangladesh villagers oppose coal-fired power plant

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The Third Pole, Gondamara, Bangladesh

“Two of my brothers died, if necessary we will also die. We do not want this power plant in our area,” said Bodi Ahmed. The man who works in a salt pan on the edge of the Bay of Bengal lost brothers Anawarul Islam, 44, and Mortuza Ali, 50, on April 4 when police opened fire in Gondamara village near Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city. The residents were protesting the construction of a coal-fired power plant, being built by two Chinese firms for a private company in Bangladesh.

Residents of Gondamara in coastal Bangladesh gather to protest the building of a coal-fired power plant in their village [Image by Minhaz]

Four of the protesters were killed and over 15 injured — six of them seriously. Three days later, they were still in Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

The village is in Banskhali upazila (sub district) of Chittagong, around 300 kiloemetres from capital Dhaka.

A few thousand residents have been protesting for over a month against the construction of a 1,300 MW coal-fired power plant, taking up 600 acres in their coastal village. The plant is being built by two Chinese companies, SEPCO-3 Electric Power Constitution Corporation and HTG Group, for the Bangladesh-based S Alam group.

Why are they protesting the setting up of the power plants? “If this power plant is established in our area, we all will have to leave. We will not be able to live here anymore, due to pollution,” Ahmed told thethirdpole.net.

Most local residents are farmers, fishermen and salt pan owners or workers. They say that apart from the effect on their health due to air pollution, ash flying from the coal-fired power plant will ruin their livelihoods.

There are other villagers in favour of setting up the power plant. They say it will bring much-needed jobs to the area, and they have been holding rallies too.

Both groups had announced they would take rallies on April 4. Fearing a clash, the police banned the assembly of more than three persons on the grounds of Hajipara School in the village, said Habibur Rahman, additional superintendent of police, Chittagong District (South).

Both groups defied the ban. The area’s Assistant Superintendent of Police A.K.M. Emran Bhuiyan — who was at the spot — said, “As soon as police reached the field, several hundred people opposing installation of the power plant attacked us with bricks and locally made weapons, and then opened fire. Police retreated, but the demonstrators chased them, prompting the police to fire at the mob in self-defence.” He claimed 11 policemen were injured as well.

Thermal power expansion

The plant is part of an 11,600 MW thermal power generation capacity expansion plan of the Bangladesh Power Development Board.  Along with other sources, the board plans to add a total of 24,000 MW generation capacity by 2021. For this, the government is setting up two coal-fired power plants, and has permitted the private sector to set up more.

Bangladesh has been a particular focus for foreign power companies from China, India, Korea, Malaysia and Japan. Among the proposed coal projects in Bangladesh is the Rampal power station, being built on the edge of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

See UNESCO investigates environmental impact of Sundarbans coal plant

The Rampal project is one of the most controversial in the world and has been the focus of persistent opposition for several years. Thousands of Bangladeshis joined a five-day, 400 kilometre march against the project and last year foreign funders withdrew from the project over environmental concerns.

The Chittagong plant

In December 2013 the S Alam Group — one of the fastest growing business houses in the country — made an agreement with SEPCO3 Electric Power Construction Corporation of China to set up a coal-fired power plant in Banskhali. The plant is supposed to be ready by November 2019. On February 16 this year, the government signed power purchase agreements with two private joint ventures led by S Alam Group to buy electricity at Taka 6.61 (around 8 US cents) per kilowatt-hour.

The project will require an investment of USD 2.4 billion of which USD 1.75 billion will come from Chinese lenders.

When asked about pollution worries, Subrata Bhowmik, executive director of the S Alam group, said, “We will set up the plant with advanced technology. We are not violating any of the environmental laws of the country.” The plant is of the ‘ultra-super critical’ type, which has lower emissions that traditional coal-fired power plants. Bhowmik said the company would import the coal from Indonesia, Australia or South Africa.

Struggle over land

Residents opposing the plant have vowed not to sell their land to the company. Bahadur Alam Hiran, assistant project coordinator, told thethirdpole.net the firm was offering Taka 10,000-20,000 (USD 128-256) for a decimal of land (100 decimals = 1 acre).

Hiran claimed residents were happy with the price, but an opposition politician called Liakat Ali was “instigating the locals”. He claimed Ali had sold his own plot to the firm and had then demanded more money, but could not explain why the company had not complained to the police about the matter.

After the April 4 incident, Ali’s phone was switched off. Earlier, he had said the S Alam Group bought plots on the promise of more jobs, but had not said it would be setting up a coal-based power plant.