In 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, addressing protesters of coal-fired power plants, stated: “Whenever we try to produce electricity, a section of people come out on the streets in the name of environment protection. There is a coal-fired power plant in Barapukuria, Dinajpur. No environmental damage has been reported there. Rather, soil fertility has improved. Rice crops are growing; trees are growing. People in this country indulge in eccentric thinking. I don't know where such thinking comes from.” She also said, “Coal purifies water.”
But is it really true that there has been no environmental damage?
Though not an expert, I have prepared this report as a conscious citizen after I visited the area in 2016 and gained first-hand experience of the project's impact on local and national development.
Impacts of Barapukuria coal mine
Noise pollution and earthquake: The mine uses high-powered explosives to excavate coal deposited in layers. This causes earthquakes and noise pollution in nearby villages. That earthquakes happen here is quite evident from the shattered walls and cracked yards found in the area. Petrobangla had initially provided the affected people with compensation, but at the time of writing this report, it was found that they had become quite irregular with disbursing the money.
Water crisis: Visiting the coal mine and its surrounding areas, one can see that the entire area is littered with big piles of coal dust. The water that comes out of the pits dug inside the mine carries coal dust and is discharged through narrow canals. Local people collect coal dust from this water using sieves and sell it to buyers after drying it. A huge amount of polluted water is thus pumped out from the coal mine every day, which has adversely disrupted agricultural activities in the area.
Land subsidence: Ever since extraction of coal began, there have been case of land subsidence in Moupukur, Jigagari, Sardarpara, Kalupara and Bashpara.
Cavities had been created as a result of excavation. Experts believe that if those had been filled with sand collected from nearby rivers, this could have been avoided. Initially, the mine authorities had used steel grates and tree trunks to support the cavities, but they did away with this practice eventually as it was "expensive". Land subsidence also caused many rice fields to sink 8-10 feet low, creating large pools of water. Petrobangla later acquired a total of 646 acres of land marking them as "affected areas".
It is noteworthy that in the face of mass protests, the mine authorities obeyed the contract and provided affected landowners with compensation for four years till 2010. But they resorted to a new trick after that. First, they stopped providing compensation; and then started conducting land measurement projects for acquiring more land. People started a mass movement against this move and demanded fair compensation. But the authorities chose to launch eviction drives instead; when necessary, the poor, famished people were even attacked and thus driven out of their "affected land".
Shelter centers in the name of rehabilitation: Before people were evicted from their lands, they were given false promises of financial benefits. Since a large number of people were landless farmers, promises of land and money easily lured them. The authorities first declared a Tk 312 crore fund as compensation, but it was reduced to Tk 191 crore later. 318 families were identified as landless, and they each received Tk 2 lakh and a house. However, many believe that no less than Tk 35 crore is yet to be released by the government. Moreover, the poor, homeless families didn't receive a written deed verified by the registry office to ensure their legal ownership of the land. The government has allocated a 48-by-30 feet structure for five families. Each structure has five 9-by-6 feet rooms, so technically speaking, each family has a tiny room to live in.
There were a lot of anomalies in the rehabilitation process of the 318 families. The landless families have been relocated in Palashbari, four to five kilometers from the damaged area. 104 families were newly evicted from there by the security forces, which acquired 30 acres of their land. Those who owned mine-affected paddy fields received Tk 20 lakh for each acre and those who owned land in mine-affected commercial areas received Tk 25 lakh for each acre. But the people newly evicted from Palashbari (104 families) received only Tk 6 lakh and Tk 93,000 for each acre.
I spoke to the eviction victims of Jigagari, Moupukur and Kalupara areas. Rahima Begum and Shariful Islam are two such victims. How do they feel in a new locality? Everyone seemed unhappy. They were yanked out of their idyllic houses, and are now saddled with many problems. Men barely have jobs. People living there look at them with suspicion. Before all of this happened, they were farmers working either on their own land or others'. They have almost depleted their savings and they cannot raise cattle in their yard due to space constraints. In fact, they have been worrying whether they will be end up living as beggars in the near future.
Impacts of Barapukuria coal-fired power plant:
Electricity and employment disparity: Two units in the coal-fired plant produce 250 MW of electricity. Production of electricity started in 2006 and yet people from Dudhipukur who live within a distance of 100 meters from the plant, suffered from an acute shortage of electricity. They pressed their demand for electricity through numerous rallies till 2012. Although the government claims that the entire country has been sufficiently supplied with electricity produced from the plant, people from nearby areas were clearly deprived of power, and also of water. Local people allege that the authorities promised jobs to unemployed youth from affected areas but they did not deliver on this promise as well. On the contrary, jobs were provided to people who were not affected by the mine at all, they claimed.
Ash pollution: For two units of the plant, there are two chimneys, each of which is 100 feet high. It is clearly visible even from a distance that the chimneys emit ash at an alarming degree. Some interesting facts about the chimneys were revealed to us. Choosing to remain anonymous, an employee from the plant stated that initially the chimneys were supposed to be 125 feet high, but the Indian government objected that chimneys higher than 80 feet might be harmful for India's environment, even though the border is 17 km away from the plant. After a lot of bargain, the chimneys were erected 100 feet high. The pollution of ash is most visible to the naked eye during winter when rice fields and grasslands are tinged with ash and turn grey. It is also visible in other seasons. Ponds and narrow streams also contain ash, and have changed their natural color as a result.
Villages that suffer from ash pollution are Sherpur, Madhyapara, Dudhipukur, Telipara, Jharuadanga, Rambhadrapur and Sahagram. I have also learned from people living in these areas that they suffer from severe cases of skin disease and bronchitis. Besides shortage of drinking water, they are also suffering from a new crisis: no coconut tree has borne any fruit since the plant went into production, with only a few exceptions. When coconut flowers are covered with ash, they wilt and die prematurely. I have seen many coconut trees that looked withered and black and had no fruits at all.
Talking about the ash emitted into the air through chimneys, Momin, a foreman in the coal-fired plant, says, “We work wearing a mask. However, often we discover layers of ash in our nose. We also have to clean our furniture in the house almost every day. We work for money; so, we really don't have the luxury of thinking about the damages it might do to our body, let alone to the trees. It is more than enough that some trees are still bearing fruits!”
Water pollution: The water that is pumped out of the coal mine is channeled through narrow streams, polluting all the nearby fresh water bodies. People have expressed their anger that they cannot use water from those water bodies anymore. They cannot even eat the fish found in them as, they pointed out, “the fish smells like kerosene”.
Drinking water crisis: When the plant is in operation, 14 deep tubewells need to be activated to keep it cool. This has caused severe drinking water crisis in Chouhati, Moupukur, Banshpukur, Kalupara, Balrampur, Jigagari, Barapukuria, Patigram, Patrapara, Boigram, Isafpur, Purbo Sukhdebpur and Dhulaudal; Sherpur, Poschim Sherpur, Bhabanipur, Ramraypur and Ramchandrapur under Habra union; Khayerpukurhat under Harirampur union; and Dudhipukur and Rambhadrapur under Fulbari upazila. A large number of people from these areas claimed that the crisis is so acute that they find it very difficult to do their basic chores.
After a lot of protest rallies, Barendra Multipurpose Development Authority built only four overhead tanks supported by deep tubewells in the areas of Sukhdebpur, Bhabanipur, Ramraypur and Ramchandrapur. This initiative has partly addressed the water crisis in some parts of those villages; however, every month they have to pay Tk 10 per person to the coal mine authorities. Problems still persist here: there is no large water reservoir to preserve water. So, people only get water when the deep wells remain active.
According to coal mine engineers, the plant needs one thousand cusec water each day for boilers in two units. For this, 11 out of 14 deep water wells need to remain operational 24/7. It explains why the water level has sunk so low.
Underground water level is so low that hand-driven wells such as Tara pump (a kind of hand-driven deep well), and even shallow machines cannot pump water. 281 hand-driven deep wells and Tara pumps were rendered useless for this reason. Some reports on this have appeared in newspapers from time to time.
Locals in Barapukuria ask: why is the government not taking necessary steps when the coal mine is taking such a heavy toll on people living in the area? It is noteworthy that the latest draft of the Coal Policy includes a pilot proposal for open-pit mining over an area of three-and-a-half square kilometers to the north of Barapukuria, and the parliamentary advisory committee has already endorsed the proposal.
Locals in Barapukuria have made it crystal clear that they are yet to take a strong stance on the issue considering the plant's contribution to the national grid. But if the government thinks they are weak and if it goes ahead with the idea of open-pit mining in the area they will rise to the occasion and resist it at any cost.
[Minhazul Haq Bulbul has helped prepare this report]
Shahriar Sunny is an organizer of Phulbari movement.
Translated by anubad.net.
A version of this article appeared in Sarbojon Kotha in 2016.